Being an Eastern Catholic, I live in two worlds. For many of my fellow Eastern Catholics and I, these two worlds live side by side while blending harmoniously together (most of the time) and are exactly as things should be. We believe we are the bridge that unites the Church, East and West, Catholic and Orthodox, where common ground can be found and union can grow. From this point of view, we often see things that other people don’t. We tend to have an understanding of the Church entire; we see how exceedingly similar both sides of the Church are.
One thing I enjoy is seeing the similarities in the different people of our Churches. Two personalities jumped out at me recently. I was reading the life story and writings of St. John Chrysostom who is a Greek Father of the Church. Over and over again, I kept thinking, ‘Pope Francis could have said that.’ From the unique view I have of the Church as an Eastern Catholic, it is easy for me to recognize what both men have in common. This is what I discovered.
St. John Chrysostom (meaning Golden-mouthed) has been the most influential Greek Fathers on the Western Church—named a Doctor in the West and one of the Three Holy Hierarchs of the East. After he was made Patriarch he quickly started cleaning house, beginning with his new house, the Episcopal palace, which had been turned into a place of extravagant hospitality for the upper class of Constantinople and the clergy. He reformed his clergy, monastics, budgets, and even sold some precious items stored at the chancery, using the excess money in order to build a hospital and serve the poor. He angered the wealthy by his preaching against the misuse of money, especially while one’s brother goes hungry. He lived a simple life and gained the love of the common people by his preaching and example.
When Pope Francis became Pope, he also started cleaning house. He immediately started reforming the Church, specifically the Roman Curia. He founded a new Vatican committee to reform Catholic Church finances. Pope Francis instructed the group that there should be a “new mentality” in the Vatican and a reform of the bureaucracy to ensure “it better serves the Church”. He has spoken against clericalism, to religious about their lifestyles, against materialism and misuse of wealth, and has commanded the attention of the world with his casual style and obvious humility.
There are numerous quotes from both men that you could easily mistake the other to say. What I find interesting is that some people in the Church think Pope Francis is a liberal who is over concerned with social justice issues. Some of these same people would then hold Chrysostom in high regard, especially being a Doctor of the Church. Both of these sons of the Church share much in common.
Chrysostom had just as much concern about the relationship of the bishops and priests to the laity as Pope Francis does. Each showing concern over the laity being treated with respect and dignity, Chrysostom asked, “How should the church be governed? Should the patriarchs act like emperors, issuing decrees…Should bishops see themselves as local governors, demanding unquestioning submission of the people?” Pope Francis has told priests they must be “shepherds living with the smell of the sheep.” Chrysostom reminded those in authority that they are not rulers but preachers and pastors. He also stressed that “each individual is answerable not to a priest, bishop, or patriarch but to God.”
Pope Francis has caused quite a stir regarding some of his statements about finances; frankly Chrysostom would not disagree with him. Actually, I have found Chrysostom to be even more frank then Pope Francis. He does not mince words when saying, “Lift up and stretch out your hands, not to heaven, but to the poor…if you lift up your hands in prayer without sharing with the poor, it is worth nothing.” And Pope Francis twice quoted Chrysostom in Evangelii Gaudium, he said, “Ethics — a non-ideological ethics — would make it possible to bring about balance and a more humane social order. With this in mind, I encourage financial experts and political leaders to ponder the words of one of the sages of antiquity: ‘Not to share one’s wealth with the poor is to steal from them and to take away their livelihood. It is not our own goods which we hold, but theirs.’” The second quote expressed that we need look at money in a different way, basically through the eyes of Christ.
Both men have a great concern for the poor. Chrysostom even said if we wish to honor Christ’s body we must first clothe and feed him in our brother. Then, with what we have left, adorn the altar with gold chalices. He believed “feeding the hungry is a greater work than raising the dead.” Pope Francis has urged us to not waste food, that throwing it away is like stealing from the poor. He has also warned us to not, “become starched Christians, those over-educated Christians who speak of theological matters as they calmly sip their tea. No!” Like Chrysostom, Pope Francis wants us to go out and “care for the flesh of Christ” to seek Him out in the poor.
Materialism is a topic they have preached on, both reminding us that happiness will not be found in things but in gratitude and in God. They especially want the religious, and the clergy to be examples to the laity, to embrace poverty and care for those in need. Their words are a challenge to all of us. Pope Francis said it hurts him to see a priest or nun with a new car, acknowledging the need for one of course but a humble one. “If you like the fancy one, just think about how many children are dying of hunger in the world.” Chrysostom complained of the turmoil in Constantinople to which no one was crying out against. He said, “I see the clergy and bishops devoting their attention only to the material aspects of the churches, while ignoring the sick and the dying, the poor and the needy.” With more than their words they set an example for the entire church to follow, both living simply, humbly, and charitably.
With great pastoral care they each speak about everyday sins we all need to combat. They do not hesitate to speak out against the pharisaical behavior of keeping rules and laws while not loving our neighbor. Chrysostom asks us, “For what does it profit if we abstain from fish and fowl and yet bite and devour our brothers and sisters?” Pope Francis tells us we are murdering Christians when we speak badly of them with others. Reminding us, “There is no such thing as innocent slander.”
I am sure most of us occasionally have moments of “elder brother syndrome.” (Luke 11:32) We can benefit from a reminder from both men that the Church is a hospital where anyone seeking God can come to be healed. Chrysostom said the Church is “not a courtroom, for souls. She does not condemn on behalf of sins, but grants remission of sins.”
Pope Francis sees the Church as a field hospital after battle. Saying it is “useless to ask a seriously injured person if he has high cholesterol and about the level of his blood sugars! You have to heal his wounds. Then we can talk about everything else.” Of course, we are all wounded sinners needing the medicine of the sacraments. Chrysostom reminds us to not be ashamed when we repent but to have a change of heart and seek God’s love and mercy. Mercy is a favorite topic of Pope Francis, “there is no limit to the divine mercy, which is offered to everyone…The Lord is always ready to roll away the tombstone of our sins, which separate us from Him, the light of the living.”
These are a few examples showing the similarities between both men. I believe this shows how Chrysostom’s words are relevant for us today, and that there’s nothing novel about Pope Francis’s approach. Both men challenge us, make us uncomfortable, and do not seek to please men with their words, but lead them to truth. The fact that they have so many similar things to say is ultimately a testament of the timelessness of the gospel message itself. And proof that God is with us and working through his shepherds.