Today’s liturgy commemorates the most prolific of the writers and preachers of the whole Patristic period, as well as one of the most pastoral of priests. John of Antioch was a deacon for five years before accepting ordination to the priesthood. During that period, when eloquence was highly appreciated, he proved to be effective as a speaker that he became a celebrity. Before long he was known as John the Chrysostom, the Greek word meaning Golden mouth. His dedication to the priestly ministry assured that he employed his energies and talents in the service of the Gospel, with consistent courage. He did not hesitate to speak truth to political powers when their actions conflicted with the Church’s teaching, knowing that it would cause him trouble as indeed it eventually did. Not, however, before his ministry resulted in building up the Church. He first achieved broad popularity when he proved to be the savior of his city. He was able by his series of homilies to teach his faithful some lessons of morality and to restore calm and hope in the face of disaster when he persuaded the Emperor Theodosius of their sincere repentance. For the emperor was furious with the Antiocheans and preparing to use the army to punish the people severely after they had rioted against the government and destroyed the Emperor’s statue in protest to his raising taxes. We in this country can sympathize with them today when each American voter’s share of the national debt is $129,000- a situation that adds to our reasons for praying to our saint today!
St John Chrysostom, after receiving the best classical education available at the time, began his life of dedication to God, not in a seminary but in a monastery. For some years he lived in community and then spent two further years as a hermit, living in a cave. His training then was to a life of interior prayer and spiritual reading in an austere setting. This formation to the life of the spirit proved to be a source of convincing and energetic persuasion in his later service as priest then in his role as Patriarch of Constantinople. His book on the priesthood revealed how high a view he held of priestly office and had a lasting influence on priestly life through the centuries. Although he occupied the most prestigious See in the Eastern Church, he ever remained a pastor close to the people, able to speak to their spiritual and social needs effectively. His singleness of purpose shone through his activities so that he created a climate of enthusiasm in his people.
Chrysostom’s influence as a teacher and guide for his people was due in large measure to his outstanding gifts as a communicator. He had a winning personality, a gift for friendship and, having in his years as a monk cultivated his inner life in prayer, had acquired a profound sense of God’s holiness that penetrated his activity and priestly ministry. When he wrote his book on the priesthood he stressed the holiness of the priestly office. The message he conveys in that early writing is perhaps the chief lesson we priests today can take from him for our own lives. For he emphasizes the essential service of the priest to the people is to make the all holy Savior present in this world. “The priesthood is exercised on earth”, he writes, ”but itself is a reality belonging to heaven.” The priest is to witness to the holiness of God by the purity of his life. The priest’s ministry, in all its various expressions, is that of communicating the love and mercy of the all holy, transcendent God. In our times when society is increasingly dominated by materialism and secularist attitudes, the need for spiritual witness to the all holy God through priestly ministry is more essential to the healthy life of the Church than in happier periods. May the example and intercession Saint John Chrysostom assist us so that like him we might build up the faith of our people and be channels of the life-giving grace of the Lord Jesus that we are offered here at this Eucharist. Ω
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