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Lessons from a great Catholic bishop, preacher, and saint

Although he was known as Patriarch John of Constantinople during his lifetime, everyone called him “Saint John the Golden-mouthed” (“John Chrysostom” in Greek) after his death because of his holiness and his priceless way with words.

Icon of the Three Holy Hierarchs: Basil the Great (left), John Chrysostom (center) and Gregory the Theologian (right)—from Lipie, Historic Museum in Sanok, Poland. (Przykuta/Wikipedia)

Once upon a time, bishops were often chosen by popular acclamation. That is, when the office of bishop was empty and the people had gathered to choose a new one, crowds would shout out the name of their preferred candidate. The acclaim of the people won the day.

The practice of popular acclamation has had its ups and downs over the millennia, including riots and violence, which is why popularity contests are generally not recommended in the current process of naming a bishop or pope. But the practice of popular acclamation did give the Church at least one great bishop and saint: St. John Chrysostom (c. 347-407). As a Father of the Church, a Doctor of the Church, and (according to some) the greatest preacher in the history of the Church,1 he is certainly worth thinking about on his feast day, September 13th. It’s also worth examining the choices he made in his life to see if he can help us think differently about some of those people whom we allow to shape our thoughts each day through modern media.

Although he was known as Patriarch John of Constantinople during his lifetime, everyone called him “Saint John the Golden-mouthed” (“John Chrysostom” in Greek) after his death because of his holiness and his priceless way with words.

John’s widowed mother, who was a wealthy and pious woman, deserves some credit; she ensured that her young son was educated by the best teachers available in Antioch (now Antakya, Turkey). John applied himself to his studies of philosophy, the law, and other subjects, and he impressed even his pagan teachers with his eloquence.

However, John decided as a young man that God was not calling him to a secular career, and he left the city to live as a monk in the nearby desert. After four years, he returned to Antioch because he had developed serious health problems, but the experience had changed the focus of his life. The bishop of Antioch recognized John’s talents and ordained him as a deacon. John soon became famous all over the city for his willingness to preach about the tough issues of the day.

When the patriarch of Constantinople died, John was the obvious choice. After all, Constantinople was the seat of the Roman emperor at the time, and such an important city deserved a great preacher as bishop. John was so beloved by the people of Antioch that the emperor thought there might be a riot if they knew what was happening. John was therefore secretly spirited out of Antioch and ordained before the news was made public.

From Constantinople, John immediately began working to improve the discipline of his clergy and performing other acts appropriate to a bishop of a capital city. And he kept preaching.

One of the themes of John’s homilies—and he left behind many hundreds of written homilies—was the Christian understanding of poverty and riches. Using the words and examples of our Lord, John repeatedly confronted the rich and powerful with their Christian duty to remember the poor. He did this even when “the rich and powerful” were sitting right in front of him in church—such as the emperor and empress of the Roman Empire.

John pointed out the hypocrisy of holding extravagant dinners for your friends but refusing to feed those who were starving. He criticized those who wore elaborate (and often immodest) clothing but who refused to clothe the naked. He was not afraid to point out that such people’s love of earthly riches might well cause them to pay the ultimate price: the loss of Heaven. But what annoyed John’s wealthy opponents the most was the fact that he practiced what he preached. Everyone in Constantinople knew that Patriarch John personally lived an ascetic life and was generous with the poor and needy.

If the most powerful man in the world was sitting in your audience on Sunday morning, wouldn’t you be tempted to water down your explanations of the faith and Christian morality to be more “pastorally sensitive” to his personal weaknesses? Would you be afraid you might end up in prison if you didn’t? Would you be afraid that you’d lose your friends, your financial supporters, or your entire audience if you confronted them with their selfish, uncharitable behavior?

John’s forthrightness about how to live the Gospel caused the same reaction that our Lord experienced: powerful people wanted him dead. When John’s enemies trumped up charges against him the first time, his banishment from the city didn’t last long. The city was shaken by an earthquake soon afterward, and the superstitious empress, clearly thinking this was the judgment of God, begged the emperor to let him return. But when John preached against a licentious event that took place in front of his church—an event involving the empress—he was sent into exile a second time.

John was not a young man, but he was forced to undertake long marches, in all kinds of weather, first to a place of exile in Armenia. Then he was made to move again to an even more distant location. The second journey killed him. His refusal to adulterate the Gospel had cost him his life.

How did John of Constantinople become Saint John Chrysostom—a holy man, a martyr, and a great preacher? By God’s grace, first and foremost, but also by the way he responded to the challenges he faced in life.

John didn’t just get by on whatever natural gifts of speaking that God had given him; he cultivated and trained those gifts. He chose to live an upright, moral life as any faithful Christian should do, but he went far beyond that. He recognized that if he wanted his listeners to respect his words, his actions need to be consistent with his faith.

John was unafraid to speak strong words about the sinful and weak actions of those around him, but he didn’t insult or attack other people for the sake of greater popularity or to feel superior to them. His goal was simple and completely disinterested: he wanted to save souls. He didn’t care what other people thought of him, but he cared a great deal about what other people thought about God.

In every age and every place, God raises up voices worthy of being listened to. Those who sound most like our Lord are the ones whose words are most worth remembering. That’s why we remember Saint John Chrysostom.


1 Herbert J. Thurston, S.J., and Donald Attwater, ed., Butler’s Lives of the Saints, Complete Edition (Notre Dame, Indiana: Christian Classics, 1956), vol. 1, 180.

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About Dawn Beutner 65 Articles
Dawn Beutner is the author of The Leaven of the Saints: Bringing Christ into a Fallen World (Ignatius Press, 2023), and Saints: Becoming an Image of Christ Every Day of the Year also from Ignatius Press. She blogs at


  1. Excellent summary of his life. His favorite homily for me was the Sunday he complained that few were at Church because of the Chariot games going on at the same time. He condemned those who put sports before God. It is in his collection of homilies from CUA Press, The incomprehensibility of God

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