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Saint John Chrysostom, One of the Great Fathers of the Church’s Social Doctrine

The life and teachings of St. John Chrysostom, Holy Bishop and Teacher, resound in every century and even today elicit universal admiration. It can be said that John of Antioch, nicknamed “Chrysostom”, that is, “golden-mouthed”, because of his eloquence, is also still alive today because of his works. An anonymous copyist left in writing that “they cross the whole globe like flashes of lightening”.

Blessed John XXIII, who underscored Chrysostom’s deep under- standing of the intimate connection between the Eucharistic liturgy and solicitude for the universal Church, proclaimed him Patron of the Second Vatican Council.

He was born in about the year 349 A.D. in Antioch, Syria (today Antakya in Southern Turkey).

He was baptized in 368 and trained for the ecclesiastical life by Bishop Meletius, who instituted him as lector in 371.

After attending the A ceterius, a sort of seminary in Antioch, he withdrew for four years to the hermits on the neighboring Mount Silpius. He extended his retreat for a further two years, living alone in a cave under the guidance of an “old hermit”. In that period, he dedicated himself unre-servedly to meditating on “the laws of Christ”, the Gospels and especially the Letters of Paul. Having fallen ill, he found it impossible to care for himself unaided, and therefore had to return to the Christian community in Antioch (cf. Palladius,Dialogue on the Life of St John Chrysostom, 5).

Intimacy with the Word of God, cultivated in his years at the hermitage, had developed in him an irresistible urge to preach the Gospel, to give to others what he himself had received in his years of meditation. The missionary ideal thus launched him into pastoral care, his heart on fire.

Between 378 and 379, he returned to the city. He was ordained a deacon in 381 and a priest in 386, and became a famous preacher in his city’s churches.

For the 12 years of his ministry as a priest in the Antiochean Church, John deeply distinguished himself by his eminent skill at interpreting the Sacred Scriptures in a way that the faithful could understand. In his preaching, he strove zealously to strengthen the unity of the Church, reinvigorating the Christian identity in his listeners at a time in history when the Church was threatened both from within and without. He rightly intuited that Christian unity depends above all on a true understanding of the central mysteries of the Church’s faith: the Most Blessed Trinity and the Incarnation of the Divine Word. Well aware, however, of the difficulties of these mysteries, John spared no effort in making the Church’s Magisterium accessible to the simple people in her assembly, both in Antioch and later also in Constantinople. Nor did he omit to also address the dissenters, preferring to treat them with patience rather than coercion since he believed that in order to correct a theological error, “nothing is more effective than moderation and kindliness.”

His is a perfectly pastoral theology in which there is constant concern for consistency between thought expressed via words and existential experience. It is this in particular that forms the main theme of the splendid catecheses with which he prepared catechumens to receive Baptism.

John Chrysostom was anxious to accompany his writings with the person’s integral development in his physical, intellectual and religious dimensions. The various phases of his growth are compared to as many seas in an immense ocean.

Chrysostom’s preaching usually took place during the liturgy, the “place” where the community is built with the Word and the Eucharist. The assembly gathered here expresses the one Church ( Homily 8, 7 on the Letter to the Romans ), the same word is addressed everywhere to all ( Homily 24, 2 on First Corinthians ), and Eucharistic Communion becomes an effective sign of unity ( Homily 32, 7 on Matthew’s Gospel ).

John reminded those listening to him of the qualities that must characterize the civic commitment of Christians, especially the rejection of violent means to obtain political and social changes [Dorothy Day quoted the saint in this regard: “St John Chrysostom says in regard to our Lord’s sending us out as sheep among wolves, that if we become wolves ourselves, He is no longer with us.”]. In this perspective, he urged those of the faithful who were wealthy to show charity to the poor in order to build a more just city. At the same time, he recommended that the better educated agree to act as teachers and that all Christians gather in churches to learn to bear one another’s burdens.

His pastoral project was incorporated into the Church’s life, in which the lay faithful assume the priestly, royal and prophetic office with Baptism. To the lay faithful he said: “Baptism will also make you king, priest and prophet” ( Homily 3, 5 on Second Corinthians ).

From this stems the fundamental duty of the mission, because each one is to some extent responsible for the salvation of others: “This is the principle of our social life… not to be solely concerned with ourselves!” ( Homily 9, 2 on Genesis ). This all takes place between two poles: the great Church and the “Church in miniature”, the family, in a reciprocal relationship.

After the period he spent in Antioch, in 397 St. John Chrysostom was appointed Bishop of Constantinople, the capital of the Roman Empire of the East. John planned the reform of his Church from the outset: the austerity of the episcopal residence had to be an example for all – clergy, widows, monks, courtiers and the rich.

Although he was Bishop of the capital of the Empire, he took pains to avoid any ostentation or luxury and to adopt a modest life; and he was very generous in distributing alms to the poor. Every Sunday and on the most important feasts, John devoted himself to preaching. He was very careful to ensure that the applause he often received for his preaching did not take the edge off the Gospel he was proclaiming. Thus, he sometimes complained that all too often the same assembly that applauded his homilies ignored his exhortations to live an authentic Christian life .

He was tireless in denouncing the contrast that existed in the city between the wasteful extravagance of the rich and the indigence of the poor, and at the same time suggesting to the well-off that they gather the homeless in their own homes . In the poor he saw Christ; thus, he invited his listeners to do the same and to act accordingly . He was so persistent in defending the poor and reproaching those who were excessively wealthy that he inspired displeasure and even hostility to himself among some of the rich as well as among those who wielded political power in the city.

John stood out among the Bishops of his time for his missionary zeal; he would send missionaries to spread the Gospel among those who had not yet heard it. He built hospitals for the treatment of the sick . Preaching in Constantinople on the Letter to the Hebrews, he affirmed that the Church’s material assistance should be extended to every person in need, regardless of one’s religious belief: “The needy person belongs to God, whether he is pagan or Jewish. He deserves help even if he does not believe.”

Unfortunately, many of those he criticized distanced themselves from him. Attentive to the poor, John was also called “the Almoner”. Indeed, he was able as a careful administrator to establish highly appreciated charitable institutions. For some people, his initiatives in various fields made him a dangerous rival but as a true Pastor, he treated everyone in a warm, fatherly way. In particular, he always spoke kindly to women and showed special concern for marriage and the family. He would invite the faithful to take part in liturgical life, which he made splendid and attractive with brilliant creativity.

It is said of John Chrysostom that when he was seated upon the throne of the New Rome, that is, Constantinople, God caused him to be seen as a second Paul, a doctor of the Universe. Indeed, there is in Chrysostom a substantial unity of thought and action, in Antioch as in Constantinople. It is only the role and situations that change.

Not Enough to Give Alms, Create New Structures

In Constantinople itself, John proposed in his continuing Commentary on the Acts of the Apostles the model of the primitive Church (Acts 4: 32-37) as a pattern for society, developing a social “utopia” (almost an “ideal city”). In fact, it was a question of giving the city a soul and a Christian face. In other words, Chrysostom realized that it is not enough to give alms, to help the poor sporadically, but it is necessary to create a new structure, a new model of society; a model based on the outlook of the New Testament. It was this new society that was revealed in the newborn Church.

John Chrysostom thus truly became one of the great Fathers of the Church’s social doctrine: the old idea of the Greek “polis” gave way to the new idea of a city inspired by Christian faith. With Paul (cf. I Cor 8: 11), Chrysostom upheld the primacy of the individual Christian, of the person as such, even of the slave and the poor person. His project thus corrected the traditional Greek vision of the “polis”, the city in which large sectors of the population had no access to the rights of citizenship while in the Christian city all are brothers and sisters with equal rights. The primacy of the person is also a consequence of the fact that it is truly by starting with the person that the city is built, whereas in the Greek “polis” the homeland took precedence over the individual who was totally subordinated to the city as a whole. So it was that a society built on the Christian conscience came into being with Chrysostom. And he tells us that our “polis” [city] is another, “our common-wealth is in heaven” (Phil 3: 20) and our homeland, even on this earth, makes us all equal, brothers and sisters, and binds us to solidarity.

Both in Antioch and in Constantinople John spoke passionately about the unity of the Church scattered across the world. He noted in this regard: “The faithful in Rome consider those in India as members of their own body. And he stressed that there is no room for divisions within the Church. “The Church”, he exclaimed, “does not exist because those who are gathered in her are divided, but in order that all those who have parted company may be reunited.” Moreover, he found in the Sacred Scriptures divine ratification of this unity. In preaching on the First Letter of St Paul to the Corinthians, he reminded his listeners that “Paul referred to the Church as the “Church of God’, showing that she had to be united because if she is “of God’ she is united, and not only united in Corinth but also throughout the world; indeed, the name of the Church is not a name of separation but of unity and concord.”

John held that the Church’s unity was founded on Christ, the Divine Word who with his Incarnation was united to the Church as the head is united to the body. “Where the head is, there also is the body”, and that is why “there is no separation between the head and the body”. He had comprehended that in the Incarnation the Divine Word not only became man but also united himself to us, making us his body: “Since it did not suffice for him to make himself a man to be scourged and killed, he united himself to us not only through faith but also de facto makes us his body.”

Commenting on the passage of the Letter of St Paul to the Ephesians: “In fact, he put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things for the Church which is his body, the fullness of him who is fully realized in all things.”, John explained that “it is as if the head were completed by the body, because the body is made up and formed of its various parts. His body is therefore composed by all. Thus, the head is completed and the body rendered perfect when we are all clustered closely together and united.” John then concluded that Christ unites all the members of his Church with himself and with one another. Our faith in Christ requires us to work hard for an effective, sacramental union among the members of the Church, putting an end to all divisions.

For Chrysostom, the ecclesial unity that is brought about in Christ is attested to in a quite special way in the Eucharist. “Called “Doctor of the Eucharist’ because of the vastness and depth of his teaching on the Most Holy Sacrament.” he taught that the sacramental unity of the Eucharist constitutes the basis of ecclesial unity in and for Christ.” Of course, there are many things to keep us united. A table is prepared before all… all are offered the same drink, or, rather, not only the same drink but also the same cup. Our Father, desiring to lead us to tender affection, has also disposed this: that we drink from one cup, something that is befitting to an intense love.” Reflecting on the words of St Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians, “The bread which we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ?” John commented: for the Apostle, therefore, “just as that body is united to Christ, so we are united to him through this bread.” And even more clearly, in the light of the Apostle’s subsequent words: “Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body.” John argued: “What is bread? The Body of Christ. And what does it become when we eat it? The Body of Christ; not many bodies but one body. “Just as bread becomes one loaf although it is made of numerous grains of wheat…, so we too are united both with one another and with Christ…. Now, if we are nourished by the same loaf and all become the same thing, why do we not also show the same love, so as to become one in this dimension, too?”

Chrysostom’s faith in the mystery of love that binds believers to Christ and to one another led him to experience profound veneration for the Eucharist, a veneration which he nourished in particular in the celebration of the Divine Liturgy. Indeed, one of the richest forms of the Eastern Liturgy bears his name: “The Divine Liturgy of St John Chrysostom”. John understood that the Divine Liturgy places the believer spiritually between earthly life and the heavenly realities that have been promised by the Lord.

Excerpted from the talks of Pope Benedict XVI in St. Peter’s Square on the Fathers of the Church and his Letter on the occasion of the 16 th Centenary of the Death of St. John Chrysostom 2007.

Houston Catholic Worker, Vol. XXVIII, No. 1, January-February 2008.