Introduction to the treatise on the priesthood
The events recorded in this celebrated treatise on the Priesthood must have occurred when St. John Chrysostom was about twenty-eight years of age. His father had died when he was a young child; his mother was a devout Christian, but had not destined him for the clerical vocation. The great ability which he showed in early youth seemed to mark him out for distinction in one of the learned professions, and at the age of eighteen he began to attend the school of Libanius, the most celebrated sophist of the day, who had won a great reputation as a professor of philosophy and rhetoric, and as an eloquent opponent of Christianity, not only in his native city, Antioch, but also in Athens, Nicomedia, and Constantinople. The artificial character however of his writings indicates the decadence of literary power; he could skillfully imitate the style of ancient writers but he could not inform himself with their spirit; "his productions" says Gibbon [ch. xxiv], "are for the most part the vain and idle composition of an orator who cultivated the science of words."
In the school of Libanius Chrysostom no doubt studied the best classical Greek authors, and although he retained little admiration for them in later life and probably read them but rarely, his tenacious memory enabled him to the last to adorn his homilies with quotations from Homer, Plato and the Tragedians. In the school of Libanius also he began to practice his nascent power of eloquence, and a speech which he made in honor of the Emperors is highly commended in an extant letter of his master. Thus the Pagan sophist helped to forge the weapons which were destined to be turned against his own cause. When he was on his death-bed being asked by his friends who was most worthy to succeed him, "it would have been John," he replied, "if the Christians had not stolen him from us."
In due time Chrysostom began to practise as a lawyer; and as the profession of the law was reckoned one of the surest avenues to political distinction for a man of talent, and the speeches of Chrysostom excited great admiration, a brilliant and prosperous career seemed to lie before him. But the soul of the young advocate had drunk draughts from a purer well-spring than the school of Libanius could supply, and like many other Christians in that age when society, even Christian society, was deeply tainted by Pagan sentiments and habits of life, especially in a profligate city like Antioch, he recoiled from the contrast between the morality of the world in which he lived, and the standard of holiness which was presented in the Gospel. The chicanery and rapacity also prevalent in the profession which he had adopted became especially repugnant to his conscience. And these feelings were strengthened by the influence of his intimate friend Basil who had been a fellow pupil with him at the school of Libanius.
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 [ci and ii.] Nevertheless when Basil decided to follow what Chrysostom calls the "true philosophy," by which he means a life of religious seclusion and study, Chrysostom could not immediately make up his mind to follow his example. The balance he says was no longer even between them; the scale of Basil mounted heavenward, while his own was depressed by the weight of earthly interests, and youthful ambitions. For a time he continued to practise in the law courts and to frequent the theatre, and other places of amusement. But gradually the study of Scripture, and saintly Bishop of Antioch so wrought upon his mind that he resolved to abandon his secular calling. And in the first place after the usual course of probation he was baptized. It may seem surprising that he had not been baptized in childhood; but a corrupt practice of delaying baptism (which Chrysostom himself often reprobates in his Homilies) was prevalent at that time. It was due in some persons to a notion that sin before Baptism was comparatively venial, in others to a dread of binding themselves or their children to the purity of life which was demanded by the Baptismal vows. In the case of Chrysostom it is possible, I think, that the distracted condition of the church in Antioch may have operated as a reason, perhaps the chief reason for the delay. At the date of his birth (about A.D. 345) and for sixteen years afterwards the See was occupied by Arian Bishops of the most worldly time-serving type. The good Catholic Bishop Meletius was appointed in 361 and it was probably some seven or eight years later that Chrysostom was baptized by him, and ordained to the office of Reader in the Church.
There can be no doubt that Baptism, from whatever cause delayed, must have come home to the recipient at last with all the more solemnity of meaning. It was often a decisive turning point in the life, the beginning of a definite renunciation of the world, and dedication of the whole man to God. To Chrysostom it evidently was this. For a time he became an enthusiastic ascetic; and then settled down into that more tranquil, but intense glow of piety which burned with unabated force to the close of his life. His baptism and the relinquishment of his secular calling are probably alluded to in the following treatise c. 3. where he speaks of "emerging a little from the flood of worldliness" in which he had been involved. His friend Basil who received him with open arms does not seem to have joined any monastic community, but merely to have been living in retirement and practising some of the usual monastic austerities. The two friends now formed a plan for withdrawing together to some quiet retreat, there to support one another in habits of study, meditation, and prayer. c. 4. The execution of the project was delayed for a time by the passionate entreaties of Chrysostom's mother that he would not deprive her of his companionship and protection. c. 5. He must have been a poor companion however, for we learn (vi. c. 12) that he rarely went outside the house, maintained an almost perpetual silence, and was constantly absorbed in study and prayer. He and Basil in fact formed with a few other friends a voluntary association of youthful ascetics who lived under a strict rule. We might compare it with the association or club formed by John Wesley and his brother at Oxford which first earned for them the nickname of "Methodists." Chrysostom and his friends placed the general regulation of their studies and religious life under Diodorus and Carterius, the presidents of the two principal monastic communities in the neighborhood of Antioch. Diodorus was a man of learning and ability, opposed to those mystical and allegorical interpretations of Holy Scripture which often disguised rather than elucidated the real meaning of the sacred text, so that to his training probably we are largely indebted for that clear, sensible practical method of exposition in which Chrysostom so remarkably excels nearly all the ancient father of the Church.
Not long after the two friends had adopted this course of life, probably about the year 374, they were agitated by a report that they were likely to be advanced to the Episcopate (c. 6.) By a custom which was then common in the Church they were liable if elected by the clergy and people to be forcibly seized and ordained however unwilling they might be to accept the dignity [see notes to chapters 6 and 7]. Basil entreated his friend that in this crisis of their lives they might act as in former times in concert, and together accept, or evade if possible the expected but unwelcome honor. Chrysostom affected assent to this proposal, but secretly resolved to entrap Basil into the sacred office for which he considered him to be as eminently fitted as he deemed himself to be unworthy. The Church should not on account of his own feebleness be deprived if he could help it, of the able ministrations of such a man as Basil. Accordingly when some agents of the electing body [as to the composition of this body, see note 3, p. 21] were sent to seize the two young men, Chrysostom contrived to hide himself. His language c. 6. seems to imply that he had some intimation of their coming which he purposely withheld from Basil who consequently was caught. He made at first a violent resistance, but the officials led him to suppose that Chrysostom had already submitted, and under this delusion he acquiesced. When he discovered the trick which had been played upon him he naturally reproached Chrysostom bitterly for his unkind treachery. But the conscience of Chrysostom seems to have been quite at ease throughout the transaction. He regarded it as a pious fraud and when he saw the mingled distress and anger of his friend he could not refrain, he says, from laughing aloud for joy, and thanking God for the success of his stratagem. The remainder of the 1st Book [chs. 8, 9] is occupied by Chrysostom's vindication of his conduct, the principle that deceit for a righteous end is often salutary and justifiable being maintained with an ingenuity and skill which bespeaks a man who had recently practised in the law-courts. His arguments indeed savor somewhat unpleasantly of casuistry, and it must be confessed that in his conduct on this occasion there is a tinge of something like oriental duplicity which is repugnant to our moral sense. On the other hand it must be borne in mind that neither in the East nor in the West, for many ages were "pious frauds" absolutely condemned by the conscience of Christendom; there was always an inclination to judge each case on its own merits, and to condone if not to approve those in which the balance of evidence was in favor of a righteous or holy purpose, and a beneficial result. And it must also be owned, in justice to Chrysostom, that one of the qualities most conspicuous in him throughout the whole of his subsequent career is fearless, straightforward honesty alike in act and in speech; and this under the pressure very often of strong temptation to dissemble and temporize.
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. It is to be noted that he is speaking of the priesthood generally and that it is not always easy to say in any given passage which of the first two orders in the ministry he has in his mind. In many instances perhaps he was not thinking of one more than the other. Where, as was very commonly the case, the jurisdiction of a bishop did not extend very far beyond the limits of the city in which his See was placed, his functions would more nearly resemble those which in our day are discharged by the incumbent of a large town parish than those which are performed by the modern Bishop of a large diocese. He was the chief pastor of the people, as well as the overseer of the clergy. Chrysostom's friend Basil has been confused by some with the great Basil, Bishop of Caesarea in Cappadocia, who was fifteen years older than Chrysostom, by others with Basil Bishop of Seleucia, who was many years younger. Nothing in fact is known about him beyond what is recorded in this treatise, but he has been conjecturally identified with Basil Bishop of Raphnea in Syria, not far from Antioch, who attended the Council of Constantinople in 381.