Wednesday, September 19, 2007

General Audience: John Chrysostom


AP Photo/Pier Paolo Cito

~translated by Papa Ratzinger Forum:

This year is the sixteenth centenary of the death of St. John Chrysostom (407-2007). John of Antioch, called Chrysostom, or "Golden Mouth", for his eloquence, is very much alive today in his many works.

An anonymous scribe wrote that St. John's writings "traversed the whole globe like lightning flashes." His writings allow us, like the faithful in his time (who were repeatedly deprived of his presence because he underwent so many exiles), to live with his books in his absence. He himself said so in one of his letters (cfr A Olimpiade, Lettera 8,45).

Born around 349 in Antioch of Syria (now Antakya, in present-day Turkey), he was a priest for 11 years until 397 when he was named Bishop of Constantinople, exercising episcopal authority in the capital of the Byzantine Empire, from which he was exiled twice between 403 and 407. Today, we will limit ourselves to the Chrysostom's Antioch years.

Orphaned of his father at an early age, he lived with his mother Antusa who infused in him an exquisite human sensitivity and a profound Christian faith. After his early schooling, he completed studies in philosophy and rhetoric, the latter under the pagan Libanius, the most famous rhetoretician of his time. Under Libanius's guidance, John of Antioch became the greatest orator of late Greek antiquity.

He was baptized in 368 and received his ecclesiastical training from Bishop Melezius, who made him a lector [lettore] in 371. This marked the official beginning of Chrysostom's ecclesiastical career. From 367 to 372, he attended the Asceterium, a sort of seminary in Antioch, together with a group of other young men, some of whom later became bishops, under the guidance of the famous exegete Diodorus of Tarsus, who led John into pursuing historico-literary exegesis which was characteristic of the Antiochean tradition.

He then spent 4 years in retreat with the hermits of nearby Mt. Silpius. He extended the retreat for another two years, living alone in a cave, during which he dedicated himself completely to meditating 'the laws of Christ', the Gospels, and especially, teh letters of St. Paul.

But he fell sick and found it impossible to treat himself, so he was forced to return to the Christian community of Antioch (cfr Palladio, Vita 5).

"The Lord," says his biographer, "intervened with this ailment at the right moment to allow John to follow his true vocation. Indeed, he would write that given a choice between the missteps of Church administration and the tranquility of the monastic life, he would choose pastoral service a thousand times over (cfr Sul sacerdozio, 6,7): it was to this that he felt himself called. And it was thus that he fulfilled the decisive turn in his vocational career: as a full-time shepherd of souls. His intimacy with the Word of God, cultivated during his years as a hermit, matured in him the irresistible urgency to preach the Gospel, to give to others what he himself had received during his years of meditation. The missionary ideal thus launched this soul on fire into pastoral service.

Between 378-379, he returned to Antioch. Deacon in 381 and priest in 386, he became a famous preacher in the churches of his city. He delivered homilies against the Arians, followed by commemorations of the martyrs of Antioch and other holy persons during the principal liturgical festivities. All this constituted a great lesson of faith in Christ in the light of the lives of the saints.

387 was John's 'heroic year' in the so-called 'revolt against statues.' The people tore down imperial statues as a sign of protest against the raising of taxes. During those days of Lent, marked by anguish over potential punishments by the emperor, he gave 22 homilies about the statues, aimed at encouraging penitence and conversion. This was followed by a decade of untroubled pastoral work (387-397).

The Chrysostom is among the most prolific of the Church Fathers: from him has come down to us 17 treatises, more than 700 authenticated homilies, commentaries on Matthew and Paul (Letters to the Romans, Corinthians, Ephesians and Hebrews), and 241 letters.

He was not a speculative theologian. Rather, he transmitted the definitive traditional doctrine of the Church in a time of theological controversies raised above all by Arianism, that is, the negation of the divinity of Christ. It was a consequence of the dogmatic development within the Church during the fourth and fifth centuries.

The Chrysostom's theology is exquisitely pastoral, with a constant concern for consistency between thoughts expressed in words and Christian life as is lived. This is the guiding thread of the splendid catechesis with which he prepared catechumens for Baptism.

When he was near death, he wrote that the value of man is in "exact knowledge of the true doctrine and in the rightness of his life" (Letters from exile). The two things - knowledge of the truth and rightness of life - go together: knowledge should translate into living it.

Everything St. John said was always aimed at developing among the faithful the exercise of intelligence, of true reason, in order to understand and translate into practice the moral and spiritual demands of the faith.

John Chrysostom was concerned that his writings would guide the integral development of the human being, in his physical, intellectual and religious dimensions. He likened the various phases of such growth to the many seas of an immense ocean.

"The first of these seas is infancy" (Homily 81,5 on the Gospel of Matthew), during which "inclinations to vice or to virtue are first manifested." Therefore, the laws of God should be impressed from the very beginning on the soul "as on a wax tablet"(Homily 3,1 on the Gospel of John): indeed, this is the most important age.

We should bear in mind how fundamental it is that in this first phase of life, the great orientations which give the right perspective on existence should truly enter into a man's life. Thus, the Chrysostom recommended: "From the earliest age, provide your children with spiritual weapons and teach them the sign of the Cross" (Homily 12,7 on the first Letter to the Corinthians).

Then come adolescence and youth: "Infancy is followed by the sea of adolescence, where the winds are violent...because concupiscence grows at that time" (Homily 81,5 on the Gospel of Matthew). Then, engagement and matrinomy: "Youth is succeeded by the age of the mature man, in which he undertakes the commitments of family - the time to look for a wife" (ibid).

About matrimony, he recalls its objectives, enriched - exercising the virtue of moderation - with a rich fabric of personal relationships. Spouses who are well-prepared bar the way to divorce: everything is carried out in joy and their children can be educated in virtue. And when the first child is born, a bridge is formed: all three are one flesh, since the child united both parents in him" (Homily 12,5 on the Letter to the Colossians) - all three constitute "a family, a little Church" (Homily 20,l6 on the Letter to the Ephesians).

The preachings of the Chrysostom often took place within the liturgy, the 'place' in which the community builds itself with the Word of God and the Eucharist. In the liturgy, the gathered assembly expresses the one Church (Homily 8,7 on the Letter to the Romans) - the same Word addressed everywhere to everyone (Homily 245,2 on the first Letter to the Corinthians), and the Eucharistic Communion becomes a powerful sign of unity (Homily 32,7 on the Gospel of Matthew).

His pastoral plan was clearly within the life of the Church, in which the lay faithful, through Baptism, take on a priestly function that is at once royal and prophetic. To the lay faithful, he says: "Baptism makes you king, priest and prophet" (Homily 3,5 on the second Letter to the Corinthians).

And so the fundamental obligation of mission comes from that, because each is, to some degree, responsible for the salvation of others: "This is the principle of our social life...not to interest ourselves only in ourselves!" O(Homily 9,2 on Genesis). Everything takes place between two poles: the larger Church and the 'small Church', the family, in reciprocal relationship.

As you can see, dear brothers and sisters, this lesson from the Chrysostom on the authentically Christian presence of laymen in the family and in society, is more than ever relevant today. Let us pray the Lord to make us more obedient to the teachings of this great master of the faith.

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