St. John Chrysostom gave the Church one of its earliest, most thorough articulations of the Christian life. St. Elizabeth Ann Seton gave America one of its earliest, most thorough witnesses of that life in action.
St. John Chrysostom is known for both the quantity and quality of his work. One of the most prolific early Christian writers, his name means “golden mouthed” because his homilies were so beautiful. A Doctor of the Church and the patron saint of preachers in the Catholic Church, he is one of the Three Holy Hierarchs in Eastern Orthodoxy where the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom is named for his contribution.
His golden words were refined in fire.
St. John had a tumultuous life. His father died shortly after his birth in 349 A.D., leaving his 20-year-old mother to raise him alone. She entered consecrated widowhood, devoting herself to prayer and service. In this, she followed the example of John’s aunt, the holy woman Sabiniana. Both women had a profound effect on St. John.
As a young adult, he committed himself to a quasi-monastic life in his own home where he helped his mother while studying Scripture and serving the bishop of Antioch. He eventually moved into a cave where he fasted and memorized entire books of Scripture. He refused to lie down or protect himself from the elements and his extreme asceticism wore his health down, forcing him to return to the city after only two years.
Back in Antioch, John was ordained a deacon and then a priest. His homilies were powerful, interpreting the words of Scripture as straightforward instruction, rather than focusing on their nonliteral meanings as so many preachers of the time did.
He was made Archbishop of Constantinople in 397. He continued to speak truth to power, condemning slavery, contraception, Church corruption, and the luxurious excesses of the imperial court. Because of this, he was eventually exiled, dying in 407.
Though they are separated by centuries, St. John Chrysostom’s and St. Elizabeth Ann Seton’s lives are like variations on a single theme. St. Elizabeth Ann was a widow; St. John was raised by a widow. St. Elizabeth Ann gave herself to city life in 1800s New York when she was young, and rural religious life in Maryland later on. St. John gave his life to monasticism in the wilderness early, but then returned to the city to serve the Church.
St. John Chrysostom was a pioneer of the faith in the Early Church, and Mother Seton a pioneer of the faith in early America.
St. John set the pattern for Christianity that generations of saints followed.
St. John’s sermons are an early and insistent voice pointing to the real presence of Jesus Christ in the Eucharist. “You say, ‘I should like to see his face, his garments, his shoes,’” he told his congregation. “You do see him, you touch him, you eat him. He gives himself to you … to be your food and nourishment.”
He spoke harshly about those who receive communion in a state of sin, saying, “someone who profanes the supper is like a person who pours the blood out, making the death appear to be a slaughter and not a sacrifice. It is like those who pierced Jesus on the cross. They did not do it in order to drink his blood but in order to shed it.”
But he also reacted strongly against those who appreciated the Eucharist but ignored the needs of the poor. He insisted: “He who said: ‘This is my body’ is the same who said: ‘You saw me hungry and you gave me no food,’ and ‘Whatever you did to the least of my brothers you did also to me.’”
St. Elizabeth Ann discovered the Eucharist when she was in Italy with her dying husband. She writes of how she was attending a Mass when a young Englishman said, at the moment the host was elevated, “This is what they call their Real Presence!”
“My very heart trembled with pain and sorrow for his unfeeling interruption of their sacred adoration,” she wrote. “Involuntarily I bent from him to the pavement, and thought secretly on the words of St. Paul with starting tears, ‘They discern not the Lord’s Body;’ and the next thought was, how should they eat and drink their own damnation for not discerning It, if indeed It is not there?”
Later the Eucharist would become her solace and strength. Back in New York but still a Protestant, she sat in her Episcopalian church where she could see the Catholic Church where the Eucharist was present; as a religious superior, she arranged her desk such that she could see the chapel’s sanctuary; when she lay dying, she instructed her Sisters to position her bed so she could see the tabernacle.
St. John gave us a visceral understanding of the high calling to marriage that Elizabeth lived.
Chrysostom understood exactly what St. Paul meant when he said, “husbands love your wives as Christ loves the Church.” It means loving a spouse who might often oppose you, even to the death.
“Even if you must undergo countless struggles on her behalf and have all kinds of things to endure and suffer, you must not refuse. Even if you suffer all this, you have still done not as much as Christ has for the Church,” he said. “Even if you see her looking down on you, nagging and despising you, you will be able to win her over with your great love and affection for her.”
He said, “Even if it becomes necessary for you to give your life for her, yes, and even to endure and undergo suffering of any kind, do not refuse.”
On the other hand, he spoke about the dignity and beauty of sexual love. He wrote:
“Scripture does not say, ‘They shall be one flesh.’ But they shall be joined together ‘into one flesh,’ namely the child. But suppose there is no child; do they then remain two and not one? No: their intercourse effects the joining of their bodies, and they are made one, just as when perfume is mixed with ointment.”
Then added, “Why are you blushing? Leave that to the heretics and pagans, with their impure and immodest customs. For this reason, I want marriage to be thoroughly purified, to bring it back again to its proper nobility. You should not be ashamed of these things. If you are ashamed, then you condemn God who made marriage.”
A litany the Seton Shrine offers to visitors names the various roles that Elizabeth lived out throughout her life, including marriage: “Elizabeth, loving daughter … Elizabeth, troubled teenager … Elizabeth, faithful wife … Elizabeth, caring mother … Elizabeth, grieving widow … Elizabeth sorrowing mother … Elizabeth, a woman for all women.”
But the words of St. John that always convict me are those about charity.
The Catechism quotes Chrysostom saying, “Not to share one’s wealth with the poor is to steal from them and to take away their livelihood.” He even said, “Every family should have a room where Christ is welcome in the person of the hungry and thirsty stranger.”
A similar vision of serving the poor was “the central nucleus of the earthly history and worldwide fame of the work of Mother Seton,” said St. Paul VI at her canonization. “The apostolate of helping the poor and the running of parochial schools in America had this humble, poor, courageous and glorious beginning.”
Like a father, St. John Chrysostom instructed us how to live the Christian life; like the loving mother that she was, St. Elizabeth Ann Seton embodied that life through service.
TOM HOOPES, author most recently of The Rosary of Saint John Paul II, is writer in residence at Benedictine College in Kansas, where he teaches. A former reporter in the Washington, D.C., area, he served as press secretary for the U.S. House Ways & Means Committee Chairman and spent 10 years as editor of the National Catholic Register newspaper and Faith & Family magazine. His work frequently appears in the Register, Aleteia, and Catholic Digest. He lives in Atchison, Kansas, with his wife, April, and has nine children.
This reflection was previously published. To view all Seton Reflections, click here.
Image: Public Domain