Today – September 13 – is the memorial of St. John Chrysostom. During his papacy, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI offered three substantive reflections on the saint. Here they are.
The first two were general audience talks. As you recall, Benedict’s General Audience talks tended (like John Paul II’s) to be thematic, being really “mini courses” on some aspect of Church history or theology. For a good long while, Benedict focused on great figures on the Church, beginning with the Apostles and moving forward in time. (these were, of course, collected and published by various publishers.)
It was here that he reached the crucial turning point in the story of his vocation: a full-time pastor of souls! 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. He preached homilies against the Arians, followed by homilies commemorating the Antiochean martyrs and other important liturgical celebrations: this was an important teaching of faith in Christ and also in the light of his Saints.
The year 387 was John’s “heroic year”, that of the so-called “revolt of the statues”. As a sign of protest against levied taxes, the people destroyed the Emperor’s statues. It was in those days of Lent and the fear of the Emperor’s impending reprisal that Chrysostom gave his 22 vibrant Homilies on the Statues, whose aim was to induce repentance and conversion. This was followed
by a period of serene pastoral care (387-397).
Chrysostom is among the most prolific of the Fathers: 17 treatises, more than 700 authentic homilies, commentaries on Matthew and on Paul (Letters to the Romans, Corinthians, Ephesians and Hebrews) and 241 letters are extant. He was not a speculative theologian.
Nevertheless, he passed on the Church’s tradition and reliable doctrine in an age of theological controversies, sparked above all by Arianism or, in other words, the denial of Christ’s divinity. He is therefore a trustworthy witness of the dogmatic development achieved by the Church from the fourth to the fifth centuries.
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.
Against this background, in Constantinople itself, John proposed in his continuingCommentary 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 commonwealth 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.
At the end of his life, from his exile on the borders of Armenia, “the most remote place in the world”, John, linking up with his first preaching in 386, took up the theme of the plan for humanity that God pursues, which was so dear to him: it is an “indescribable and incomprehensible” plan, but certainly guided lovingly by him (cf. On Providence, 2, 6). Of this we are certain. Even if we are unable to unravel the details of our personal and collective history, we know that God’s plan is always inspired by his love. Thus, despite his suffering, Chrysostom reaffirmed the discovery that God loves each one of us with an infinite love and therefore desires salvation for us all. For his part, throughout his life the holy Bishop cooperated generously in this salvation, never sparing himself. Indeed, he saw the ultimate end of his existence as that glory of God which – now dying – he left as his last testament: “Glory be to God for all things” (Palladius, op. cit., n. 11).
That same year, he issued a letter on the occasion of the 1600th anniversary of the birth of the saint: It is well worth reading.
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. He told Basil the Great of the reverential awe he felt in celebrating the sacred mysteries with these words: “When you see the immolated Lord lying on the altar and the priest who, standing, prays over the victim… can you still believe you are among men, that you are on earth? Are you not on the contrary suddenly transported to Heaven?”. The sacred rites, John said, “are not only marvellous to see, but extraordinary because of the reverential awe they inspire. The priest who brings down the Holy Spirit stands there… he prays at length that the grace which descends on the sacrifice may illuminate the minds of all in that place and make them brighter than silver purified in the crucible. Who can spurn this venerable mystery?”.
With great depth, Chrysostom developed his reflection on the effect of sacramental Communion in believers: “The Blood of Christ renews in us the image of our King, it produces an indescribable beauty and does not allow the nobility of our souls to be destroyed but ceaselessly waters and nourishes them”. For this reason, John often and insistently urged the faithful to approach the Lord’s altar in a dignified manner, “not with levity… not by habit or with formality”, but with “sincerity and purity of spirit”. He tirelessly repeated that preparation for Holy Communion must include repentance for sins and gratitude for Christ’s sacrifice made for our salvation. He therefore urged the faithful to participate fully and devoutly in the rites of the Divine Liturgy and to receive Holy Communion with these same dispositions: “Do not permit us, we implore you, to be killed by your irreverence, but approach him with devotion and purity and, when you see him placed before you, say to yourselves: “By virtue of this Body I am no longer dust and ashes, I am no longer a prisoner, but free; by virtue of this, I hope in Heaven, and to receive its goods, the inheritance of the angels, and to converse with Christ'”.
Of course, he also drew from contemplation of the Mystery the moral consequences in which he involved his listeners: he reminded them that communion with the Body and Blood of Christ obliged them to offer material help to the poor and the hungry who lived among them. The Lord’s table is the place where believers recognize and welcome the poor and needy whom they may have previously ignored. He urged the faithful of all times to look beyond the altar where the Eucharistic Sacrifice is offered and see Christ in the person of the poor, recalling that thanks to their assistance to the needy, they will be able to offer on Christ’s altar a sacrifice pleasing to God.