Friday, February 12, 2010

On the Priesthood: Saint John Chrysostom

by Rev. Fr. Prince Mannathoor, Rome

Priesthood is an institution of Christianity for which a person is ordained a priest and held the post of minister of Church. And it is a body of priests who have special religious authority or function. Priesthood is more than celebrating Mass and telling people about God. It is about knowing the central call of life and giving all for this call. Priests are called to be forthright messengers of hope, strong community leaders and spiritual guides for both the lost and the faithful. About this topic many of the early church fathers wrote as well as how to live priest and how to do priestly life. John Chrysostom is the one of the main church father wrote about the priesthood. He wrote around six books which dealt with the Christian Priesthood. In this essay I am discussing about the John Cristostom’s writings on the Priesthood and its evaluation.

John Chrysostom : A brief biography.

John Chrysostom was Patriarch of Constantinople and is considered one of the greatest Christian preachers. In the 6th Century has been attributed to him the name Chrysostom (Greek for "golden mouth"), under which he is known today. He has also known as Ivanios. He was born around 347 (according to Western sources - approximately 349) of Antioch in Syria. He led an ascetic life. In 371 he left Antioch and went into the wilderness. After six years of being a hermit returned and was ordained a priest. He was revered as an ascetic and was known for his talent in public speaking as well known for his appearance against the misuse of church and state authority. Controversial are its massive negative statements about Jews in his earliest surviving sermons. During his life he was a fearless defender of morality, branding the abuse of the faithful, even the emperors - it was dragged to his persecution. He also practiced theology - dealt with Christology, issues of original sin, repentance and the priesthood, and above all the Eucharist.

His main works

John Chrysostom preached much, much writing. While many works formerly attributed to his patronage, have been restored to their rightful owner, the number of authentic works nonetheless considerable. It divides its messages in several groups:

a) Main Homilies and speeches

Homilies were written down by the audience and subsequently circulated, revealing a style that tended to be direct and greatly personal, but was also formed by the rhetorical conventions of his time and place. [1] Homilies on the texts of the Bible (Genesis, Psalms, Isaiah, Matthew, John, Acts of the Apostles, Epistles to the Romans, Corinthians, Ephesians, Galatians, Philippians, Colossians, Thessalonians, Timothy, Titus, to Philemon, to the Hebrews); Homilies on the incomprehensibility of God; Finally, even if not directly to him, the usual Liturgy of the Orthodox Church bears his name. Also, read the homily at the Easter Vigil, is attributed to St. John Chrysostom. In every Easter, the greatest feast of the church year the Eastern Orthodox Churches also read his Catechetical Homily.

[2] Sermons on Jews are series of fourth homilies that have been circulated by many groups to foster anti- Semistism.

b) Treaties

Exhortations to Theodore; Treaty of priesthood; Apology of monastic life; comparison of solitary and King Treaty of compunction; Treaty of illicit cohabitation; Treaty of virginity; Treaties against the second marriage controversy Treaties. Other important treatises written by John include, Instructions to Catechumens, and On the Incomprehensibility of the Divine Nature. In addition, he wrote a series of letters to the deaconess Olypias, of which seventeen are extant.[3]

On the Priesthood

This Treaties’s content is his dialogue with St. Basil ‘ On the Priesthood. He was highly influenced by Gregory, and he built upon his ideas about the function of the priest as teacher and shepherd, describing in more detail the difficulties, perils and temptations he encounters in his service. But he also added new themes that were not touched in Gregory’s treatise. [4] The first book of the treatise on the Priesthood opens with a description of his friendship with Basil; how they studied the same subjects together under the same teachers, and how entirely harmonious they were in all their tastes, and inclinations. The remaining books on the Priesthood treat of the pre-eminent dignity, and sanctity of the priestly office and the peculiar difficulties and perils which beset it. They abound with wise and weighty observations instructive for all times, but they are also interesting from the light which they throw upon the condition of the Church and of society in the age when Chrysostom lived.[5]

In discussing the responsibility of the priest for the souls of his flock and his liturgical and sacramental functions, Chrysostom found in them a reason to ascribe to him an awesome dignity, a high honour, and even a character which is different from human: “When one is required to preside over the Church, and to be entrusted with the care of so many souls, the whole female sex must retire before the magnitude of the task, and the majority of men also; and we must bring forward those who to a large extent surpass all others, and soar as much above them in excellence of spirit as Saul overtopped the whole Hebrew nation in bodily stature: or rather far more. For in this case let me not take the height of shoulders as the standard of inquiry; but let the distinction between the pastor and his charge be as great as that between rational man and irrational creatures, not to say even greater, in as much as the risk is concerned with things of far greater importance.” (Book 2:2)[6]

‘For the priestly office is indeed discharged on earth, but it ranks amongst heavenly ordinances; and very naturally so: for neither man, nor angel, nor archangel, nor any other created power, but the Paraclete Himself, instituted this vocation, and persuaded men while still abiding in the flesh to represent the ministry of angels. Wherefore the consecrated priest ought to be as pure as if he were standing in the heavens themselves in the midst of those powers.” (Book 3:4)

Chrysostom sees that the role of priests in the sacraments of reconciliation, baptism and Eucharist makes our salvation dependent upon them! “For if any one will consider how great a thing it is for one, being a man, and compassed with flesh and blood, to be enabled to draw near to that blessed and pure nature, he will then clearly see what great honor the grace of the Spirit has vouchsafed to priests; since by their agency these rites are celebrated, and others nowise inferior to these both in respect of our dignity and our salvation. For they who inhabit the earth and make their abode there are entrusted with the administration of things which are in Heaven, and have received an authority that God has not given to angels or archangels. For it has not been said to them, “Whatsoever ye shall bind on earth shall be bound in Heaven, and whatsoever ye shall loose on earth shall be loosed in Heaven.”.... this binding lays hold of the soul and penetrates the heavens; and what priests do here below God ratifies above, and the Master confirms the sentence of his servants. For indeed what is it but all manner of heavenly authority which He has given them when He says, “Whose sins you remit they are remitted, and whose sins you retain they are retained?” What authority could be greater than this? “The Father has committed all judgment to the Son?” But I see it all put into the hands of these men by the Son. For they have been conducted to this dignity as if they were already translated to Heaven, and had transcended human nature, and were released from the passions to which we are liable.”(Book 3:5)

“For transparent madness it is to despise so great a dignity, without which it is not possible to obtain either our own salvation, or the good things which have been promised to us. For if no one can enter into the kingdom of Heaven except he be regenerate through water and the Spirit, and he who does not eat the flesh of the Lord and drink His blood is excluded from eternal life, and if all these things are accomplished only by means of those holy hands, I mean the hands of the priest, how will any one, without these, be able to escape the fire of hell, or to win those crowns which are reserved for the victorious?” (Book 3:5)

John Chrysostom reaches the conclusion that the authority of the priests over the Sacraments of Baptism, Reconciliation, and Anointing is a reason for them to be more feared and honored than kings and Jewish priests and to be more loved than parents: “These verily are they who are entrusted with the pangs of spiritual travail and the birth which comes through baptism: by their means we put on Christ, and are buried with the Son of God, and become members of that blessed Head. Wherefore they might not only be more justly feared by us than rulers and kings, but also be more honored than parents; since these begat us of blood and the will of the flesh, but the others are the authors of our birth from God, even that blessed regeneration which is the true freedom and the sonship according to grace. The Jewish priests had authority to release the body from leprosy, or, rather, not to release it but only to examine those who were already released, and you know how much the office of priest was contended for at that time. But our priests have received authority to deal, not with bodily leprosy, but spiritual uncleanness--not to pronounce it removed after examination, but actually and absolutely to take it away. Wherefore they who despise these priests would be far more accursed than Dathan and his company, and deserve more severe punishment. ...God has bestowed a power on priests greater than that of our natural parents... For our natural parents generate us unto this life only, but the others unto that which is to come. And the former would not be able to avert death from their offspring, or to repel the assaults of disease; but these others have often saved a sick soul, or one which was on the point of perishing, For not only at the time of regeneration, but afterwards also, they have authority to forgive sins. “Is any sick among you?” it is said, “let him call for the elders of the Church and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer of faith shall save the sick, and the Lord will raise him up: and if he have committed sins they shall be forgiven him.” Again: our natural parents, should their children come into conflict with any men of high rank and great power in the world, are unable to profit them: but priests have reconciled, not rulers and kings, but God Himself when His wrath has often been provoked against them.”(Book 3: 6)[7]

Chysostom’s Theology of Priesthood

John Chrysostom’s Six books on the Priesthood shows the influence of Gregory’s ‘’ Fight to Pontus’’, and, therefore, we see developing the great tradition in pastoral theology that nearly two hundred years later would extend into the West through Gregory the Great.

Chrysostom’s personal views of the role of the pastor and preacher can be best understood by examining his own articulation of them in his treatise, On the Priesthood. He wrote this work between 390 and 391 to defend himself from accusations that in his youth he had belittled the office of the priest (presbyter) by hiding from those who would ordain him. Chrysostom replies that he escaped ordination precisely because he had such high regard for the office and did not believe he was worthy of it.[8]

The mystical nature of the priestly office, in Chrysostom’s mind, also involved a mystical bond between the pastor and his congregation, reflecting the “mystery” of Christ’s union with the Church as the Husband with His bride (Eph 5.32).

In his work on the Priesthood, St John does occasionally speak in very high terms of the priest as the liturgical officiant, but his main concern is with the priestly ministry more generally, following the example of Christ, who came to serve rather than be served. As he puts it, while the priesthood is ranked among the heavenly ordinances, it is nevertheless is enacted on earth. And the tasks of the priest are numerous: he was the teacher and moral guide of the community; he was the liturgical leader, deciding which catechumens should be admitted to baptism, and he presided at the Eucharist; he was the spiritual guide for those who wanted to lead more ascetic lives; he received guests from other churches; he maintained an elaborate system of charity for the care of strangers, the support of widows, orphans and the poor, he cared for the women who were ranked in the order of “virgins,” ordained presbyters and deacons.[9]


The contribution provides the teaching of St. John Chrysostom on the Priesthood of Christ. John touched the descendants and ascendants of view of the priestly office to run. The soteriological aspect of the priestly ministry of St. John Chrysostom reflects. Through the Incarnation of the Son of God, a New Covenant between the Creator and the creature is bound. In it, the new priesthood is established, which is essential to the person bound by the God-man who brought the heavens and the divine world of grace close to the earth. Consubstantial with the Father, the eternal High Priest, brought about by his sacrifice, the redemption of the world. His priestly ministry continues through his mystical body, the church and spread to the whole created world. His unsurpassable, unique victim initiated a very nature of communication between God and man, which are connected to heaven and earth.

None of the early church Fathers’ works is more popular than On the Priesthood. John Chrysostoms’s unique gift for linking concrete observation and theological vision is nowhere more evident than in On the Pristhood. Its presence helps to account for the work’s power to inspire and challenge Christians in all ages.

Foot Notes

[1] LEWY YOHANAN, ‘John Chrysostom’ Encyclopedia Judaica (CD-ROM Edition Version 1.0), Ed. Cecil Roth, Keter Publishing House, 1997.
[2] JASON BARKER, ‘Pascal Homily', Be Transformed. Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America, dept. of Youth Ministry. 2005.
[3] JOHANN PETER KIRSCH, ’St. Olympias’. Catholic Encyclopedia. Robert Appleton Company. Retrieved 2009
[4] RODOLPH YANNEY, Priesthood between St. Gregory the Theologian and St. John Chrysostom, CCR, New Jersey, 1999. p.137-139.
[5] w. r. w. stephens John Chrysostom: Treatise on the Priesthood, Books 1-6. Adapted from the translation of the
NPNF, first series, volume 9, 2005. p 2.
[6] Ibid. 33-83.
[7] RODOLPH YANNEY, Priesthood between St. Gregory the Theologian and St. John Chrysostom, CCR, New Jersey, 1999. p.139.
[8] J. N. D. KELLY, Golden Mouth: The Story of John Chrysostom-Ascetic, Preacher, Bishop, London, 1995. p. 25.
[9] JOHN BEHR, A lecture delivered at the parish of St John Chrysostom Orthodox Church, House Springs, Missouri, 2007.


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