Chrysostom means “golden mouthed”, and St John Chrysostom was so-called because of his great eloquence as a preacher and speaker. He was born around the year 347 in Antioch in Syria, where his father was a high-ranking military officer who died soon after he was born. He was raised by his mother Anthusa and baptized a Christian in 370 (in those days adult baptism was more common) and set on a path to ordination.
He went on to study theology but was not satisfied. He became a hermit around 375 and remained so until poor health forced a return to Antioch. He was then ordained a deacon in 381 and was ordained a priest in 386.
He became famous not only because of his eloquence, but also because of his learning. The most valuable of his works are his Homilies on various books of the Bible. He also placed great stress on care of the poor. He spoke out against abuse of wealth and greed for personal property.
In 398 he was called to be the bishop of Constantinople. He refused any privileges that came with the position and spurned lavish entertainments. This meant he was popular with the common people, but unpopular with the wealthy and the clergy. His reforms of the clergy were also unpopular. He told visiting preachers to return to the churches they were meant to be serving. His description of the role of bishops was taken up by Vatican II: Bishops “should set forth the ways by which are to be solved very grave questions concerning the ownership, increase and just distribution of material goods, peace and war, and brotherly relations among all people”.
St John was fearless when denouncing offences in high places. An alliance was soon formed against him which resulted in his deposition and banishment. He was called back almost immediately, because the people of the city were so angry about his treatment, but the truce was short lived. Once again he was banished, first to Caucasus in Georgia, and then to Pityus on the eastern edge of the Black Sea. Sadly, he never reached this destination, as he died in 407 during the journey. His final words were “Glory be to God for all things!”
The Orthodox Church honours John as a saint and counts him among the Three Holy Hierarchs together with Basil the Great and Gregory the Theologian. He is recognized by the Roman Catholic Church as a saint and Doctor of the Church, and by the Church of England. His relics were stolen from Constantinople by Crusaders in 1204 and brought to Rome, but were returned in 2004 by Pope John Paul II.