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.
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.
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.