Popularity with many often brings about hatred by some, and truth, spoken forthrightly and bluntly can inspire hatred in those for whom the truth hurts most. St. John Chrysostom, Patriarch of Constantinople at the turn of the 4th to the 5th century, experienced this phenomenon dramatically.
John was born in Antioch around the year 344, little more than 30 years after Emperor Constantine had given Christianity a legal status in the Roman Empire. The young man’s education was directed toward a career as a lawyer and he showed remarkable talent as an orator.
John’s parents became Christians and, at the age of 23, John also was baptized and the direction of his life was forever changed. Recognizing the seriousness of the commitment required of a Christian, John decided to live as a monk, eventually forming a monastery as he was joined by others. He was beloved by his fellow monks and became an example to all, both in the monastery and in the city of Antioch, for his godly life.
Desiring to become closer to God, John left the monastery and went further into the wilderness to be a hermit. However, illness forced him to return to Antioch for medical care, and there Patriarch Meletios (who had baptized him) tonsured John as a Reader in the Church. Some time later, John was ordained a Deacon and after five years of diaconal service, he felt called to return to his monastery.
Patriarch Meletios traveled to Constantinople to attend the Second Ecumenical Council and while there, reposed in the Lord. His successor in Antioch was Flavianos, who had a dream in which he was told that he should ordain John to the priesthood and bring him back to the city. Taking the dream seriously, Flavianos went to the monastery, where he found that John had had a similar dream. The Patriarch had to console the monks, as they were not happy to lose their beloved John. When the two arrived in the city, crowds of people gathered to rejoice that the now famous monk had come back to them.
John was especially popular for his preaching. His early oratorical skills had been put to good use in explaining the teachings of the Church and in stirring the hearts of the people to greater zeal. He was given the nick-name “Chrysostom”, meaning “golden mouthed”, because of the beauty of his words. These beautiful words were often directed toward those who followed false teachings.
When Nectarios, the Patriarch of Constantinople died near the end of the century, John was elected to succeed him. But the humble priest-monk did not believe himself worthy of so exalted a position and the near-riot that ensued showed that the people of Antioch were certainly not willing to give up their beloved preacher.
So John had to be taken away from Antioch with “cloak and dagger” tactics. An anonymous note was sent to him requesting that he come to a church outside the city to meet with someone who needed his help. When he arrived, a coach was waiting and soldiers placed him in the carriage and whisked him away from Antioch. When they arrived in Constantinople, a huge crowd of people greeted John’s arrival with great joy. John was enthroned as Patriarch of Constantinople on December 15, 398 and now the most important work that God had for him began.
St. John experienced adulation from most of the Christians of Constantinople and beyond. People flocked to hear him preach and teach and they frequently reacted to his sermons by applauding, a practice which John put a stop to. We are privileged to have many of these sermons in written form for our instruction now. The most famous one is the Paschal sermon which we hear every year at the Easter Vigil.
But many in the capital city of the Empire were still pagans, pseudo-Christianity abounded, and the Arian heresy was growing. The level of morality was very low. The new Patriarch’s sermons, while loved by the faithful Christians, were too uncomfortable for some. When it was obvious that the pleasure-seeking life of the Empress Eudoxia was the target of condemnation, she began to plot to have the Patriarch removed.
Empress Eudoxia finally succeeded in her efforts to trap St. John or falsely accuse him. The ridiculous accusations ranged from selling the marble from one of the churches to murder! The Patriarch was sent into exile to a small Armenian village. There, he was was once again afflicted with illness and he died on November 13, 407 and was buried in Comana.
But John, the golden-mouthed, was not forgotten by the people and before long, he was regarded as one of the great “Doctors” of the Church, along with Ss. Basil, Gregory the Theologian, and Gregory the Great. The Liturgy which he composed became the standard for the Eastern rite and his writings continue to instruct Christians to this day.
The Christians of Constantinople began to demand that the holy relics of their beloved saint be returned to the city where he served as Patriarch. The Emperor Theodosius the Younger wrote a letter in the name of his mother, Eudoxia, begging the forgiveness of the saint for her wrongs against him. The relics were brought back to the imperial city in the year 438 and placed in the Church of the Holy Apostles. However, these relics were then stolen by crusaders in 1204 and eventually taken to Rome where they remained until November 27, 2004. At that time, Pope John Paul, in a gesture of reconciliation and brotherly love, gave the relics of the beloved saint to Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew and they are now displayed for veneration at St. George’s Church in Constantinople (Istanbul).
May God grant us wisdom to avoid the hatred which comes of jealousy and pride. May we always pray these beautiful words of St. John Chrysostom with heartfelt sincerity: “I believe, O Lord, and I confess that thou art truly the Christ, the Son of the living God, who didst come into the world to save sinners, of whom I am chief.” Holy John, pray for us.