All Christians are called to be faithful – to live out their lives, whatever the circumstances, with love for God and neighbor and in accordance with the teachings of our Lord Jesus Christ. For some, this has meant a life ending in martyrdom during times of persecution. Others have been faithful through a life of quiet contemplation and prayer in a monastery away from worldly concerns. For St. Peter Chrysologus, a life of faithfully leading and teaching his flock was required.
Born around the year 406 near Ravenna, Peter was a deacon when he was appointed Bishop of Ravenna in 433. Although Rome was still held in honor as the chief city of the Empire, the capitol had long ago been moved to Constantinople, and the political center in the western portion of the Empire had been moved to Ravenna because it was more defensible. Thus St. Peter had responsibility for the spiritual welfare of the ruling family (the young Valentinium III and his mother, Galla Placida, who acted as regent for a number of years) and other governing officials.
This was a time of turmoil in the west, when invading tribes (Goths, Visigoths, Huns) constantly threatened the peace and security of every city, and in many places, the peace remained uneasy as these invaders became settlers and began to assimilate into the prevailing society.
This was also a time of religious controversy. After the end of the persecution of Christians with the Edict of Milan in 313, pagan religions continued to thrive until 380, when Emperor Theodosius I required all subjects to become Christian. The transformation was not immediate, and many pagan superstitions and practices lingered on in the lives of people as St. Peter began his work in Ravenna.
Although the first two Ecumenical Councils had defined basic Christian doctrines in the Nicene Creed, heresies continued to appear in St. Peter’s day, Monophysitism and Pelagianism particularly. St. Peter’s task was to explain Christian doctrines – especially the Incarnation, the Virgin Birth, and grace – to his people and inspire them to lead lives of Christian virtue.
As was true of St. John Chrysostom (“golden-mouth”) in Constantinople, St. Peter acquired the title “Chrysologus” or “golden orator” because of his ability as a preacher, trained in rhetoric as was typical of his day. We are fortunate that 176 of his sermons survive to this day, not only to give us a glimpse of this faithful shepherd, but also to teach and admonish us as they did the people of Ravenna in the 5th century. According to George Ganss, translator of these sermons, “Most of the sermons are moral in character. Their chief purpose is to bring the hearers to lead a more intensively Christian life and to avoid the vices then prevalent in society.” St. Peter made use of both the literal interpretation of Scripture favored by the Antiochian church and the allegorical interpretation of the church in Alexandria.
St. Peter Chrysologus built churches (with the help of Empress Galla Placida); he was a friend of Pope Leo the Great of Rome, with whom he supported Orthodox teaching on the Incarnation leading up to the Council of Chalcedon in 451; and he was also a friend of St. Germanus of Auxere, at whose funeral he presided. St. Peter fell asleep in the Lord in the year 450. May we, like St. Peter Chrysologus, be faithful throughout our lives, and may we be aided by his prayers and teaching as we strive to be faithful Christians.
Sources: The Fathers of the Church, Vol. 17, tr. By George E. Ganss; The Oxford Dictionary of Saints, by David Hugh Farmer; Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, ed. by F. L. Cross.