The New Testament is filled with stories of our Lord’s admonitions to his listeners – and to us, today – to be merciful and generous to the poor, to feed the hungry and clothe the naked, to go out of our way to help those in need.
Many of the saints have taken these stories to heart and obeyed the admonitions literally, thus becoming closer to God and his kingdom. Of all the saints of the Church, the one who exemplifies this most dramatically is St. John, the 7th century Patriarch of Alexandria, who is known as St. John “the Merciful” or “the Almoner.”
The son of the governor of Cyprus, John was born in the year 555 and spent his childhood and youth enjoying the luxury that his father’s office provided. As serious Christians, his parents inspired in John a deep devotion for our Lord and His Church.
John married, had children, and helped with the administration of his family’s estate, but a deadly illness took the lives of his parents, his wife and all his children within a very short time. Having buried them all, John determined to devote the remainder of his life to works of mercy. He began to lead a life of great austerity and he made arrangements to use his wealth to establish hospitals and orphanages. His works of mercy included sending a ship full of provisions to the British Isles to help alleviate the hunger which resulted from a famine there.
Word of the works of this generous ascetic reached the Emperor Heraclius, who invited John to Constantinople and urged him to become ordained in order to serve others through the Church as a cleric. He eventually proposed John to serve as the Patriarch of Alexandria, a city in great need of strong leadership because of financial troubles and the threat of heresy.
Following his consecration in 608 at the age of 53, the humble Patriarch set about re-ordering the priorities of the patriarchal see and ensuring that the Church manifested the teachings of Christ, its head. He forbade Church officials from receiving substantial personal gifts from the wealthy (which he said constituted bribes) and at the same time, he began to use church funds to feed the poor of the city. At first, many spoke against the Patriarch for dispersing the assets of the Church, but soon his actions began to inspire generosity on the part of the wealthy, and contributions were always available to match needs.
In his desire to be close to the people and available to them for counsel, St. John made it his custom to sit on a bench outside the cathedral every Wednesday and Friday so that anyone who wished could come to talk with him. When he heard of gossip against him, he would go to the gossiper and beg his forgiveness. His admonishment of others was gentle but persuasive. One story is told of his concern for someone who was holding a grudge against another. Patriarch John requested that the man attend one of the smaller daily services which he was to celebrate. When the Lord’s Prayer was being recited, John stopped at the words, “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us”, leaving the man to say those words alone. Hearing himself praying our Lord’s words aloud brought the man to tears of repentance and he promptly forgave his adversary.
As the Persian armies persistently hammered away at the Roman Empire, refugees came flooding into Alexandria. After the fall of Jerusalem in 614, 7500 fled to the city in need of shelter, food and clothing. St. John, the merciful, and his people came to their rescue. Once again, the Patriarch “raided” the church treasury to ransom Modestus, the Patriarch of Jerusalem, and to buy a promise from the Persian conquerors to spare the holy places from destruction.
Five years later, as the Persian armies invaded Egypt, St. John boarded a ship for his homeland. But he fell ill and died upon arriving on Cyprus in 619. His relics, which brought about miracles of healing, were eventually brought to Constantinople. Then, years later, the Turkish ruler presented the relics to King Matthias of Hungary, where they were enshrined in his royal chapel at Buda. Twice more – in 1530 and again in 1632, St. John’s relics were translated, finally resting in the Hungarian Cathedral of Presbourg. The feast day for St. John is celebrated on the day of his death, November 12, on the Eastern calendar, and in the West, on one of the days of translation of his relics, January 23.
May we, like St. John, be merciful to those in need and generous in our alms giving.