John was born in Antioch, Syria in 349 to Greco-Syrian parents. Pope Benedict XVI describes his mother, Anthusa, as a Christian, and his father as a high ranking military officer. John’s father died soon after his birth and he was raised by his mother, who instilled in him a very human sensitivity and a deep Christian faith.[i]
He was baptized in 368 or 373 and tonsured as a reader (one of the minor orders of the Church). As a result of his mother’s influential connections in the city, John began his education under the pagan teacher Libanius. From Libanius, John acquired the skills needed for a career in rhetoric, as well as a love of the Greek language and literature. As he grew older, however, he became more deeply committed to Christianity and went on to study theology under Diodore of Tarsus, founder of the re-constituted School of Antioch.[ii] He lived with extreme asceticism and became a hermit in about 375; he spent the next two years continually standing, scarcely sleeping, and committing the Bible to memory. He continued living in this way for six years. As a consequence of these practices, his stomach and kidneys were permanently damaged and poor health forced him to return to Antioch.[iii]
He was ordained as a deacon in 381 by Saint Meletius of Antioch. Further, he was ordained as a priest in 386 by Bishop Flavian I of Antioch who was also not then in communion with Rome. Over the course of twelve years, he gained popularity because of the eloquence of his public speaking, especially his insightful expositions of Bible passages and moral teaching. The most valuable of his works from this period are his homilies on various books of the Bible, whose aim was induce repentance and conversion.[iv] He emphasized charitable giving and he was concerned with the spiritual and temporal needs of the poor. He also spoke out against abuse of wealth and personal property
One incident that happened during his service in Antioch illustrates the influence of his homilies. When Chrysostom arrived in Antioch, the bishop of the city had to intervene with Emperor Theodosius I on behalf of citizens who had gone on a rampage mutilating statues of the Emperor and his family. During the weeks of Lent in 387, John preached twenty-one homilies in which he entreated the people to see the error of their ways. These made a lasting impression on the general population of the city: many pagans converted to Christianity as a result of the homilies.[v]
In 397, John was requested, against his will, to take the position of Archbishop of Constantinople. He deplored the fact that Imperial court protocol would now assign to him access to privileges greater than the highest state officials. During his time as Archbishop he adamantly refused to host lavish social gatherings, which made him popular with the common people, but unpopular with wealthy citizens and the clergy. His reforms of the clergy were also unpopular with these groups. He told visiting regional preachers to return to the churches they were meant to be serving, and he set about to be an example: the austerity of the episcopal residence was meant to be an example for all: clergy, widows, monks, courtiers, and the rich.[vi]
His time in Constantinople was more tumultuous than his time in Antioch. Theophilus, the Patriarch of Alexandria, wanted to bring Constantinople under his sway and opposed John’s appointment to Constantinople. Being an opponent of Origen‘s teachings, he accused John of being too partial to the teachings of Origen.
Theophilus had excommunicated four Egyptian monks, known as “the Tall Brothers,” over their support of Origen’s teachings. They fled to. and were welcomed by, John. He made another enemy in Aelia Eudoxia, the wife of the eastern Emperor Arcadius, who assumed (perhaps with justification) that his denunciations of extravagance in feminine dress, and extravagance, were aimed at herself, and he considered such to be pagan.[vii]
Depending on one’s outlook, John was either tactless or fearless when denouncing offences in high places. An alliance was soon formed against him by Eudoxia, Theophilus and others of his enemies. They held a synod in 403 (the Synod of the Oak) to charge John, in which his connection to Origen was used against him. It resulted in his deposition and banishment.[viii]
He was called back by Arcadius almost immediately, as the people became “tumultuous” over his departure. There was also an earthquake the night of his arrest, which Eudoxia took for a sign of God‘s anger, prompting her to ask Arcadius for John’s reinstatement.
The peace was short-lived. A silver statue of Eudoxia was erected near his cathedral. John denounced the dedication ceremonies. He spoke against her in harsh terms. Once again he was banished, in 404, this time to the Caucasus in Armenia.[ix]
Faced with exile John Chrysostom wrote an appeal for help. Pope Innocent I protested at this banishment, but to no avail. Innocent sent a delegation to intercede on behalf of John in 405, but he was unable to prevail against the emperor.[x]
In Armenia, John continued to win fame for his preaching and his counsel, further enraging his enemies. This convinced the emperor to send him further into exile, into a deeper wilderness on the Black Sea. Never in good health, he was forced to march long distances under horrible weather conditions, and it was in route to this more distant exile, in the city of Comana, at the age of sixty, that he died in 407. There his relics remained until 438 when, thirty years after his death, they were transferred to Constantinople during the reign of the Empress Eudoxia‘s son, the Emperor Theodosius II (408–450). Theodosius went to greet John’s coffin upon its entry into Constantinople, and begged forgiveness for his mother.[xi] As a result of his death, the pope and the Western Church broke off communion with the sees that had persecuted John, and restored this communion only when they had repented.[xii]
John came to be venerated as a saint soon after his death. His disciple, Saint Proclus, Patriarch of Constantinople (434-447), during services in the Church of Hagia Sophia, preached a homily praising his teacher. He said, “O John, your life was filled with sorrow, but your death was glorious. Your grave is blessed and reward is great, by the grace and mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ, O graced one, having conquered the bounds of time and place! Love has conquered space, unforgetting memory has annihilated the limits, and place does not hinder the miracles of the saint.”
These homilies helped to mobilize public opinion, and the patriarch received permission from the emperor to return Chrysostom’s relics to Constantinople, where they were enshrined in the Church of the Holy Apostles.
Most of John’s relics were looted from Constantinople by Crusaders in 1204 and taken to Rome, but some of his bones were returned to the Orthodox Church on 27 November 2004 by Pope John Paul II.[xiii] They are now enshrined in the Church of St. George, Istanbul.
However, the skull of Saint John, having been kept at the Vatopedi Monastery on Mount Athos in northern Greece, was not among the relics that were taken by the crusaders in the 13th century. In 1655, at the request of Tsar Alexei Mikhailovich, the skull was taken to Russia, for which the monastery was compensated in the sum of 2000 rubles. In 1693, having received a request from the Vatopedi Monastery for the return of Saint John’s skull, Tsar Peter the Great ordered that the skull remain in Russia, but that the monastery was to be paid 500 rubles every four years. The Russian State Archives document these payments up until 1735.
The skull was kept at the Moscow Kremlin, in the Cathedral of the Dormition of the Mother of God, until 1920, when it was confiscated by the Soviets and placed in the Museum of Silver Antiquities. In 1988, in connection with the 1000th Anniversary of the Baptism of Russia, the head, together with other important relics, was returned to the Russian Orthodox Church and kept at the Epiphany Cathedral, until being moved to the Cathedral of Christ the Savior after its restoration.
However, today, the Vatopedi Monastery posits a rival claim to possession of the skull of Saint John Chrysostom, and there a skull is venerated by pilgrims to the monastery as that of St John.
The right hand of Saint John is preserved on Mount Athos, and numerous smaller relics are scattered throughout the world.
Churches of the Western tradition, including the Roman Catholic Church, some Anglican provinces, and parts of the Lutheran Church, commemorate him on 13 September. Some Lutheran and many Anglican provinces commemorate him on the traditional Eastern feast day of 27 January. The Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria also recognizes John Chrysostom as a saint (with feast days on 16 Thout and 17 Hathor). The Eastern Orthodox Church commemorates him as a “Great Ecumenical Teacher”, together with Basil the Great and Gregory the Theologian. These three saints, in addition to having their own individual commemorations throughout the year, are commemorated together on 30 January, a feast known as the Synaxis of the Three Hierarchs.
There are several feast days dedicated to him:
27 January, Translation of the relics of Saint John Chrysostom from Comana to Constantinople
30 January, Synaxis of the Three Great Hierarchs
13 September, Repose of Saint John Chrysostom
13 November, Saint John Chrysostom the Archbishop of Constantinople
Saint John Chrysostom is remembered because of his eloquence in preaching and public speaking, and was given the name “Chrysostom” because of it. The name “Chrysostom” is Greek for “golden-mouthed.” His writings bear witness to this today. An anonymous copyist left in writing that his writings “cross the whole globe like flashes of lightening.”[xiv] John is known in Christianity chiefly as a preacher, theologian and liturgist. Among his homilies, eight directed against Judaizing Christians remain controversial for their impact on the development of Christian anti-Semitism.[xv] His straightforward understanding of the Scriptures – in contrast to the Alexandrian tendency towards allegorical interpretation – meant that the themes of his talks were practical, explaining the Bible’s application to everyday life.
John’s homilies have been one of his greatest lasting legacies.[xvi] Chrysostom’s extant homiletical works are vast, including many hundreds of exegetical homilies on both the New Testament (especially the works of Saint Paul) and the Old Testament (particularly on Genesis). Among his extant exegetical works are sixty-seven homilies on Genesis, fifty-nine on the Psalms, ninety on the Gospel of Matthew, eighty-eight on the Gospel of John, and fifty-five on the Acts of the Apostles.[xvii] The homilies were written down by the audience and subsequently circulated, revealing a style that tended to be direct and greatly personal, but was also formed by the rhetorical conventions of his time and place. In general, his homiletical theology displays much characteristic of the Antiochian school (i.e., somewhat more literal in interpreting Biblical events), but he also uses a good deal of the allegorical interpretation more associated with the Alexandrian school.[xviii]
John’s social and religious world was formed by the continuing and pervasive presence of paganism in the life of the city. One of his regular topics was the paganism in the culture of Constantinople, and in his homilies he thunders against popular pagan amusements: the theatre, horse races, and the revelry surrounding holidays.[xix]
John’s homilies on Saint Paul‘s Epistles proceed linearly, methodically treating the texts verse by verse, often going into great detail. He shows a concern to be understood by laypeople, sometimes offering colorful analogies and practical examples. At other times, he offers extended comments clearly intended to address the theological subtleties of a heretical misreading, or to demonstrate the presence of a deeper theme.
One of the recurring features of John’s homilies is his emphasis on care for the needy.[xx] Echoing themes found in the Gospel of Matthew, he calls upon the rich to lay aside materialism in favor of helping the poor, often employing all of his rhetorical skills to shame wealthy people to abandon conspicuous consumption:
It is not possible for one to be wealthy and just at the same time. Do you pay such honor to your excrements as to receive them into a silver chamber-pot when another man made in the image of God is perishing in the cold?[xxi]
Beyond his preaching, the other lasting legacy of John is his influence on Christian liturgy. Two of his writings are particularly notable. He harmonized the liturgical life of the Church by revising the prayers and rubrics of the Divine Liturgy, or celebration of the Holy Eucharist. To this day, Eastern Orthodox and Eastern Catholic Churches of the Byzantine Rite typically celebrate the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom as the normal Eucharistic liturgy, although his exact connection with it remains a matter of debate among experts.[xxii] These same churches also read his Catechetical Homily (Hieratikon) at every Easter, the greatest feast of the Church year.[xxiii]
John’s influence on church teachings is interwoven throughout the current Catechism of the Catholic Church (revised 1992). The Catechism cites him in eighteen sections, particularly his reflections on the purpose of prayer and the meaning of the Lord’s Prayer:
Consider how [Jesus Christ] teaches us to be humble, by making us see that our virtue does not depend on our work alone but on grace from on high. He commands each of the faithful who prays to do so universally, for the whole world. For he did not say “thy will be done in me or in us”, but “on earth”, the whole earth, so that error may be banished from it, truth take root in it, all vice be destroyed on it, virtue flourish on it, and earth no longer differ from heaven.[xxiv]
Christian clerics, such as R.S. Storr, refer to him as “one of the most eloquent preachers who ever since apostolic times have brought to men the divine tidings of truth and love”, and the 19th-century John Henry Newman described John as a “bright, cheerful, gentle soul; a sensitive heart.” [xxv]
The Orthodox and Eastern Catholic Churches honor him as a saint and count him among the Three Holy Hierarchs, together with Basil the Great and Gregory Nazianzus. He is recognized by the Eastern Orthodox Church and the Catholic Church as a saint, and at the Council of Chalcedon in 451 he was named as a Doctor of the Church. Pope St. Pius X, in the twentieth century, named him patron of preachers.[xxvi]
[i] Pope Benedict XVI, Church Fathers, (San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press, 2008) p. 98.
[ii] Pope Benedict XVI, Church Fathers, (San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press, 2008) p. 98.
[iii] Pope Benedict XVI, Church Fathers, (San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press, 2008) p. 98.
[iv] Pope Benedict XVI, Church Fathers, (San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press, 2008) p. 99.
[v] Pope Benedict XVI, Church Fathers, (San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press, 2008) p. 99.
[vi] Pope Benedict XVI, Church Fathers, (San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press, 2008) p. 102.
[vii] Pope Benedict XVI, Church Fathers, (San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press, 2008) p. 103.
[viii] Pope Benedict XVI, Church Fathers, (San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press, 2008) p. 103.
[ix] Aquilina, Mike, The Fathers of the Church, (Huntington, IN: Our Sunday Visitor, Inc., 1999) p. 178.
[x] Aquilina, Mike, The Fathers of the Church, (Huntington, IN: Our Sunday Visitor, Inc., 1999) p. 178.
[xi] Aquilina, Mike, The Fathers of the Church, (Huntington, IN: Our Sunday Visitor, Inc., 1999) p. 179.
[xii] Aquilina, Mike, The Fathers of the Church, (Huntington, IN: Our Sunday Visitor, Inc., 1999) p. 179.
[xiii] Pope John Paul II. “Letter to the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, His Holiness Bartholomew I. Available online. Accessed 14 October 2011.
[xiv] Pope Benedict XVI, Church Fathers, (San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press, 2008) p. 97.
[xv] Laqueur, Walter Laquer, The Changing Face of Antisemitism: From Ancient Times To The Present Day, (Oxford, U.K.: Oxford University Press, 2006) p. 48.
[xvi] Pope Benedict XVI, Church Fathers, (San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press, 2008) p. 99.
[xvii] Catholic Encyclopedia
[xviii] Pope Benedict XVI, Church Fathers, (San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press, 2008) p. 99.
[xix] Aquilina, Mike, The Fathers of the Church, (Huntington, IN: Our Sunday Visitor, Inc., 1999) p. 181.
[xx] Aquilina, Mike, The Fathers of the Church, (Huntington, IN: Our Sunday Visitor, Inc., 1999) p. 181.
[xxi] Aquilina, Mike, The Fathers of the Church, (Huntington, IN: Our Sunday Visitor, Inc., 1999) p. 181.
[xxii] Parry, David; David Melling (eds.) The Blackwell Dictionary of Eastern Christianity. (Oxford: Blackwell Press, 2011).
[xxiii] Parry, David; David Melling (eds.) The Blackwell Dictionary of Eastern Christianity. (Oxford: Blackwell Press, 2011).
[xxvi] Aquilina, Mike, The Fathers of the Church, (Huntington, IN: Our Sunday Visitor, Inc., 1999) p. 179.