St. John Chrysostom

Tomorrow (Saturday) the Church celebrates the feast of St. John Chrysostom. Chrysostom was not his surname — it was a nickname given to him meaning “golden mouth,” due to the wisdom which came from his mouth. Pope Benedict, back in 2007, noted that this saint was also called “the almoner” (in more modern English, “the almsgiver” or “charitable giver”). 

Pope Benedict, in that Sept. 26, 2007 general audience address, noted that this saint did not just urge giving material help to people (although Chrysostom insisted on this), he also said that society needed to be reformed. The saint, who was patriarch of Constantinople (this was before the split between Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy), believed that we were called to live out the Acts of the Apostles. Pope Benedict said that Chrysostom viewed the early Church, as detailed in 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.”

It is interesting what Chrysostom perceived here — something which many brilliant minds cannot grasp today. They can laud Socrates, Plato or Aristotle, but they think of Christianity as bringing some type of stifling darkness to our world. They do not realize that the Church brought more respect for human dignity to our world than did the ancient philosophers.

Pope Benedict continued, “With Paul (cf. 1 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. 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.” A great message to remember — each and every day!

In his apostolic exhortation “Evangelii Gaudium” (“The Joy of the Gospel”), Pope Francis quoted Chrysostom in a section entitled “No to a financial system which rules rather than serves.” At #57 in the exhortation, the Holy Father quoted the saint, “Not to share one’s wealth with the poor is to steal from them and to take away their livelihood. It is not our own goods which we hold, but theirs” (Pope Francis also read that quote to a group of new ambassadors to the Vatican on May 16, 2013).

Among his many writings, a homily on the Gospel of Matthew is often quoted. Chrysostom asks us, “Do you want to honor Christ’s Body? Then do not scorn Him in His nakedness, nor honor Him here in church with silken garments while neglecting Him outside where He is cold and naked.” The saint draws a parallel between the Eucharist and care for the poor. “For He who said, ‘This is My Body,’ and made It so by His words, also said, ‘You saw Me hungry and did not feed Me,’ and ‘inasmuch as you did not do it for one of these, you did not do it for Me.’”

He continued, “Let us learn to honor Christ as He desires. For a person being honored finds greatest pleasure in the honor he desires, not in the honor we think best.” In other words, we need to be guided by God, not by our own plans, so as to give God the honor God wants, not the honors we want to give Him. “Peter thought he was honoring Christ when he refused to let Him wash his feet; but what Peter wanted was not truly an honor, quite the opposite! Give Him the honor prescribed in His law by giving your riches to the poor. For God does not want golden vessels by golden hearts,” said golden mouth.

Our duty to help our neighbor in need and to reform society is a very serious one. Chrysostom wrote, “For those who neglect their neighbor a hell awaits with an inextinguishable fire and torment in the company of the demons. Do not, therefore, adorn the church and ignore your afflicted brother, for he is the most precious temple of all.”

Chrysostom’s belief in the dignity of the poor as a presence of Christ was rooted in his belief in the true Resurrection of Jesus’ Body. In a homily which he wrote on First Corinthians the saint shows how simple people know better than the worldly wise. “It was clear through unlearned men that the cross was persuasive, in fact, it persuaded the whole world. Its enemies lost out and perished; the living who waged war on a dead man proved helpless. The good deeds which tax collectors and fishermen were able to accomplish by God’s grace, the philosophers, the rulers, the countless multitudes cannot even imagine. That the preaching of these men was indeed Divine is brought home to us — for how otherwise could 12 uneducated men, who lived on lakes and rivers and wastelands, get the idea for such an immense enterprise? How could men who perhaps had never been in a city or a public square think of setting out to do battle with the whole world? How then account for the fact that these men, who in Christ’s lifetime did not stand up to the attacks of the Jews, set forth to do battle with the whole world once Christ was dead — if, as you claim, Christ did not rise and speak to them and rouse their courage? Did they perhaps say to themselves, ‘What is this? He could not help Himself when He was alive, but now that He is dead He will extend a helping hand to us?’”

The saint concludes, “Would it not be wholly irrational even to think such thoughts, much less act on them? It is evident, then, that if they had not seen Him risen and had proof of His power, they would not have risked so much.” May our faith in the Risen Christ help us to risk much, trusting that the reward will be great. 

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