A Fearless Critic

Saint John Chrysostom

Feast Day: 13th September

The preaching of a priest was so eloquent and effective that it earned him the nickname Chrysostom, the Golden Mouth. Yet his words were seldom soothing or comforting. He was outspoken in his criticism of wrongdoing, and was not afraid to attack those in authority who abused their positions of power.

Born at Antioch in Syria around 347, the son of the commander of the imperial troops, John's mother was widowed at an early age and she devoted her life to giving her children a Christian upbringing, and the best possible education. He studied law and learned the art of public speaking from the greatest orator of the time before a period of religious study. Then John joined a community of hermits but practised such austerities that his health suffered and he had to return to the city. Ordained a priest, aged 39, and appointed the bishop's deputy.

He carried out these duties for 12 years, but then found himself reluctantly involved in political intrigue. When the Archbishop of Constantinople died in 397, the Emperor decided to procure the election of John as successor. There was a good deal of opposition and ill-feeling among other hopeful candidates, but in 398 John was ordained to this See, the most important in the empire.

He used his power wisely and generously. In contrast to his predecessors, who had maintained themselves in considerable luxury, he chose to live simply. With the money he saved he was able to help the poor and support several hospitals. Next he turned his attention to reforming the clergy, many of whom lacked discipline and failed to set a good example to the laity.

But it was as a preacher that John really made his mark and no-one escaped the sharp edge of his golden tongue. Some of his sermons lasted two hours! Yet his explanations of Scripture were never without a point. He criticised the rich for not sharing their wealth with the poor; he reprimanded women who were vain and immodest; he told married men to be faithful to their wives. When it came to justice and charity, John would not tolerate double standards. The excesses and loose living of the imperial court also attracted his anger, and when he preached a sermon on the subject of Jezebel it was interpreted as an insult to the empress.

Not surprisingly, John's fiery sermons gained him enemies, several of them in high places. Theophilus, the Archbishop of Alexandria, resented the growing importance of the See of Constantinople. The Empress Eudoxia, seeking revenge for the supposed insult, conspired with Theophilus to have John removed from office. The emperor ordered him to be banished, and he was sent into exile in Armenia. On hearing of this, the pope sent five bishops to Constantinople to insist that John be restored to his see. The response of the emperor was to throw the five envoys into prison and arrange for John Chrystostom to be sent even further away. Officers were sent to escort him to the Black Sea, but by now John was weak and ill and the journey caused him great suffering. During this ordeal he collapsed and died on 14th September 407, aged 60.

Speaking the truth can be a dangerous business, as John Chrysostom found to his cost. Nevertheless, he did not hesitate to speak out loudly and clearly when he saw injustice or immorality. Let us ask him to give us courage to raise our voices in protest when the need arises.

Since he is remembered for his preaching, we pray for all preachers that they may find inspiration from the Holy Spirit and from constant conversation with the Lord. May their words be simple and effective, touching the hearts of their hearers to make them respond to the love of God.