Born at Antioch, c. 347; died at Commana in Pontus, 14 September, 407.
John, whose surname "Chrysostom" occurs for the first time in the "Constitution" of Pope Vigilius (cf. P.L., LX, 217) in the year 553, is generally considered the most prominent doctor of the Greek Church and the greatest preacher ever heard in a Christian pulpit. His natural gifts, as well as exterior circumstances, helped him to become what he was.At the time of Chrysostom's birth, Antioch was the second city of the Eastern part of the Roman Empire. During the whole of the fourth century religious struggles had troubled the empire and had found their echo at Antioch. Pagans, Manichaeans, Gnostics, Arians, Apollinarians, Jews, made their proselytes at Antioch, and the Catholics were themselves separated by the schism between the bishops Meletius and Paulinus. Thus Chrysostom's youth fell in troubled times. His father, Secundus, was an officer of high rank in the Syrian army. On his death soon after the birth of John, Anthusa, his wife, only twenty years of age, took the sole charge of her two children, John and an elder sister. Fortunately she was a woman of intelligence and character. She not only instructed her son in piety, but also sent him to the best schools of Antioch, though with regard to morals and religion many objections could be urged against them.
It was a very decisive turning-point in the life of Chrysostom when he met one day (about 367) the bishop Meletius. The earnest, mild, and winning character of this man captivated Chrysostom in such a measure that he soon began to withdraw from classical and profane studies and to devote himself to an ascetic and religious life. He studied Holy Scriptures and frequented the sermons of Meletius. About three years later he received Holy Baptism and was ordained lector. But the young cleric, seized by the desire of a more perfect life, soon afterwards entered one of the ascetic societies near Antioch, which was under the spiritual direction of Carterius and especially of the famous Diodorus, later Bishop of Tarsus. Prayer, manual labour and the study of Holy Scripture were his chief occupations, and we may safely suppose that his first literary works date from this time, for nearly all his earlier writings deal with ascetic and monastic subjects [cf. below Chrysostom writings: (1) "Opuscuia"]. Four years later, Chrysostom resolved to live as an anchorite in one of the caves near Antioch. He remained there two years, but then as his health was quite ruined by indiscreet watchings and fastings in frost and cold, he prudently returned to Antioch to regain his health, and resumed his office as lector in the church.About the yearly part of 381 Meletius made him deacon, just before his own departure to Constantinople, where he died as president of the Second Ecumenical Council. The successor of Meletius was Flavian. Ties of sympathy and friendship connected Chrysostom with his new bishop. As deacon he had to assist at the liturgical functions, to look after the sick and poor, and was probably charged also in some degree with teaching catechumens. At the same time he continued his literary work, and we may suppose that he composed his most famous book, "On the Priesthood", towards the end of this period, or at latest in the beginning of his priesthood. In the year 386 Chrysostom was ordained priest by Flavian, and from that dates his real importance in ecclesiastical history. His chief task during the next twelve years was that of preaching, which he had to exercise either instead of or with Bishop Flavian. But no doubt the larger part of the popular religious instruction and education devolved upon him. The earliest notable occasion which showed his power of speaking and his great authority was the Lent of 387, when he delivered his sermons "On the Statues" (P.G., XLVIII, 15, xxx.). The people of Antioch, excited by the levy of new taxes, had thrown down the statues of Emperor Theodosius. In the panic and fear of punishment which followed, Chrysostom delivered a series of some twenty sermons, full of vigour, consolatory, exhortative, tranquilizing, until Flavian, the bishop, brought back from Constantinople the emperor's pardon. But the usual preaching of Chrysostom consisted in consecutive explanations of Holy Scripture. To that custom, unhappily no longer in use, we owe his famous and magnificent commentaries, which offer us such an inexhaustible treasure of dogmatic, moral, and historical knowledge of the transition from the fourth to the fifth century. These years, 386-98, were the period of the greatest theological productivity of Chrysostom, a period which alone would have assured him for ever a place among the first Doctors of the Church. A sign of this may be seen in the fact that in the year 392 St. Jerome already accorded to the preacher of Antioch a place among his Viri illustres ("De Viris ill.", 129, in P.L., XXIII, 754), referring expressly to the great and successful activity of Chrysostom as a theological writer. From this same fact we may infer that during this time his fame had spread far beyond the limits of Antioch, and that he was well known in the Byzantine Empire, especially in the capital.
On September 27, 397, Nectarius, Bishop of Constantinople, died. There was a general rivalry in the capital, openly or in secret, for the vacant see. After some months it was known, to the great disappointment of the competitors, that Emperor Areadius, at the suggestion of his minister Eutropius, had sent to the Prefect of Antioch to call John Chrysostom out of the town without the knowledge of the people, and to send him straight to Constantinople. In this sudden way Chrysostom was hurried to the capital, and ordained Bishop of Constantinople on February 26, 398, in the presence of a great assembly of bishops, by Theophilus, Patriarch of Alexandria, who had been obliged to renounce the idea of securing the appointment of Isidore, his own candidate. The change for Chrysostom was as great as it was unexpected. His new position was not an easy one, placed as he was in the midst of an upstart metropolis, half Western, half Oriental, in the neighbourhood of a court in which luxury and intrigue always played the most prominent parts, and at the head of the clergy composed of most heterogeneous elements, and even (if not canonically, at least practically) at the head of the whole Byzantine episcopate. The first act of the new bishop was to bring about a reconciliation between Flavian and Rome. Constantinople itself soon began to feel the impulse of a new ecclesiastical life.
The necessity for reform was undeniable. Chrysostom began "sweeping
the stairs from the top" (Palladius, op. cit., v). He called his oeconomus,
and ordered him to reduce the expenses of the episcopal household; he
put an end to the frequent banquets, and lived little less strictly
than he had formerly lived as a priest and monk. With regard to the
clergy, Chrysostom had at first to forbid them to keep in their houses syneisactoe,
i.e. women housekeepers who had vowed virginity. He also proceeded
against others who, by avarice or luxury, had given scandal. He had
even to exclude from the ranks of the clergy two deacons, the one
for murder and the other for adultery. Of the monks, too, who were very
numerous even at that time at Constantinople, some had preferred to
roam about aimlessly and without discipline. Chrysostom confined them
to their monasteries. After the clergy, Chrysostom turned his attention
to his flock. As he had done at Antioch, so at
Constantinople and with more reason, he frequently preached against the
unreasonable extravagances of the rich, and especially against the
ridiculous finery in the matter of dress affected by women whose age
should have put them beyond such vanities. Some of them, the widows
Marsa, Castricia, Eugraphia, known for such preposterous tastes,
belonged to the court circle. It seems that the upper classes of
Constantinople had not previously been accustomed to such language.
Doubtless some felt the rebuke to be intended for themselves, and the
offence given was the greater in proportion as the rebuke was the more
deserved. On the other hand, the people showed themselves delighted
with the sermons of their new bishop, and frequently applauded him in
the church (Socrates, "Hist. eccl." VI). They never forgot his care for
the poor and miserable, and that in his first year he had built a great
hospital with the money he had saved in his household.