Chrysostom means “golden-mouthed”, reflecting John’s reputation as one of the greatest preachers in the history of the Church.
Born around 347 in Antioch, Syria, the son of a Roman military officer and his pious wife Anthusa, John studied oratory with the aim of becoming a lawyer.
When his teacher Libanus, the most celebrated orator of the day, was asked who ought to succeed him he replied: “John would have been my choice, had not the Christians stolen him from us.”
For in 374 John had become a hermit in the mountains south of Antioch. Eventually, though, the harsh regime, not least two years in a damp cave, affected his health so badly that he was forced to return to the city.
Nearly 40 by the time he was ordained, John for some 12 years acted as deputy to the Bishop of Antioch. His first concern was never his eloquent sermons, but rather the care of the poor. He taught that almsgiving was the first Christian duty.
In 398 the Emperor Arcadius secured John’s election as the Archbishop of Constantinople. There John continued to devote himself to the relief of the poor, sought to reform the clergy and sent out missionaries as far as Persia.
To repentant sinners he was always gracious. “If you have fallen a second time, or even a thousand times into sin,” he would tell them, “come to me, and you shall be healed.”
The unrepentant, however, discovered that there was no end to his wrath. Moreover, he preached a particularly impassioned sermon “Against the Games and Shows of the Theatre and Circus”.
But John’s eagerness in reproof, in particular against Archbishop Theophilus of Alexandria, and the Empress Eudoxia, whom he characterised as “Jezebel”, led to an order for his banishment.
“Violent storms encompass me on all sides,” John declared, “yet I am without fear because I stand upon a rock. Though the sea roar and the waves rise high, they cannot overwhelm the ship of Jesus Christ.”
This confidence appeared justified, for soon after John’s exile from Constantinople, the city was struck by an earthquake. Eudoxia was quickly persuaded that her persecutor should be recalled as quickly as possible. The truce between them, however, did survive the empress’s decision to erect a silver statue of herself outside Santa Sophia, and to celebrate its installation with public games.
John excelled himself in his denunciations of these proceedings, so that in 404 he found himself once more condemned to exile. After this, his second departure from Constantinople, a fire destroyed the original Santa Sophia, along with the Senate House.
For some years John was held at Cucusus in Armenia. Then in 407 orders were given that he should be moved to Pityus on the Black Sea. The journey killed him.