For some of us, standing up and speaking before an audience, even a small group, is the stuff of nightmares. If St. John Chrysostom ever had a case of nerves before he climbed into a pulpit, we haven’t heard about it. It appears that when it came to public speaking, he had some natural talent, but he felt that he could not just “wing it,” that he needed disciplined training so that every time he did speak to a congregation, they would sit up and listen. It took him 12 years of working on his craft before he felt completely confident as a preacher and public speaker. As a tribute to his oratorical skills, the Greeks gave him the nickname “Chrysostomos,” which means “Golden mouth.”
His gift won him a large following among the faithful, and the enmity of Christians who were not so faithful.
In 397, the archbishop of Constantinople died. Now that Constantinople had replaced Rome as the capital of the Roman Empire, the archdiocese competed with Rome as to which was the most prestigious in the Roman world. By now, John’s reputation for his holiness of life and his fearless defense of the Faith against a host of heresies had reached the imperial court. Emperor Arcadius insisted that John should be the new archbishop. As it happened, the emperor got more than he bargained for.
John began by reforming the clergy and religious. He ordered wandering, carefree monks back to their monasteries. Some widows who had taken vows of simplicity of life and service to the church were living less like nuns and more like self-indulgent women of independent means. John gave them two options: marry again, or keep their vows. And then John took on the imperial court and the population at large. He denounced Christians who went to the races on Good Friday and attended the games in the amphitheater on Holy Saturday. He spoke bluntly to Empress Eudoxia and the ladies of the court who, by their excessive use of makeup and vulgar clothes, looked more like streetwalkers than aristocrats. No one in Constantinople could make as convincing an argument as John. Since Eudoxia could not defend herself against John’s assessment of her, she complained to her husband that she was being humiliated by his archbishop. To placate his wife, Arcadius sent John into exile to a place called Pityus (modern Pitsunda), on the Black Sea, at the farthest edge of the empire.
John was 60 years old when he set out for his place of banishment. By the standards of his time, he was considered an old man, yet his guards forced him to go on foot through terrible weather. John complained of exhaustion and begged his guards to let him rest, but they drove him on without mercy. The ill treatment was more than the archbishop could bear; long before he reached his destination, John collapsed and died.
Craughwell is the author of Saints Behaving Badly, This Saint Will Change Your Life, and St. Peter’s Bones.