St. John Chrysostom

Brother John Raymond

A. Context of the times

John lived from the middle of the fourth century until very early in the fifth century. In his early years Antioch, the place of his birth, was the second greatest city in the Eastern part of the Roman Empire. During the fourth century Pagans, Manichaeans, Gnostics, Arians and "Spirit Fighters" (soon to be silenced at the Council of Constantinople in 381), Apollinarians and Jews had their adherents in Antioch. The Catholic world was divided there by the schism between the bishops Meletius and Paulinus. A famous orator at Athens and Constantinople who had returned to Antioch was Libanius, an admirer and friend of Julian the Apostate. He was a firm adherent to the declining paganism of Rome and lamented the triumph of Christianity. John's ecclesiastical career took place after the Council of Constantinople. This left him free of entanglements in dogmatic controversies. At this time in Constantinople was a weak Emperor Arcadius who was somewhat dominated by his wife Empress Eudoxia. The royal court was known for its luxury and intrigue. The great metropolis was half Western and half oriental. The bishop of Constantinople for all practical purposes was head of the whole Byzantine episcopate. The Church in Constantinople had its problems: luxurious living in the episcopal household with frequent banquets, clergy who kept women housekeepers vowed to virginity, avarice and luxury among some of the clergy, a murderer and adulterer among the deacons, some monks roaming about aimlessly without discipline and some ecclesiastical widows living in a wordly manner.

B. John's life has more biographical material than any of the other Fathers. It can be divided into five periods:

1. Early life and training until his conversion and baptism (347-370)
2. His ascetical and monastic life (370-381)
3. His public life as a priest and preacher at Antioch (381-398)
4. As bishop of Constantinople (398-404)
5. His exile to his death (404-407)

1. Born at Antioch, the capital of Syria John was the only son of Secundus, a commander of the imperial troops. Anthusa, his mother, was a widow by the age of twenty. John studied under Libanius. Later John learned Christian doctrine and was baptized by Meletius of Antioch around twenty years old.

2. John attended a sort of school for monks under Diodorus of Tarsus. In 374 he joined a loosely-knit community of hermits living in the mountains south of Antioch. John spent four years under the guidance of a Syrian monk and then spent two years alone in a cave. Because of health problems he was forced to return to the city in 381 to recover.

3. That same year John was ordained a deacon by Meletius. Five years later he was ordained a priest by Bishop Flavian and gave him the duty of preaching in the chief church of the city. He continued in this way for twelve years.

4. In 397 the Archbishop of Constantinople died. John was consecrated as his successor a year later at the Emperor's request. As bishop he lived frugally and used the money he saved to help the poor and maintain hospitals. He set about to reform his clergy. Moreover he was effective in converting many sinners, idolaters and heretics.

5. John drew some opponents who disagreed with him, one who later would go down in history as St. Cyril of Alexandria. His most bitter enemy was the empress Eudoxia. His preaching against the vanity of women and an accusation of his referring to the empress as another "Jezebel" made him very unpopular. The empress conspired with another of his enemies, Archbishop Theophilus of Alexandria, to have John deposed. In 403 Theophilus came to Constantinople with several Egyptian bishops. He gathered around him thirty-six bishops at Chalcedon who agreed to John's deposition. A letter was sent to Emperor Arcadius informing him of this decision along with an accusation of treason in having referred to the empress as a "Jezebel." The emperor issued an order that John be banished.

John was sent to Praenetum in Bithynia. Not long after this Constantinople was struck by an earthquake. This terrified the empress, believing it to be a punishment for John's banishment. So she asked him to return. Her fear did not last long, however. The empress had a silver statue of herself erected in a plaza in front of a church. The festivities inaugurating the dedication of the statue that went on for days made it impossible to conduct services in the church. John spoke out against these festivities. The empress took it as an affront to herself. Bishop Theophilus held a synod at her request and John was banished again. John was led by soldiers on a seventy day journey to Cucusus, in Armenia.

Meanwhile, Pope Innocent sent five bishops to Constantinople to arrange for a council. Also, he asked that John be returned from exile. Fearing a council and John's return, Bishop Theophilus arranged for John to be moved further away to Pityus, at the eastern end of the Black Sea. His age, the cruelty of the soldiers and severe weather were too much for John. At Comana in Cappadocia, he lay exhausted and ill. The soldiers unmercifully forced him to continue on. After four miles they realized John was dying. They brought him to a the chapel of St. Basiliscus. Shortly thereafter he died. Appropriately, it was September 14, 407__the Feast of the Holy Cross.

C: No other Greek Father has left us such an extensive legacy of works

1. Exegetical Homilies (chief representative of exegetical principles of the School of Antioch): two series of homilies (9 and 67 respectively) on Genesis; a series of homilies on 58 selected Psalms, six on Isaias 6 and one on Isaias 8-64. Other homilies on Old Testament books are not certain to be genuine. In the New Testament we have 90 homilies on Matthew; 7 on Luke 16,19-31; 88 on John; three series (55, 4 and 4 respectively) on Acts; 250 homilies covering all the Pauline Letters. Those on the Epistle to the Romans are his most famous.

2. Special Purpose Homilies: 21 homilies on the Incident of the Statues (Antiochian revolt against taxation); 2 on the transitoriness and vanity of all earthly happiness (Given on the occassion of the fall of the minister Eutropius); 1 on the invincibility of the Church; numerous homilies on Biblical saints (Job, Eleazar, the Maccabean Brothers, St. Paul); martyrs (Romanus, Barlaam, Pelagia) and Bishops (Ignatius, Babylas, Eustathius, Meletius) of the Antiochene Church; his teacher Diodore of Tarsus; 12 against the Anomoeans (Concerning the incomprehensibility of God and the unity of essence of Father and Son); 8 against the Jews (Warns against participating in Jewish feasts and superstitious practices); 2 catechetical homilies (to Catechumens); 3 on the devil; 9 on penitence; 1 against New Year superstition; 1 against theatres and circus; some on feasts of the Church (Christmas, Epiphany, Easter, Ascension, etc.)

3. Treatises: 6 books on the priesthood (most famous); On the Arrogance and the Education of Children (first handbook on Christian education); several works commending and defending monasticism; works praising and recommending virginity; 3 works on the meaning and importance of suffering.

4. Letters: 236 letters that are mostly short. All of them were written during his second exile to over 100 different people. Their content consists in consoling his friends and giving news of his health. 17 letters are to his most faithful follower in Constantinople, the widow and deaconess Olympias. 2 letters are written to Pope Innocent I.

D. Doctrinal Importance

Strengths -

1. Christology: He attests to the two separate natures in Christ. He emphasizes that Christ was only one. The Son is the same essence as the Father. He used an Antiochene rhetorical metaphor that the Logos dwelt in the Man Jesus as in a temple.

2. Original Sin: St. Augustine used 8 passages from Chrysostom as proving original sin. He taught about the inherited punishment. Still he lags behind the more advanced doctrinal development of the West in not mentioning or discussing the inherited guilt.

3. The Eucharist: He is considered a classical witness of Christian antiquity for the Catholic doctrine on the Eucharist. He has the title Doctor of the Eucharist. He talks about the Eucharist in many passages and in very definite terms. He teaches the Real Presence. Also, the expressions he uses about the change brought about by the words of the priest are equivalent to the doctrine of transubstantiation. He often calls the Eucharist a sacrifice and says it is identical to Our Lord's sacrifice on the Cross.

4. Annointing of the Sick: In talking about the dignity of the priesthood he speaks of the annointing of the sick and that it brings about the remission of sin.

5. The Oath: He saw Matthew 5,34 as forbidding the taking of any oaths.

6. He was considered by both the Greeks and Latins as a very important witness to the Faith. He was cited by St. Augustine (against Pelagians), St. Cyril and the Antiochians at the Council of Ephesus, at the Seventh Ecumenical Council in favor of the veneration of images, during the Reformation over whether he was a Protestant or Catholic.

7. His importance in the development of the Divine Liturgy used by Eastern Christians:  the Orthodox as well as those of the Eastern Rites of the Catholic Church.

Possible Weaknesses -

1. Mariology: He seems to imply human fraily such as vain glory in the Virgin Mary. St. Thomas Aquinas censured John's words about Mary as "going to far." (S.Th. 3 q. 27 a. 4 ad 3)

2. Confession: In his treatise on the priesthood he discusses seventeen tasks and spheres of duties for the priest without mentioning hearing confessions. This is not surprising given the penitential practice of the fourth century.

3. Papal Primacy: He taught a primacy of St. Peter but nowhere does he mention the Bishop of Rome has a right to the same position in the universal Church.

E. Relevance to the Life of the Church

St. John Chrysostom as orator, exegete, essayist, educationalist, witness to and confessor of the Faith all have relevance for the Church of today. His perseverence to the end even through difficult circumstances gives us hope in our own. For bishops he is an example of valiant defense of Church rights, fearless in correcting abuses and tireless in pastoral labors, especially for the poor and sick (He built a hospital for them.)

He is a great source for homilies and Sacred Scripture studies as an exegete. He is a source for morality, as he preferred this theme in his sermons. Some of his special purpose homilies still have relevance to today, for example those on feast days.

His work on the priesthood is still popular today. As a matter of fact, when I mentioned to one of the students at the seminary, who wasn't in this class, that I was doing a presentation on St. John Chrysostom he right away asked me if I had read his work on the priesthood.

He certainly is a reference for Christian education. This is because he is the earliest source we have on the subject.

St. John Chrysostom had a great love for St. Paul the Apostle. This is evident in his homilies and writing on him. These would be great inspirational reading for today to inspire us to greater zeal for the new evangelization.

Although St. John has been used in a anti-Catholic way by Protestant sects in the past, he can serve today as a point of departure in dialogue with them, especially regarding the Holy Eucharist.


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Aquinas, Thomas. The Summa of St. Thomas Aquinas. Vol. 2, IIaIIaeQQ. 1-189, IIIaQQ1-90. Translated by the Fathers of the English Dominican Province. New York: Benzinger Brothers, 1947.

Chrysostom, St. John. In Praise of Saint Paul. Translated by Rev. Thomas Halton. Boston: Daughter of St. Paul, 1963.

Goggin, Sister Thomas Aquinas, S.C.H., Trans. Saint John Chrysostom: Commentary on Saint John the Apostle and Evangelist. The Fathers of the Church, vol. 33. Washington D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 1957.

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Walsh, Michael, Ed. Butler's Lives of the Saints, Concise Edition. New York: Harper & Row, 1985.