John Chrysostom, Patriarch of Constantinople, is one of the great saints of the Eastern Church. The Episcopal Church joins the Roman Church in remembering him today, September 13.
He was born about 354 in Antioch, Syria. As a young man, he responded to the call of desert monasticism until his health was impaired. He returned to Antioch after six years, and was ordained a priest. In 397, he became Patriarch of Constantinople.
His episcopate was short and tumultuous. Many criticized his ascetical life in the episcopal residence, and he incurred the wrath of the Empress Eudoxia, who believed that he had called her a “Jezebel.”
John, called “Chrysostom,” which means “the golden-mouthed,” was one of the greatest preachers in the history of the Church. People flocked to hear him. His eloquence was accompanied by an acute sensitivity to the needs of people. He saw preaching as an integral part of pastoral care, and as a medium of teaching. He warned that if a priest had no talent for preaching the Word, the souls of those in his charge “will fare no better than ships tossed in the storm.”
His sermons provide insights into the liturgy of the Church, and especially into eucharistic practices. He describes the liturgy as a glorious experience, in which all of heaven and earth join. His sermons emphasize the importance of lay participation in the Eucharist. He wrote,
“Why do you marvel that the people anywhere utter anything with the priest at the altar, when in fact they join with the Cherubim themselves, and the heavenly powers, in offering up sacred hymns?”
His treatise, Six Books on the Priesthood, is a classic manual on the priestly office and its awesome demands. The priest, he wrote, must be “dignified, but not haughty; awe-inspiring, but kind; affable in his authority; impartial, but courteous; humble, but not servile, strong but gentle … ”
A well-loved prayer attributed to him, “A Prayer of St. Chrysostom,” is offered as an option in Daily Office liturgies in the 1979 Book of Common Prayer:
Almighty God, you have given us grace at this time with one accord to make our common supplication to you; and you have promised through your well-beloved son, that when two or three are gathered together in his name, you will be in the midst of them. Fulfill now, O Lord, our desires and petitions as may be best for us; granting us in this world knowledge of your truth, and in the age to come, life everlasting. Amen.
During his lifetime, he was twice exiled; and he died during the second period of banishment, on September 14, 407. Thirty-one years later, his remains were brought back to Constantinople, and buried on January 27 (when the Orthodox Churches honor his memory.) His relics may be visited to this day, along with those of St. Basil the Great and St. Gregory Nazianzus, in the Church of Saint George on the grounds of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople in Istanbul.
O God, you gave your servant John Chrysostom grace eloquently to proclaim your righteousness in the great congregation, and fearlessly to bear reproach for the honor of your Name: mercifully grant to all bishops and pastors such excellence in preaching, and faithfulness in ministering your Word, that your people may be partakers with them of the glory that shall be revealed; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God for ever and ever. Amen.
(Hagiography adapted from A Great Cloud of Witnesses, Church Publishing.)