Doctors of the Church: St. John Chrysostom

Mosaic of St. John Chrysostom from the Hagia Sophia in Constantinople

Our next saint is widely considered to be the greatest of the Eastern Doctors, and almost assuredly, the greatest preacher to ever take the pulpit in a Christian Church. St. John of Antioch is otherwise known by his nickname, “Chrysostom,” meaning “golden-mouthed.”

St. John Chrysostom was born around 349 in Antioch. His father died while he was still very young, so his mother Anthusa raised him in the faith, instilling in him a love for God and the Church. He studied under Libanius, one of the most famous pagan orators at the time, and after his baptism, under Diodore of Tarsus (where St. Paul was from!), who had been a great ally of St. Basil against Arianism.

After his studies, St. John felt called to withdraw from society, and lived as a hermit in the mountains near Antioch. He spent six years living in a cave, fasting and studying the Scriptures fervently. Unfortunately, this lifestyle didn’t agree with him, and after becoming very ill, he was forced to return to Antioch.

But that time as a hermit had changed him and given him a desire to serve the Church. He was ordained a priest in 386, and jumped right into becoming a pastor of souls. It was during this time that he wrote his greatest works. The most famous of these in his own day was his work On the Priesthood, a beautiful book on the greatness of the priesthood and what to look for in a priest. Today, he is best known for his sermons, and we have well over 700 of them authenticated and preserved. On a personal level, St. John Chrysostom is one of my favorite saints to read because not only is he intellectually brilliant, but he is also easy to understand. He is excellent at beautifully connecting his sermons to the reader/listener, so it’s no wonder he received the nickname “golden-mouthed!”

One story of St. John as a pastor stands out. In 387, the citizens of Antioch rioted over raised taxes, and in the process, destroyed several statues of the Emperor Theodosius and his family. Everyone knew the reprisal by the emperor would be brutal. St. John preached 22 Homilies on the Statues to the people, encouraging repentance and penance. He and his brother priests interceded with the emperor and brought about a peaceful reconciliation, while simultaneously converting many others to the faith.

St. John became so popular that he was actually kidnapped from Antioch and forced to become the bishop of Constantinople. Despite his undesired election, John applied himself immediately as a holy pastor, preaching frequently on marriage and the family, and upholding the dignity of all in society, especially the poor and women.

St. John ran into trouble with the Empress Eudoxia, who cared little for the faith and was insulted by his exhortations to reform. He was exiled initially by the Emperor, but was recalled after only three days, as the people rioted until he returned! After a spat with the empress, who had erected a silver statue of herself in the square outside the Hagia Sophia, he was exiled again, and ultimately died at the rough treatment of his captors.

He is still very influential today, as Pope St. John XXIII named him the patron of the Second Vatican Council, and he is cited in 18 sections of the Catechism. Let us thank God for this great preacher and shepherd of souls!


Doctors of the Church: St. Ambrose of Milan

St. Ambrose by Claude Vignon

Our next Doctor is Aurelius Ambrosius, better known as St. Ambrose of Milan. He was born into a Roman Christian family around 340, and like St. Basil, shared the household with a few other saints, namely his brother and sister. Ambrose’s father was in politics, perhaps even as high as the praetorian prefect of Gaul, a very lofty and influential position. At an early age, Ambrose followed the lead of his father, entering into politics, and became the consular prefect (essentially, a governor) of Aemilia-Liguria, a region in Italy that had its headquarters in the city of Milan.

Milan was the second greatest city in the Western Roman Empire, and as such it came into the crosshairs of the Arian controversy. All this came to a head at the death of the Arian-sympathetic bishop of Milan, Auxentius. In the early Church, bishops were elected, not appointed by the pope as they are today. So as governor, Ambrose tried to intercede with the opposing factions in the election, but each side saw him as a compromise candidate to the episcopacy, and he was quickly elected as the new bishop of Milan. This might not sound too strange until we consider that he was still a catechumen and hadn’t even been baptized yet!

The newly baptized and newly ordained bishop quickly committed himself to prayer and upholding orthodoxy. He brought several spiritual practices of the Eastern Church to the West, including lectio divina, a process of praying with the Word of God in Scripture. Ambrose wrote over 19 commentaries and exegetical works on Scripture, as well as a number of other works including hymns, letters, catecheses, writings on systematic theology, and even a few extended funeral homilies.

His upbringing and past life in politics played a role in his ministry as well. Ambrose worked to guide the Emperor Gratian to avoid Arianism and support justice for his people. He also worked for the Church’s independence from government against the Empress Justina, who tried to exert too much control over the custody of Church property.

St. Ambrose also came to know and work with the Emperor Theodosius, and there is a very interesting story about their relationship. After a mob in Thessalonica (in Greece) killed a military commander stationed there, Theodosius reacted by mercilessly ordering the massacre of the crowds responsible. Ambrose rebuked him, letting him know the severity of his actions. Because of the public nature of this sin, and to avoid scandal to the rest of the Church, Ambrose refused to allow Theodosius (again, the emperor) to receive Holy Communion. Eventually, the Emperor confessed his sins, and was finally reconciled with the Church and with Ambrose. The Emperor’s unrivaled civil authority didn’t seem to bother Ambrose one bit!

St. Ambrose is perhaps best known for guiding a young North African rhetorician to the faith – a guy named Augustine, who we’ll hear about in a few weeks. But in his own right, St. Ambrose was a great writer, bishop, and shepherd of his flock!

Doctors of the Church: St. Gregory of Nazianzus

Gregory the Theologian, by Aidan Hart

The next Doctor of the Church on our list is another Cappadocian Father, St. Gregory of Nazianzus, and yes, his name is as difficult to say as it is to spell! Not only did he grow up close to St. Basil, but they were actually very good friends. The two of them first met at Caesarea, where they studied philosophy and rhetoric together, but as St. Gregory travelled the world to continue his studies, he went to Athens, where they met up again! Basil and Gregory did more than just hang out and talk shop; theirs was a truly holy friendship. St. Gregory once wrote about his friend Basil, “This was our competition: not who was first, but who allowed the other to be first.”

St. Gregory was a man who liked solitude and quiet, where he could think, write, and pray. Among his works are De Sacerdotio (on the priesthood), 249 theological letters, and over 17,000 verses of poetry! Later in life, he would write De Vita Sua, the story of his own life and spiritual journey.

As much as Gregory loved silence, he knew it wouldn’t last forever. He was reluctant to study for the priesthood because he knew it would likely lead to his becoming bishop, but eventually he was ordained a priest by his father (you don’t hear that every day!), before his friend Basil consecrated him the bishop of Sasima (in Turkey) in 371.

The most famous contribution of his life came at the Council of Constantinople in 379. St. Gregory was named Bishop of Constantinople and led the Nicaean delegation, the minority group of bishops who were faithful to the Church’s teaching from the Council of Nicaea. The Council of Constantinople had the daunting task of dealing with both Neo-Arianism (which said that Christ was human, but not totally divine) and Apollonarianism (which said that Christ was divine, but not totally human). Yikes!

But truly, this challenge was where St. Gregory shown the brightest. He gave five theological orations (similar to an extended homily), which emphasized that Jesus was both fully human, and fully divine, a concept that would become known as the hypostatic union at later Councils. Whereas his opponents were arguing that Jesus took on some of the qualities of being a human, but not all of them, Gregory asserted that Jesus had to take on all parts of our human nature in order to heal us, restore us, and save us. In one oration, he proclaimed, “What has not been assumed [by Jesus] has not been healed.”

At the conclusion of the Council, St. Gregory resigned his post and returned to Nazianzus, where he lived out the rest of his life in solitude and peace. St. Gregory died in 390, and truly gives us an example of faithfulness and service!

Doctors of the Church: St. Basil the Great

st-basil-the-greatemailNext up on our list is one of the great Cappadocian Fathers, St. Basil the Great (not pronounced like the herb, by the way). He was born in Pontus (northern Turkey) around the year 330. Some people love to call their parents or their siblings saints, but in Basil’s case, that wasn’t an exaggeration! His grandfather was a martyr for the faith, both of his parents were saints (St. Basil the Elder and St. Emmelia), and four other siblings were saints, including St. Gregory of Nyssa and St. Macrina.

St. Basil was blessed by the generosity of his parents to give him the best teachers money could buy in Athens and Constantinople, but he didn’t use his education very well in his early life. He spent much of his youth in a life of dissipation, and as St. Basil himself writes, “I wept many tears over my miserable life” before turning to the Gospel. He found conversion of heart through the work of his sister, St. Macrina, and eventually studied to become a priest before being named bishop of Caesarea (in Turkey) in 370.

Before being named a bishop, St. Basil focused much of his life on the ideals of monasticism. At the time, monastic orders tended to be much more closed off (cloistered), in order to focus on their prayer and intercession for the Church. But Basil’s monks were much different in that they served the local Church. They balanced solitude, prayer, and meditation with service to the community, as they ran hospitals, schools, and shelters for the poor. St. Basil wrote extensively on the meaning behind monastic life, and painted a beautiful picture of what it truly means to be both a monk and a Christian.

St. Basil was also very devoted to the liturgy, and gave us a Eucharistic prayer (anaphora in Greek) that is used even today in many Eastern Rite Catholic Churches. One of his major works, On Baptism (not the most original title), articulated the dignity of this great sacrament, as well as its connection to the Eucharist. Basil asserted that we need the Eucharist, which nourishes us and revitalizes what was given at Baptism.

The most important contribution to theology by this Doctor of the Church was his work On the Holy Spirit, written against the Pneumatomachians. These guys had taken a page out of the Arians’ book (except in their name, which is obviously much more difficult to write and say). In the same way that the Arians taught that the Son was a creation, and therefore not divine, the Pneumatomachians taught that the Holy Spirit wasn’t God either! They believed that when Jesus says he will “send the Spirit,” he implies that the Spirit is somehow subservient and lesser than the Father and Son. However, St. Basil argued that the Holy Spirit is totally inseparable and utterly incapable of being divided from the Father and the Son. In everything that they do, the Holy Spirit is there – one in essence, one in power, one in action.

Tune in next week for another Cappadocian Father and Doctor of the Church!

Doctors of the Church: St. Cyril of Jerusalem

cyril-of-jerusalem-1For our next Doctor of the Church, we head back east. St. Cyril of Jerusalem was born around 315 near (you guessed it) Jerusalem. Not much is known about the personal details of his life, but like many of the Doctors, he was very well-read, familiar with the Greek philosophers, early Church Fathers, and Scriptures.

St. Cyril succeeded another saint, St. Maximus, as bishop of Jerusalem around the year 348. It’s fair to say there was an air of uncertainty and distrust surrounding Cyril. The Church in Jerusalem was heavily divided between the Arian Christians and the Nicene Christians (those who professed the Church’s teaching from the Council of Nicaea), and nobody knew what side Cyril was on. He was ordained by Acacius, an Arian sympathizer, who probably thought he was getting Cyril as a new ally. Others thought he had sold out to the Arians in order to obtain his post. Throughout his episcopacy, people doubted his orthodoxy and fidelity.

Probably the greatest proof of this comes from his being exiled three times – once by the priests of Jerusalem, once by Acacius, and once by the Emperor Valens. I’m starting to wonder if exile is a requirement to become a Doctor of the Church! He was finally able to return to Jerusalem in 378, and he participated in the 2nd Council of Constantinople (382), where he was finally heralded as a hero of orthodoxy after helping to confirm the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed, which we now pray every Sunday at Mass.

While certainly important in the battle against Arianism, Cyril is perhaps best known for his desire to teach the faith, especially to those becoming new Christians. Of his many teachings, we have 24 well-preserved catechetical homilies, letters, and lectures. The first few are a “protocatechesis” to welcome the “candidates for illumination,” those catechumens preparing for baptism. He continues with an ongoing catechesis explaining the faith of the Church and why we should watch out for those pesky Arians.

The final and greatest part of his catechetical lectures were his “mystagogical catecheses,” a beautiful explanation of the sacraments to the recently baptized, explaining the mysteries they had just experienced. Included in these lectures are a commentary on the rites of baptism (which gives us a neat view into what the liturgy of the 4th century looked like!), a teaching on the oil of Sacred Chrism, an explanation of the Our Father, and a beautiful catechesis on the Eucharist. The last of these is very clear and articulate, showing us that the Church’s teaching on the Body and Blood of the Lord was held even in the earliest days of the Church!

As we conclude, I invite you to reflect on these words of St. Cyril on baptism, that first and foundational sacrament that gives birth to our Christian lives: “At the self-same moment [your baptism], you were both dying and being born; and that water of salvation was at once your grave and your mother…For you…the time to die goes hand in hand with the time to be born.” Let us ask God for the grace to continue to live out our baptism by dying to ourselves and being reborn in the Father’s love!

Doctors of the Church: St. Hilary of Poitiers

Mosaic of St. Hilary from the Cathedral of Monreale, completed in 1185

So far, we’ve been focusing mainly on the Doctors of the Eastern Church, that part of the Roman Empire along the Mediterranean coast from Greece down to Egypt. Many, if not most, of the early Doctors come from this area, but today’s Doctor is the first (chronologically) to come from the Western Church.

St. Hilary (his Latin name is Hilarius, hahaha!) was born in Poitiers in what is today west-central France around 310. He belonged to a very influential pagan family, which provided him with a great education, particularly in the area of Greek philosophy. Hilary studied many of the works of Plato and his successors, and it was in reading Plato that he was drawn to Christianity. He was baptized around 345 at the age of 35, and only eight years later, was ordained and elected bishop of Poitiers.

As you remember, Arianism was rampant around this time, particularly in the Western Church, and even good bishops were becoming convinced of this Arian theology, creating a lot of division within the Church. St. Hilary called a synod of the bishops of Gaul (modern-day France) in order to discuss things and bring about some unity. Ironically, despite his calling the synod, it ended with some of the Arian bishops colluding with the emperor to exile Hilary!

He was banished to Phrygia (in modern-day Turkey), where he suffered greatly. But despite his distance from his home and his diocese, Hilary continued to love his people and serve them from afar. He spent much of his time writing commentaries on the Gospels and Psalms, and in fact, his commentary on the Gospel of Matthew is the oldest-known commentary on that Gospel in Latin.

It was also during this time that he wrote his greatest work, entitled De Trinitate (On the Trinity), which revolved around our baptismal profession of faith in the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Hilary wrote a collection of twelve books, in which he first outlined his own journey of faith, especially through philosophy and Scripture, before providing a defense of the Church’s teaching on the Trinity, addressing many of the Arian arguments based in Scripture. He pointed out that while most of the time we think of the Son of God being connected mainly to the New Testament, the mystery of Christ is very clearly present in the Old Testament as well. Hilary outlined the way in which the Scriptures speak to different aspects of Christ. For example, some passages emphasize Jesus as God, while others focus on his humanity. And yet, while there are many emphases at different points, all Scripture gives testimony that Jesus is truly divine.

Hilary returned to Poitiers four years later, and worked tirelessly for the fidelity and unity of his diocese and the bishops of Gaul. After many years of faithful ministry, St. Hilary went to his reward around the year 367. Even as we reflect on Scripture today, let us remember the contributions of St. Hilary of Poitiers, and the fidelity and courage that made him a great teacher of the faith!

Doctors of the Church: St. Ephrem the Syrian

Mor_Ephrem_iconOur next saint and Doctor of the Church is one of my personal favorites, St. Ephrem the Syrian. He was born around 306 in Nisibis, which would have been on the southern border of present-day Turkey. Not much is known about his family or young life. Some traditions hold that his parents were both Christians and part of the growing Christian community in Syria, while others say that his father was a pagan priest.

We do know that St. Ephrem served as a deacon in the Church in Edessa. In one of his writings, Ephrem stated that if his bishop was the “shepherd,” then he was the “herdsman” of the flock. He showed a great desire to serve the Church in cooperation with the bishop, even as our deacons at Ascension do today. There is some question whether he at any time lived as a monk, but one thing that is certain is that he lived the monastic virtues of chastity and poverty.

St. Ephrem is a different sort of Doctor of the Church. As we remember that “doctor” primarily means “teacher,” it is very easy to infer that the Doctors were predominantly focused on writing tracts and treatises on doctrine. Ephrem was certainly very knowledgeable and orthodox in his theology, but his primary means of propagating it was through beauty. Certainly, some of his works are commentaries and treatises, as we would expect, but most of his works consist of poetry and hymns. In fact, St. Ephrem even used to write his homilies in verse, and sing them to his congregation (and you thought my homilies could be long!). Thus, Ephrem is fittingly nicknamed the “Harp of the Spirit.”

St. Ephrem’s poetry and hymns are very strong in Incarnational and Marian theology. Proponents of Arianism (which, you might recall, was very influential at the time) would deny Jesus’ divinity, and thus would deny Mary’s dignity as the Mother of God. One collection of Ephrem’s works, therefore, was called the Hymns against the Heresies, in which he would draw from hymns and tunes used by the various heretical sects and change the words to preach orthodoxy! It’s along the same lines as “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee” being drawn from the tune for “God Save the Queen,” but about theology!

Many of his writings against these heresies were very strong in praise of Mary, because praise of Mary is first and foremost praise of Christ. In one of his hymns, St. Ephrem comes very close to articulating the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, which doesn’t seem like a big deal until you consider that it was 1500 years before the doctrine was solemnly declared by Pope Pius IX in 1854!

St. Ephrem certainly helps us grow in our appreciation for the beauty of our faith and the beauty of truth. As we draw to a close, I invite you to reflect on one of his hymns on the Nativity of Jesus:

“The belly of your Mother changed the order of things, O you who order all! Rich he went in, he came out poor: the High One went into her [Mary], he came out lowly. Brightness went into her and clothed himself, and came forth a despised form. He that gives food to all went in, and knew hunger. He who gives drink to all went in, and knew thirst. Naked and bare came forth from her the Clother of all things [in beauty].”