The Holy Father Benedict XVI addressed bishops and all the faithful with a letter on the occasion of the 16th Centenary of the death of St. John Chrysostom, bishop and doctor of the Church. The Letter was released for the opening of the International Conference on St. John Chrysostom 1600th anniversary of his death, which took place at the Patristic Institute “Augustinianum” in Rome, from 8-10 November 2007.
Venerable brothers in the episcopate and priesthood,
dear brothers and sisters in Christ!
The sixteenth centenary of the death of St John Chrysostom, the great Father of the Church whom Christians of all times venerate, is being observed this year. John Chrysostom is distinguished in the ancient Church for having promoted that “fruitful encounter between the Christian message and Hellenic culture” which “made a lasting impact on both Eastern and Western Churches”.i The life and magisterial teachings of this Holy Bishop and Teacher resound in every century and even today elicit universal admiration. The Roman Pontiffs have always recognized in him a living source of wisdom for the Church, and their attention to his teaching has become even more acute in the last century. One hundred years ago, St Pius X commemorated the fifteenth centenary of the death of St John by inviting the Church to imitate his virtues.ii Pope Pius XII brought attention to the great value of St John’s contribution to the history of the interpretation of the Sacred Scriptures with his theory of “condescension” or synkatábasis. Through it Chrysostom recognized that “the words of God, expressed in human language, become similar to human speech.”iii The Second Vatican Council incorporated this observation into the Dogmatic Constitution Dei Verbum on Divine Revelation.iv Blessed John XXIII underscored Chrysostom’s deep understanding of the intimate connection between the eucharistic liturgy and solicitude for the universal Church.v The Servant of God Paul VI emphasized the way in which he “treated the Mystery of the Eucharist in such eloquent language and with such insight born of devotion”.vi I wish to recall the solemn gesture with which my most beloved predecessor, the Servant of God John Paul II, handed over important relics of Saints John Chrysostom and Gregory Nazianzen to the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople. The Pontiff noted how this gesture was truly for the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Churches “a blessed occasion for purifying our wounded memories, for strengthening our pathway to reconciliation.”vii During my apostolic journey in Turkey, while in the Cathedral of the Patriarchate of Constantinople, I had occasion to recall “the important saints and pastors who have kept watch over the See of Constantinople, among them Saint Gregory of Nazianzus and Saint John Chrysostom, whom the West also venerate as Doctors of the Church. Truly they are worthy intercessors for us before the Lord.”viii For this reason I am pleased that the sixteenth centenary of the death of Saint John offers me the opportunity to call to mind once again his luminous person and to propose it to the universal Church for our common edification
II. The Life and Ministry of Saint John
Saint John was born in at Antioch in Syria in the middle of the fourth century. He was schooled in the liberal arts in the traditional manner of his time, becoming especially well-trained in art of public speaking. Following his studies and while still a young man, he sought baptism and accepted the invitation of his bishop, Meletius, to serve as a lector in the local Church.ix At that time Christianity was divided over controversies concerning the divinity of Christ. John had aligned himself with those orthodox believers who, in harmony with the Nicene Council, confessed the full divinity of Christ, even though, in doing so, he and other orthodox Christians did not enjoy the favor of the imperial government at Antioch.x Following his baptism, John adopted the ascetical life as a layman. Under the influence of his teacher, Diodore of Tarsos, he opted to remain celibate for life and gave himself over to prayer, severe fasting and study of the Sacred Scriptures.xi He withdrew from Antioch for six years while pursuing the ascetical life as a hermit in the Syrian wilderness, at which time he began to write treatises on the spiritual life.xii He then returned to Antioch where he served the Church once again as a lector and later as a deacon for five years. Called to the priesthood by the bishop of Antioch, Flavian, in 386, he added the ministry of preaching the Word of God to that of prayer and writing.xiii
During these twelve years of priesthood in the service of the Antiochene church, John distinguished himself as a preacher. In this role, he intended primarily to interpret the Sacred Scriptures in a clear manner to the faithful. In his preaching, he fervently sought to strengthen Christian unity by reinforcing Christian identity at a time when that identity was threatened from inside and outside the Church. He rightly perceived that unity among Christians depends principally upon a true understanding of the central mysteries of the Church’s faith concerning the Most Holy Trinity and the Incarnation. Deeply aware of the complexity of the questions arising from these mysteries, John was nevertheless determined to make the Church’s teaching accessible to the ordinary people among his congregation, both at Antioch and later at Constantinople.xiv He also reached out to dissenters, favouring patience over aggressiveness in their regard, because he believed that in overcoming theological error, “nothing is more effective than moderation and gentleness.”xv
John’s strong faith and acute preaching skills enabled him to pacify the Antiochenes at a time when, early in his priesthood, the Emperor increased the city’s taxes. A riot took place in response, in which public monuments were destroyed. Following the riot, the people feared the Emperor’s wrath, and they crowded into the church, anxious to hear John’s words of Christian hope and consolation: “For if we were not to comfort you, where else could you obtain consolation?”xvi In his preaching throughout the weeks of Lent during the year 387, John reviewed the events surrounding the insurrection, and reminded his hearers of those attitudes which should characterize Christians in society.xvii He thus exhorted the faithful to reject violent means for promoting political change.xviii In order to build a more just city, he urged the wealthy among the faithful to practice charity toward the poor, while he counselled that those advanced in learning should serve as teachers, and that all Christians should assemble in churches in order to bear one another’s burdens.xix He consoled his listeners with hope and encouraged them to trust in God for both their temporal and eternal salvation,xx reminding them with St Paul that “tribulation works patience, and patience probation, and probation hope”.xxi
After serving the Antiochene church as priest and preacher for twelve years, John was consecrated bishop of Constantinople in 398, a position which he held for five and a half years. In this capacity, he oversaw the reform of the diocesan clergy, urging his priests through word and example to live in a manner conforming to the Gospel.xxii He defended monks living in the city and provided for their material needs, but he also sought to reform their lifestyle, insisting that they dedicate themselves exclusively to prayer and solitude.xxiii Careful to eschew ostentatious luxury and to adopt a modest lifestyle, even though he was bishop of a capital city, he was nonetheless generous in almsgiving to the poor. John dedicated himself to preaching every Sunday and on major feast-days. He took care not to allow the applause he frequently received as a preacher to cause him to mollify the message of the Gospel that he preached. He thus grieved on occasion that too often the same congregation which applauds his homilies ignores their admonitions to live an authentically Christian life.xxiv He was tireless in lamenting the contrast in the city between the outlandish consumption of its wealthy members and the destitution of its poor, at one time suggesting that the wealthy should take the homeless into their houses.xxv He saw Christ in the poor and invited his hearers to do the same.xxvi So constant was his defense of the poor and derision of the excessively wealthy that his preaching encouraged displeasure and even hostility toward him on the part of some among the wealthy and politically powerful of the city.xxvii
Among bishops of his day, John was outstanding for his missionary zeal in sending teachers to spread the Gospel to peoples who had not yet heard it.xxviii He built hospitals for the care of the sick.xxix Preaching in Constantinople, he affirmed that the Church’s material assistance to the poor ought to be extended to all the needy, regardless of religious belief: “He belongs to God, whether pagan or Jew. If he is also an unbeliever, he deserves help.”xxx
John’s position as bishop of the capital city of the Eastern Empire required him to manage delicate relations between the Church and the imperial court. He often found himself the object of hostility on the part of many imperial officials, in part because of his steadfastness in criticizing the excessive luxury with which they surrounded themselves. At the same time, his position as metropolitan archbishop of Constantinople, pre-eminent among the Sees in the Christian Orient, placed him in the difficult and delicate position of having to negotiate a number of ecclesial questions involving other bishops and other sees. On account of intrigues against him fostered by powerful opponents, both ecclesiastical and imperial, he was twice condemned by the emperor to exile far from his city. He died 1,600 years ago on September 14 at Comana while en route to the final place of his second exile, distant from his beloved flock at Constantinople.
III. The Teaching of Saint John
From the fifth century onward, Saint John has justly been venerated by the whole Christian Church, East and West, because of his courageous witness in defense of the faith of the Church and because of the magnificence of his contributions to the pastoral life of the Church. His teaching and preaching along with his solicitude for the Sacred Liturgy earned for him early recognition as a Father of the Church and Doctor of the Church. His renown for preaching earned him from the sixth century onward the designation “Golden Mouth” or “Chrysostomos”. About him Saint Augustine wrote to Julian, “Look around at whose company I have introduced you. Here is Ambrose of Milan, … here is John of Constantinople, … here is Basil, …here are the others whose great consensus should move you. ... They shone in the Catholic Church with the study of sound doctrine, protected and girded with spiritual arms they waged bitter war against the heretics, and having fulfilled faithfully the works intended for them by God, they slept in the abode of peace. … Behold now where I have led you, into the company of the saints, not just a multitude of the people; for they were not only sons, they were the Fathers of the Church.”xxxi
In view of the ecumenical progress made between the Roman Catholic Church and the Orthodox Churches since the Second Vatican Council and especially in recent years, we wish to recall the outstanding efforts that St John Chrysostom made in his day in promoting reconciliation and full communion between Eastern and Western Churches. Singular among these achievements was his contribution in ending the schism which separated the See of Antioch from the See of Rome and other western churches. At the time of his consecration as Archbishop of Constantinople, John sent a delegation to Pope Siricius at Rome. He also won in advance of this mission the crucial collaboration of the Archbishop of Alexandria in Egypt for his plan to end the schism. Pope Siricius responded favorably to John’s diplomatic initiative, and the schism was peacefully resolved so that full communion between the churches was restored.
Later, toward the end of his life, following his return to Constantinople after his first exile, John wrote to Pope Innocent at Rome as well as to bishops Venerius of Milan and Chromatius of Aquileia. He appealed for their assistance in his effort to restore order in the Church at Constantinople which continued to suffer ecclesial divisions spawned by the injustice committed against him. John asked Pope Innocent and the other western bishops for a compassionate response, one which “confers a favor not upon ourselves alone but also upon the Church at large.”xxxii In fact it is clear in John’s thinking that when one part of the Church suffers injury, the whole Church suffers the same injury. Pope Innocent defended John in letters to Theophilus, bishop of Alexandria.xxxiii The Pope maintained full communion with him, thus ignoring a deposition which he regarded as unlawful.xxxiv He wrote to John in order to console him,xxxv and he wrote to the Constantinopolitan clergy and faithful who were loyal to John to express his full support of their lawful bishop. “John, your bishop, has unjustly suffered,” the Pope wrote to John’s followers.xxxvi Moreover, Pope Innocent convened a synod of Italian and eastern bishops in order to seek justice for the beleaguered bishop.xxxvii With the western emperor’s support, the Pope sent a delegation of western and eastern bishops to the eastern emperor at Constantinople to defend John and to demand that an ecumenical synod of bishops be convened to seek justice on his behalf.xxxviii When, shortly before John’s death in exile, these measures failed, John wrote to Pope Innocent to thank him for “the great consolation” he received from having his support.xxxix In this letter John insisted that although he was separated from the Pope by the great distance of his exile, he was nevertheless in “daily communion” with him. Aware of the Pope’s efforts on his behalf, John wrote to him, “You have surpassed even affectionate parents in your good will and zeal concerning us.” John urged the Pope to continue with this zeal to seek justice on behalf of himself and the Church at Constantinople, because “the contest now before you has to be fought on behalf of nearly the whole world, on behalf of Churches humbled to the ground, of people dispersed, of clergy assaulted, of bishops sent into exile, of ancestral laws violated.” John also wrote to other western bishops to thank them for their support,xl among them Chromatius of Aquileia,xli Venerius of Milanxlii and Gaudentius of Brescia.xliii
Both at Antioch and at Constantinople John spoke passionately about the unity of the Church throughout the world. He observed that “the faithful in Rome consider those in India as members of their own body.”xliv He insisted that there is no place for division in the Church. “The Church,” John exclaimed, “exists not in order that we who come together might be divided, but that they who are divided might be joined.”xlv He found divine authority for this ecclesial unity in the Sacred Scriptures. Preaching on Paul’s Epistle to the Corinthians, John reminded his hearers that “Paul refers to the Church as ‘the Church of God’xlvi showing that it ought to be united. For if it is ‘of God,’ it is united; and it is one, not only in Corinth, but also throughout the world. For the Church’s name is not a name of separation, but of unity and concord.”xlvii
For John, the Church’s unity is founded in Christ, the Divine Word, who through his Incarnation unites Himself to the Church as the head of his own body.xlviii “For where the head is, there is the body also,” John proclaimed, so that “there is no separation between the head and the body.”xlix John understood that in the Incarnation, the Divine Word not only became man, he united Himself to us in his own body. “For neither was it enough for Him to be made man, to be beaten and slaughtered, but He also commingles Himself with us, and not by faith only, but also in very deed makes us His body.”l Commenting on the Paul’s Epistle to the Ephesians: “He has put everything under Christ’s dominion, and made him the head to which the whole Church is joined, so that the Church is his body, the completion of him who everywhere and in all things is complete,”li John teaches that “the head is, as it were, filled up by the body, because the body is composed and made up of all its several parts. It is by all then that His body is filled up. Then is the head filled up, then is the body rendered perfect, when we are all knit together and united.”lii John thus concludes that Christ unites all the members of His Church to Himself and to each other. Our faith in Christ requires that we work for an effective, sacramental unity between the members of the Church; such faith seeks to put an end to divisions in the Church.
Nowhere for St John is this ecclesial unity through Christ witnessed more powerfully than in the Divine Liturgy. He teaches that this sacramental unity of the Eucharist forms the basis for ecclesial unity in and through Christ. “For indeed there are many things to bind us together. One table is set before all ... the same drink has been given to all; or rather not only the same drink but also the same cup. For our Father, desiring to lead us to a kindly affection, has devised this also, that we should drink out of one cup; a thing which belongs to intense love.”liii Reflecting on the words of St Paul’s First Epistle to the Corinthians, “The bread which we break, is it not a communion of the Body of Christ?”,liv John reminds his hearers that the Apostle “intended to point out how close was the union, in that we communicate not only by participating and taking part, but also by being united. For as that body is united to Christ, so also are we united to him by this bread.”lv Reflecting further on the significance of St Paul’s words, “For we, who are many, are one bread, one body,”lvi St John insists that our union with Christ through the Eucharist also binds us to one another in charity. “For what is the bread? The Body of Christ. And what do they become who eat it? The Body of Christ: not many bodies, but one body. For as the bread consisting of many grains is made one ... so are we conjoined both with each other and with Christ. ... Now if we are all nourished of the same and all become the same, why do we not also show forth the same love, and become also in this respect one?”lvii
St John’s faith in the mystery of the love that binds believers to Christ and to one another led him to express a profound reverence for the Eucharist, a reverence that he fostered in the celebration of the Divine Liturgy, as is demonstrated by the fact that one of the richest expressions of eastern liturgy bears his name to this day. St John understood that the Divine Liturgy situated the believer spiritually between his life on earth and the heavenly reality which was promised to him by the Lord. He expressed his awe at celebrating these sacred mysteries to St Basil the Great in these words: “For when you see the Lord sacrificed, and laid upon the altar, and the priest standing and praying over the victim, ... can you then think that you are still among men, standing upon the earth? Are you not, on the contrary, straightway transported to heaven ...?” These sacred rites, says St John, “are not only marvelous to behold, but transcendent in awe. There stands the priest ... bringing down the Holy Spirit, and he prays at length ... that grace descending on the sacrifice may thereby enlighten the minds of all and render them more resplendent than silver purified by fire. Who can despise this most awesome mystery?lviii St John urged this same sense of reverence before the eucharistic mystery on those who heard his preaching: “Reverence now this table from which we all are partakers, Christ, who was slain for us, the victim that is placed thereon.”lix John spoke movingly of the sacramental effects of Holy Communion upon believers. “Christ’s blood causes the image of our King to be fresh within us, produces unspeakable beauty, and does not permit the nobleness of our souls to waste away, but waters it continually, and nourishes it.”lx For this reason, St John, echoing the Holy Scriptures, insistently and frequently exhorted the faithful to approach the altar of the Lord worthily, “not lightly and ... out of custom and form,” but with “sincerity and purity of soul”.lxi He insisted that interior preparation for Holy Communion should include repentance for one’s sins and gratitude for Christ’s sacrifice on behalf of our salvation. He thus urged the lay faithful to participate fully and devoutly in the rites of the Divine Liturgy and, with this same disposition, to receive Holy Communion. “Let us not, I beg you, slay ourselves by our irreverence, but with awe and purity draw near to it; and when you see it set before you, say to yourself: «Because of this Body am I no longer earth and ashes, no longer a prisoner, but free: because of this I hope for heaven, and to receive the good things therein, immortal life, the portion of angels, to converse with Christ».”lxii
St John reminded his hearers that their communion with the body and blood of Christ obliges them to provide material assistance for the poor and hungry in their midst.lxiii The Lord’s table is the place where believers recognize the poor and needy, whom they may not have previously known.lxiv St John urged the faithful to look beyond the altar on which the eucharistic sacrifice was offered and to see in it Christ in the person of the poor. By helping the poor they make a sacrifice on the altar of Christ that is acceptable to God.lxv
Each time we encounter these Fathers of ours – Pope John Paul II wrote in reference to another great Father and Doctor, St Basil – “we are confirmed in faith and encouraged in hope.”lxvi The sixteenth centenary of the death of Saint John Chrysostom offers an auspicious occasion for advancing studies about him, returning to his teachings, and encouraging devotion toward him. I shall be spiritually present with my heart full of thanks and good wishes in each and every project and celebration undertaken on the occasion of this sixteenth centenary. I also wish to express my ardent desire that the Fathers of the Church, “in whose voice echoes the constant Christian Tradition”lxvii become ever more a fixed point of reference for all theologians of the Church. Turning to the Fathers signifies returning to the sources of Christian experience in order to taste its freshness and genuineness. Therefore, what greater wish could I express to theologians than for their renewed commitment to recover the sapiential patrimony of the Holy Fathers? It cannot but produce a precious enrichment for their reflection, even on the problems of our times.
I am pleased to conclude this writing with a final word from the great Teacher, in which he invites his faithful – and naturally ourselves – to reflect on eternal values. “For how long shall we be nailed to present things? How long shall it be before we rouse ourselves? How long shall we neglect our own salvation? Let us bear in mind of what things Christ has deemed us worthy, let us give thanks, let us glorify Him, not by our faith alone, but also by our very works, that we may obtain the good things that are to come, through the grace and loving kindness of our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom and with whom, to the Father and the Holy Spirit be glory, now and ever and world without end. Amen.”lxviii
I bless you all!
From Castel Gandolfo, 10 August 2007, the third of my Pontificate.
Benedictus p.p. XVI