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The Golden Standard

On Saturday, I’ll be in Youngstown, Ohio, to speak about “St. John Chrysostom and the Mysteries of Marriage.” It’s part of the Society of St. John Chrysostom’s glorious celebration of the 1,600th anniversary of their patron’s death. I’ll be joined on the program by a real patrologist, Rev. Hiermonk Dr. Calinic (Berger). So it’ll be worth the trip, if only for Father Calinic’s contribution! You can listen to him here.

SSJC is an ecumenical group, mostly Catholic and Orthodox, that meets regularly for common prayer and lively discussion. I love them. I hope you’ll be able to join us. The festivities begin with Vespers at 6 p.m. on Saturday (September 29) at Holy Trinity Romanian Orthodox Church, Wick Ave in Youngstown. For reservations (required), call 330-755-5635.

In his audience yesterday, Pope Benedict brought Chrysostom’s life to a fitting conclusion. Here’s the Zenit translation:

Dear brothers and sisters,

We continue our reflection today on St. John Chrysostom. After his time spent in Antioch, he was appointed in 397 the bishop of Constantinople, capital of the Eastern Roman Empire. From the beginning, John proposed a reform of his Church: The austerity of the bishop’s palace would be an example to everyone — clergy, widows, monks, people of the court and the rich. Unfortunately, many of those people, implicated by his judgments, distanced themselves from him.

Attentive to the poor, John was also called “the almsgiver.” With careful administration, in fact, he was able to establish charitable institutions that were well appreciated. His initiatives in various fields caused some to view him as a dangerous rival. However, like a good pastor, he treated everyone in a kind and fatherly manner. In particular, he showed kindness toward women and dedicated special attention to marriages and the family. He invited the faithful to participate in liturgical life, which he made splendid and attractive with his creative genius.

Despite his goodness, his life was not serene. As pastor of the capital of the empire, he found himself often involved in political intrigues, because of his ongoing relationship with the authorities and civil institutions. On the ecclesiastical plane, moreover, given that he deposed six bishops in the year 401 in Asia who were unworthily elected, he was accused of having exceeded the limits of his own jurisdiction, and thus became a target of easy attacks.

Another cause of attacks against him was the presence in Constantinople of some refugee Egyptian monks, excommunicated by Patriarch Theophilus of Alexandria. Lively disagreement was started when Chrysostom criticized Empress Eudoxia and her courtiers, who responded by discrediting and insulting him. Thus, he was deposed at the synod organized by Patriarch Theophilus in 403, and condemned to a brief period of exile.

After his return, he caused more hostility by protesting the festivals in honor of the empress — which the bishop considered lavish pagan festivals — and banishing the priests who performed the baptisms in the Easter Vigil in 404. So began the persecution of Chrysostom and his followers, the so-called Johannites.

John explained the facts in a letter to the Bishop of Rome, Innocent I. But it was too late. In 406 he had to again go into exile, this time to Cucusa, in Armenia. The Pope was convinced of his innocence, but he did not have the power to help him. A council, called by Rome to pacify the two parts of the empire and between their two Churches, could not take place.

A difficult trip from Cucusa to Pythius, a destination that was never reached, was meant to impede the faithful from visiting him and to break the resistance of the worn-out prelate: The condemnation to exile was truly a condemnation to death!

The numerous letters from exile are moving. John speaks of his pastoral concerns with undertones of sorrow for the persecutions suffered by his followers. His march toward death came to an end in Comana in Pontus. There, the dying John was brought into the chapel of the martyr Basiliscus, where he gave forth his spirit to God and was buried, martyr next to martyr (Palladio, “Life” 119). It was Sept. 14, 407, feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross.

The reconciliation took place in 438 with Theodosius II. The relics of the saintly bishop, placed in the Church of the Apostles in Constantinople, were brought in 1204 to Rome, to the early Constantinian basilica, and now lie in the Chapel of the Choir of Canons of St. Peter’s Basilica.

On Aug. 24, 2004, a large portion of the relics were given by Pope John Paul II to Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople. The liturgical memorial of the saint is celebrated on Sept. 13. Blessed John XXIII proclaimed him patron saint of the Second Vatican Council.

It is said of John Chrysostom that, when he sat on the throne of the New Rome, that is, Constantinople, God revealed him as a second Paul, a doctor of the universe. But in reality, in Chrysostom, there is a substantial unity of thought and action, both in Antioch and in Constantinople. Only his role and situations change.

Meditating on the eight works carried out by God during six days, John Chrysostom, in his commentary on Genesis, desires to lead the faithful from creation to the Creator. “It is a great good,” he says, “to know that which is creature and that which is Creator.” He shows us the beauty of creation and the transparency of God in his creation, which thus becomes a sort of “staircase” to ascend to God, to know him.

But to this first step, he adds a second: This creator God is also the God of condescension (“synkatabasis”). We are weak in our “ascent”; our eyes are weak. And therefore God becomes the God of condescension, who sends a letter to fallen and foreign man, sacred Scripture. In this way, creation and Scripture compliment each other.

In light of Scripture, the letter that God gave us, we can decipher creation. God is called the “tender father” (“philostorgios”) (ibid.), physician of souls (Homily 40:3 “On Genesis”), mother (ibid.) and affectionate friend (“On Providence” 8:11-12).

Added to the first step — creation as a “staircase” leading to God — and the second step — the condescension of God through a letter that he has given us, sacred Scripture — is a third step. God not only gives a letter: He himself descends, is incarnated, he truly becomes: “God with us,” our brother unto death on a cross.

And to these three steps — God is visible in creation, God gives us his letter, God comes down and becomes one of us — is added a fourth and last step. Within the life and action of the Christian, the vital and dynamic principle is the Holy Spirit (“Pneuma”), which transforms the world’s realities. God comes into our own existence through the Holy Spirit and transforms us from within our heart.

Against this backdrop, precisely in Constantinople, John, in his commentary on the Acts of the Apostles, proposes the model of the early Church (Acts 4:32-37) as a model for society, developing a social “utopia” (an “ideal city”).

He proposed, in fact, to give a soul and Christian face to the city. In other words, Chrysostom understood that it is not enough to give alms, helping the poor now and then. Rather, it is necessary to establish a new structure, a new model of society, a model based on the New Testament perspective. It is this new society that is revealed in the nascent Church.

Therefore, John Chrysostom truly becomes one of the great Fathers of the Church’s social doctrine: The old idea of the Greek “polis” is replaced with a new idea of a city inspired by the Christian faith. Chrysostom affirmed with Paul (cf. 1 Corinthians 8:11) the primacy of the individual Christian, of the person as a person, including the slave and the poor man. His project corrected the traditional Greek view of the “polis,” of the city, in which large portions of the population were excluded from the rights of citizenship. 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 the city is constructed on the foundation of the person. In the Greek “polis,” on the other hand, the country was more important than the individual, who was totally subordinated to the city as a whole. In this way, with Chrysostom, the vision of a society built by the Christian conscience begins. And he tells us that our “polis” is another, “our homeland is in heaven” (Philippians 3:20) and this homeland of ours, even on this earth, renders us all equals, brothers and sisters, and obligates 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, going back to his first sermon in 386, once again took up the theme so dear to him — the plan of God for humanity. It is an “unutterable and incomprehensible” plan, but which is surely guided by him with love (cf. “On Providence” 2:6).

This is our certainty. Even if we cannot decode the details of personal and collective history, we know that God’s plan is always inspired by love. Therefore, despite his sufferings, John Chrysostom reaffirmed the discovery that God loves every one of us with an infinite love, and therefore he desires the salvation of all.

For his part, the bishop-saint cooperated generously with this salvation, without holding anything back, throughout his entire life. In fact, he considered God’s glory the ultimate goal of his existence, which — as he was dying — he left as his last testament: “Glory to God for everything!” (Palladio, “Life” 11).

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