Benedict XVI’s nearly unnoticed Letter on St. John Chrysostom: reconciliation of Churches, liturgy, social justice, patristics

On 8 November, the Holy See released a letter of Pope Benedict for the 1600th anniversary of the death of St. John Chrysostom, a doctor of the Church of great importance to both the West and the Eastern Churches. 

The occasion of the letter was a conference being held at the Patristic Institute (and my school) the "Augustinianum".

This is a "Letter", not a "Message" or a "Discourse".  It is not an "Apostolic Letter".

It is not too long, but it is one of the best written Letters I have seen for a while.

This letter is important to WDTPRSers and all Patristibloggers because of its focus on the importance of the Fathers and of liturgy

There was a CNS story on this letter, which so far has been placed on the Vatican web site only in Italian. Also, for reasons I cannot fathom, the Vatican website does not list it in Latest Updates.  

This letter is worthy of more attention than it received.  It is certainly worthy of more than the CNS story gave it.  The CNS report, alas, reduced the letter to a few snipets about social justice.  Let us not forget that in Deus caritas est Pope Benedict has taught about the proper relationship of theology/spirituality and social justice.  He did the same for theology/spirituality and liturgical practice in Sacramentum caritatis.  There are logical priorities which make the social justice all Christians are called to practice which give social justice its truly Christian character and which makes concrete action fruitful.

So, as a service to you, WDTPRS provides the Letter in English translation, which you can download in Word format. Here below I will briefly explain the structure of the letter so that when you read it, you can see what Pope Benedict is really trying to say.

In the introduction, the Pope refers to increased interest in St. John Chrysostom during the last 100 years.  Popes have always been interested him, but in the last 100 years there has been even more attention. This coincides with a "Patristic renewal".  Notice that Benedict cites his closest predecessors.

Chrysostom ("golden mouth") is a figure who unites the East and West.  Indeed, and this is one of the things Pope Benedict is trying to say to the East, Chrysostom is a figure for reconciliation between the Churches.  The headline in L’Osservatore Romano when it reported the Letter read "Un vescovo per l’intera chiesa… A bishop for the whole Church."  Chrysostom, in a special way among the Fathers, has been highly venerated by both East and West since his death.  Benedict cites St. Augustine of Hippo (+430) as the first to calls St. John a "Father".  Benedict, as part of his larger "Marshall Plan" for the Church is deeply concerned with reconciliation of the Churches, both within (think of Summorum Pontificum) and more proximately but without, with the separated Eastern Churches.  Reconciliation of the Churches is a building block of this pontificate.  Pope Benedict takes pains to remind everyone in this Letter that St. John Chrysostom with great diplomacy together with the Bishop of Alexandria organized a delegation to Pope Siricius to help resolve the schism of the Church of Antioch.  Chrysostom helped resolve a schism. 

This act of diplomacy was not isolated from his theology.  It was a concrete gesture that flowed from his teaching.

Central to St. John’s theology is the Body of Christ.  He takes as his starting point St. Paul’s references to Christ as Head of the Body which is the Church.  St. John develops this Pauline image as a way of insisting on the importance of unity and reconciliation between Christian Churches.  Unity is an imperative because Christ is Head of HIS Body.  Members of the Church are really members of HIS Body, not just a Body or one Body but HIS Body.  This is why the Eucharist is so important for St. John.  The Eucharist both symbolizes and actualizes the unity of the Church’s members in Christ’s Body.  There are therefore deep liturgical consequences (and inevitably also for "social justice").  This is why the Eucahrist must be celebrated with proper preparation and devotion.

Because our Catholic worship is central to Pope Benedict’s "Marshall Plan", in the Letter he cites St. John writing to St. Basil the Great on liturgy. 

If nothing else you must read this excerpt from Benedict’s Letter (my emphases):

St John’s faith in the mystery of the love that binds believers to Christ and to one another led him to express a profound reverence for the Eucharist, a reverence that he fostered in the celebration of the Divine Liturgy, as is demonstrated by the fact that one of the richest expressions of Eastern liturgy bears his name to this day. St John understood that the Divine Liturgy situated the believer spiritually between his life on earth and the heavenly reality which was promised to him by the Lord. He expressed his awe at celebrating these sacred mysteries to St Basil the Great in these words: “For when you see the Lord sacrificed, and laid upon the altar, and the priest standing and praying over the victim, … can you then think that you are still among men, standing upon the earth? Are you not, on the contrary, straightway transported to heaven …?” These sacred rites, says St John, “are not only marvelous to behold, but transcendent in awe. There stands the priest … bringing down the Holy Spirit, and he prays at length … that grace descending on the sacrifice may thereby enlighten the minds of all and render them more resplendent than silver purified by fire. Who can despise this most awesome mystery?  St John urged this same sense of reverence before the eucharistic mystery on those who heard his preaching: “Reverence now this table from which we all are partakers, Christ, who was slain for us, the victim that is placed thereon.”  John spoke movingly of the sacramental effects of Holy Communion upon believers. “Christ’s blood causes the image of our King to be fresh within us, produces unspeakable beauty, and does not permit the nobleness of our souls to waste away, but waters it continually, and nourishes it.”  For this reason, St John, echoing the Holy Scriptures, insistently and frequently exhorted the faithful to approach the altar of the Lord worthily, “not lightly and … out of custom and form,” but with “sincerity and purity of soul”.  He insisted that interior preparation for Holy Communion should include repentance for one’s sins and gratitude for Christ’s sacrifice on behalf of our salvation. He thus urged the lay faithful to participate fully and devoutly in the rites of the Divine Liturgy and, with this same disposition, to receive Holy Communion. “Let us not, I beg you, slay ourselves by our irreverence, but with awe and purity draw near to it; and when you see it set before you, say to yourself: ‘Because of this Body am I no longer earth and ashes, no longer a prisoner, but free: because of this I hope for heaven, and to receive the good things therein, immortal life, the portion of angels, to converse with Christ’.” 

There is the key concept: awe at transcendence, the very definition of our involvement in mystery.

Of course Pope Benedict speaks of St. John on care of the poor.  The writer of the CNS article wasn’t wrong to mention Benedict’s comments on this important theme. This is also part of Chrysostom’s theology and therefeore Benedict’s letter.  However, the real structure of Benedict’s Letter is far more theological and profound. 

Moreover, and this is one of the immediate and practical points of the Letter and it must not be missed by anyone: the Pope exorts theologians to return to the theology of the Fathers of the Church.  This is a key practical point of the Letter: "Therefore, what greater wish could I express to theologians than for their renewed commitment to recover the sapiential patrimony of the Holy Fathers? It cannot but produce a precious enrichment for their reflection, even on the problems of our times."  ("Sapiential" is from Latin "sapientia… wisdom".)

There is a great deal going on in this Letter.

I urge you to read it.

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19 Responses to Benedict XVI’s nearly unnoticed Letter on St. John Chrysostom: reconciliation of Churches, liturgy, social justice, patristics

  1. Prof. Basto says:

    Thank you Father for highlighting this important Letter.

  2. Augustine says:

    “Benedict, as part of his larger ‘Marshall Plan’ for the Church is deeply concerned with reconciliation of the Churches, both within (think of Summorum Pontificum) and more proximately but without, with the separated Eastern Churches.”

    St. Malachi gave Benedict the title “Glory of the Olive.” I think he will indeed bring about this reconciliation.

  3. danphunter1 says:

    God bless you Father for this Holy Letter from our Holy Father on one of the holiest saints residing in the Church Triumphant.
    St Chrysostom’s words must be an exhortation to the Church to end the blasphemous practice of recieving our Sacred Lord in the hand.
    As well as all other irreverant anomolies that distance us from the worthy reception of the Blessed Sacrament.
    God bless our Supreme Bridge Builder and God bless the Church.

  4. fxavier says:

    Thank you Fr. for this post. The Holy Father is very enlightening (in the proper sense of the word). I particularly like the phrase “awe at transcendence”. Is this “awe” the true mark of “actuosa participatio”?

    Pope exorts theologians to return to the theology of the Fathers of the Church

    The theology of the Fathers was what was missing in the “reforms” of the 60′s and 70′s. It seems that forms and prayers were brought back (of course with major redactions as well as many new compositions), but the lex credendi was left in the theological amber.

  5. Malta says:

    “For when you see the Lord sacrificed, and laid upon the altar, and the priest standing and praying over the victim, … can you then think that you are still among men, standing upon the earth? Are you not, on the contrary, straightway transported to heaven …?”

    Wow; beautiful; when is the last time you’ve seen such emphasis on the Holy Sacrifice at a Novus Ordo mass?

  6. fxavier: “I particularly like the phrase “awe at transcendence”. Is this “awe” the true mark of “actuosa participatio”?”

    A very good contribution to this entry. Thanks for that. Yes, I think this is a key. I believe that the Holy Father’s provision in Summorum Pontificum will result in celebrations of Mass in a manner that exerts a “gravitational pull” on the way all Masses are celebrated.  The central concept is mystery and our encounter with mystery.

    I spoke of this contact in my 14 September sermon at the great Fr. Finigan’s parish in the UK.  Here is an excerpt, but you can listen to it here:

    Holy Mass necessitates our own sacrifice, deprivation, self-emptying, even unto death.  One way this is made clear in truly sacramental liturgy is through the denial of sensory perception.  For example, in the Divine Liturgy of the Eastern Churches people can hear every text being sung but are denied visual participation because of the wall-like iconostasis with its closed doors.  Here in the Western, Latin Church, at least in the extraordinary use of the Roman Rite, we are denied at times not only to see various gestures but also to hear the mystery-laden central prayers. 

    The extraordinary form of Mass wants a deeper participation because it wants a greater deprivation and dying to self.  It asks for a deeper active participation, an active receptivity to what Christ is doing.  In a way, our participation at the older form of Mass reflects clearly our human condition, how in this earthly life we are waiting for the Lord, watching for Him to come to fulfill His promises in us.  We are waiting for Him to save us from our incessant fear of death, which St. Augustine called “our daily winter” (ep. 38). 

    Only by detachment from the merely worldly and through an interior movement of the soul upward, can the seeker come to “awe at transcendence” (William James), the experience of mystery.  Awe at transcendence, which is the very object of religion, cannot induced by empty spectacle or too much manipulation of those very elements which draw us to mystery, or, above all, the removal of those elements.  It must instead be promoted by a purification from distractions, from a measure of deprivation, of hunger, of longing for that which we glimpse only through the cleft in the rock, through the dark glass, through the mystery of the Cross.

  7. Malta: when is the last time you’ve seen such emphasis on the Holy Sacrifice at a Novus Ordo mass?

    Your question is probably intended as a polemic, but it is a legitimate question. It could be a good point for discussion: What about the older form of Mass helps us to encounter mystery

    It would be good to leave aside polemics, and I will help to keep this discussion tidy by deleting overly tendentious comments with bog this down.

  8. Bailey Walker says:

    Dear Father Z: Many thanks for translating and making the Holy Father’s important letter available to us. In addition to the substantive content of the letter one other sentence jumped out at me which gives me a great deal of insight into the Holy Father’s approach to the exercise of his Petrine ministry:

    He also reached out to dissenters, favouring patience over aggressiveness in their regard, because he believed that in overcoming theological error, “nothing is more effective than moderation and gentleness.”

    Patience over aggressiveness! Difficult, yet necessary words to live by.

    Oremus pro invicem.

    Bailey Walker
    Falls Church, Virginia

  9. techno_aesthete says:

    Dar Fr. Z.: for reasons I cannot fathom, the Vatican website does not list it in Latest Updates.

    Perhaps that is because the Italian version was actually posted on the Vatican’s Web site back in August? If one goes to the index page for Benedict XVI’s Letters written in 2007, and scrolls down a bit, one can see the posting date of August 10, 2007 for the Italian version.

  10. Malta says:

    Fr. Z: “What about the older form of Mass helps us to encounter mystery.”

    I read Maria Montessori’s book, The Mass Explained to Children to my kids. It’s sort of like, “The Latin Mass for Dummies” for people like me. Let’s see, let’s start this discussion with the Altar itself. Altars in the catacombs were actually, usually, against the wall. Altars have steps leading up to them (or should); we are entering the “Holy of Holies,” much as the Jews did in the temple. That is the tip of the iceberg, but I’ll let others respond…

  11. techno: No, it wasn’t released in August. It was just released last week. That isn’t the reason.

  12. techno_aesthete says:

    Hmmm, well you can see that I didn’t use the word “release” or any form of it in my reply. It may have been released in November, but it was posted to the site in August (also look closely at the URL for the Italian version – you will see “20070810″ which is part of their classification method for documents). I will grant you that usually documents seem to be posted on the date they are released, at least as far as I know. I cannot explain the difference between the apparent posting date and the release date.

    I just took a look at the Latest Updates page. I noticed there are entries from the beginning of Benedict XVI’s pontificate on that page. They aren’t exactly recent, let alone, latest updates. Unless some items are removed from that page, it is clear that it isn’t an exhaustive list of every update ever made to the Vatican’s Web site.

  13. John Fannon says:

    Thank you Father for translating this wonderful letter and making it known to us.
    Pope Benedict speaks of the richness of liturgy of St John Chrysostom.
    I remember it as a student in London in the 1960s. Once a year at St Patrick’s Soho Square on 25th January, there was a Mass in this rite sung by the Eastern Catholics – sung in Ancient Slavonic.
    It was so beautiful.

    There is so much in this letter, but what particularly resonated with me were the words

    “Let us not, I beg you, slay ourselves by our irreverence, but with awe and purity draw near to it; and when you see it set before you, say to yourself: «Because of this Body am I no longer earth and ashes, no longer a prisoner, but free: because of this I hope for heaven, and to receive the good things therein, immortal life, the portion of angels, to converse with Christ».”

    What a wonderful way to receive communion!

  14. Malta says:

    These comments will soon be forgotten, but I want to briefly follow up on Fr. Z’s invitation to explain how the Vetus Ordo directs us to Christ’s eternal Sacrifice on the altar at Mass.

    The mass is not a community gathering; it is not a way for fellow Christians to get together and meet one another. It is a communal gathering to worship God; He is our focus, not each other. We worship together because God told us that “where two or more are gathered, there I am,” but the focus is on Christ, not us.

    The Sacrifice of Mass is, “[t]ruly the Sacrifice of Calvary made present among us, a sacrifice at which we should dare to be present only in a spirit of the utmost reverence and most abject humility, conscious of our unworthiness in the presence of the all holy God. ‘Quam terribilis est haec hora!’ cries out the deacon in the Syrian liturgy. ‘How awesome is this hour!’ Awesome it is indeed when our Savior and our God is present among us as preist and victim.”

    My first post, at the invitation of Fr. Z to comment without polemics on the significance of the Vetus Ordo focused on the Altar, since the priest approaches it as the Jews did the holiest of holies in the temple, but of course, the altar in the Catholic Church holds God himself in the person of the Second Person, and therefore is the dwelling place of the most holy thing on this earth: the Eucharist, Christ truly present among us.

    The altar first points us towards this significance because before Vatican II, most altars were highly ornate, beautiful structures which spoke of the transcendence taking place on them. In France, above the altars once stood roods (and still do in a few churches which weren’t desecrated after the Revolution.) Roods were extremely ornate embellishments right above the altar which spoke of the profound, transcendent nature of the Consecration.

    With Fr. Z’s permission I’ll quote a few pertinent parts of Maria Montessori’s book, The Mass Explained to Children:

    The Altar steps: “The holy table is on a higher level, and there are steps leading up to it. These steps are usually three in number, and are a symbol of the three theologigical virtues which lead us to God: faith, hope and charity…Another kind of altar was a martyr’s tomb, because, when they could not use a building above ground to celebrate Mass in, the first Christians often went underground and used the tombs of the martyrs in the Catacombs. This is still the custom in many churches; an altar is made out of a tomb of stone or precious marble, in which the body of some saint is preserved…”

    The Mystery (of Mass): “Holy Mass…is not merely a commemoration. It may look no more that that to people who have not penetrated its mysteries. They may think it a rite carried out in memory of the dead Christ…But the Mass is by no means such a simple matter. We do not go to it merely to commemorate the Passion of Christ as an act of piety, which we always owe Him. Here there is no real death. What seems death is Life. There is a deep mystery hidden in the Mass, a supernatural, astounding fact, the greatest wonder of all: Jesus, at a certain moment, comes down alive on the altar. He is invisible, but He is truly present , because the bread is changed into His Body, and the wine into His Blood; so that Christ is there, Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity, and He comes for us…”

    Maria goes on to explain how every part of the Mass has meaning: altar (why relics are contained on the altar), ornaments, towels, bells, sacred vessels, paten, vestments, including chasuble, parts of the mass, representative objects, mass of the catechumens, mass of the faithful etc.

    In the Vetus Ordo, everything has significance, everything has meaning. Every action, physical object, and gesture has meaning and leads us to God, to an understanding of the True Presence of Christ in the Eucharist—the presence of God on earth, Truly Present among us. No wonder the Church was thriving before Vatican II. No wonder there was such reverence for Christ truly present in the Eucharist.

  15. Malta says:

    I should add that in the Jewish Holy Temple, there were channels to lead the blood of the sacrifices out of the temple; in Jerusalem, literally little channels led small streams of blood out of the temple.

    But with Christ, God gave His only Son, who was Sacrificed at Calvary. But the blood Sacrifice that God demands of his fallen people (now redeemed by Christ) is still with us. That is why we call the Mass the Sacrifice–the Ultimate and Final Sacrifice.

    Christ shed His blood as the ultimate and final Sacrifice. Those Novus Ordo (or even Vetus Ordo) priests who downplay this significance are missing the entire point of Christ’s Sacrifice, and are missing the entire meaning and purpose of Holy Mass.

  16. Norman says:

    Fr, thank you for this! I have an icon of St John Chrystostom on wood … interesting how he is always depicted with a receding hairline …

  17. Terry says:

    Fr:
    I am curious about something. In regards to this whole subjuct of the ch
    church lacking unity. Are we to understand that the Church is less than whole?
    In August of 2006 the Holy Father in an Address to the Protestants awt World Youth day state that ecumenicalism was not a call to deny ones own faithhist history. Which confuses me because The Catholic Faith was supposed to be the 1 true faith. I guess I see a little of talking out of both sides of ones mouth. Even Cardinal Kasper stated that this was not to be the “Ecumnicalism of the return”. But the large question is this. Did not these folks leave the church on their own valition? Again the whole “Lacks Unity” concept would leave a person with the impression that the Church is not perfect. Just my thoughts.

  18. Terry says:

    Fr:
    In regards to my previous post please disregard the atrocious spelling.
    I should have hit the return button sooner so that I would known what I typed.
    I realize now I shall held up for scorn and ridicule for my total disgard for the
    English language.

  19. Diane K says:

    That excerpt you provided is incredible in it’s beauty. This is the kind of thing we need to be hearing from the pulpit.