The Chrysostom Society takes its name from a man who was generally considered the greatest of the Greek Fathers of the Church—a preacher and public speaker of such eloquence that he was given the nickname Chrysostomos, or “Golden-Tongued.”
In A.D. 349 or thereabouts John was born in Antioch, second city in the eastern part of the Roman Empire. His father was in the Syrian army, a vigorous commander who met an early death. His wife Anthusa was twenty years old at the time and a Christian; she saw to the education of John and his elder sister Pulcheria at the best schools, both pagan and Christian.
Wanting to become a rhetorician, John studied under Libanius, an easy-going pagan and the most eloquent orator of the day; the choice to succeed him at the school was his star pupil, “had not the Christians stolen him from us.”
John went to the school for monks in Syria. There he lived as an anchorite for two years before his health caved in and he had to return to the city.
In 386 he was ordained priest by Bishop Flavian, who then appointed him to the post of episcopal preacher. During Lent the following year, he gave twenty-one homilies entitled “On the Statues.” They had something to do with the tax riots in Antioch during which the rampaging Christians just happened to topple the statues of the Emperor Theodosius, his father, his sons, and his consort.
To administer punishment the Emperor in Constantinople sent two muscular emissaries; but the bishop obtained clemency for the Antiochenes; and next Lent John preached a series of sermons that both mollified the imperial establishment and yet in the same breath managed to condemn the idolatrous statuary.
The next year John was pressured, against his will, to succeed the failing Archbishop of Constantinople. He was spirited into the unfriendly capital, but he managed to arrive at the deathbed in time to be named head of that diocese.
According to Palladius, a contemporary historian, John began “sweeping the stairs from the top.” He cut expenditures and gave the money to the poor; he supported the hospitals and reformed his clergy. In other words, he pleased some and displeased others.
At that time, at least to those who strode its streets, Constantinople seemed to be the hub of the universe. It was a tumultuous time. Pagans, Manichaeans, and Gnostics rubbed shoulders with Arians, Apollinarians, and Jews. Christian factions also contended with one another.
John also found himself facing off against the Emperor Arcadius and his consort Eudoxia. For example, when a silver statue of Eudoxia was erected near his cathedral, John denounced the ceremonies in fiery language.
He could be mild, saying from the pulpit of God’s mercy: “If you’ve fallen a second time into sin, or even a thousand times, come to me and you’ll be healed.”
But he could also be prophetic and uncompromising. One Easter Sunday, he delivered a scorcher entitled Against the Games and Shows of the Theater and Circus; too many Christians, it seemed, had gone to the races on Good Friday and Holy Saturday instead of to church.
One of the most controversial aspects of his career centers around the sermons he gave that have been translated as Against the Jews. Scholarly opinion remains divided on how to interpret these homilies. Some believe them to be egregious examples of inflammatory anti-Semitism. Others, such as the church historian Robert Wilken (John Chrysostom and the Jews: Rhetoric and Reality in the Late Fourth Century), have argued that John’s target was the tendency of some Christians to become overly engrossed in Judaizing practices.
This debate, of course, will remain unresolved, but the Chrysostom Society acknowledges that this episode in John’s career raises serious, painful questions that require prayerful consideration.
One area where John’s influence for good has been universally recognized lies in the realm of liturgy and prayer. To this day his “Divine Liturgy” serves as the basis of worship in Eastern Orthodox and Eastern Catholic Churches of the Byzantine Rite.
John had precious little time for writing, but he managed to produce 67 homilies on Old Testament subjects, 8 of them on Genesis alone; and 59 on the Psalms. On the New Testament, he composed 90 homilies on St. Matthew; 88 on John; 55 on Acts of the Apostles; 39 on Paul’s Epistle to the Hebrews. And he was a prolific correspondent, with 238 letters extant today.
His clashes with the Emperor and Empress ended in his banishment to the wilds of the eastern empire. Accompanied by guards, he had to walk most of the way and, quite literally, he was walked to death in the year 407.
In 451, at the Council of Chalcedon, he was declared a Doctor of the Universal Church.
In 553 Pope Vigilius referred to him as Chrysostom, a tag that stuck.
In the Byzantine Church he’s third of the Three Holy Hierarchs and Universal Teachers, the other two being Basil and Gregory Nazianzen; to them the Western Church has added Athanasius to make the four Greek Doctors of the Church.
St. John Chrysostom is commemorated in Eucharistic liturgies, chiefly in the great intercession, of the Byzantine, Syrian, Chaldean, and Maronite rites.
A portrait of him by Sebastiano del Piombo (1485-1547) hangs in the Church of San Giovanni Crisostomo, Venice.
In 1909 Pope Pius X declared him heavenly patron of preachers of the word of God.
Needless to say, John Chrysostom is also a worthy patron saint for this Society, an exemplar of eloquence and integrity.