The recent scandals in the Church involving priests and bishops have dominated Catholic conversations on social media sites. Always eager to base their sentiments in the Church’s Tradition, many have taken to sharing a quote sometimes attributed to St. Athanasius; more frequently, however, they attribute the quote to St. John Chrysostom.
The quote: “The road to hell is paved with the bones of priests and monks, and the skulls of bishops are the lampposts that light the path.”
The meaning is clear: many priests, monks, and bishops are in Hell; they are like pavement and street lamps, leading the faithful to their moral doom. Such an idea, while not exactly appealing, at least sounds true in light of sexual abuse and the cover-ups done by those of whom much is entrusted, namely the souls of Christ’s flock.
The problem is that St. John Chrysostom never wrote or uttered the phrase attributed to him, or if he did, there is no clear evidence of it. Apologist Trent Horn has done the hard work of researching through St. John Chrysostom’s writings, and did not find the phrase or anything equating the sentiment in the saint’s writings. To read Mr. Horn’s full study of this topic, you will have to read his article, linked above, or get his book, What the Saints Never Said.
However, being a Doctor of the Church and the writer of tens of thousands of words, including some of the greatest sermons in Christian history (rightfully earning him his nickname of Chrysostom, literally “golden mouthed”), this saint does have something to contribute to our contemporary conversation. We cannot here expound on everything this great saint has written; however, some quotes will give us a taste of his spiritual insight, and what he might say today to sinners, victims, and bishops.
This scandal, like every offense since our first parents dined and died, is one centered on our fallen nature’s addiction to sin. We like to sin; it feels good, and delights our desires. Yet like Adam and Eve’s sin in the Garden, every sin has its consequences. The breakdown of human relationships is tragic enough; worse still is how sin damages our relationship with God.
St. John Chrysostom knew this well. He spoke strongly against the scandal of sins done by public authorities, particularly clerics and the imperial family, and urged the laity to root out their own sins as well. Once, there was a member of the loose religious order he co-founded who gave up on his religious vows to pursue a woman. St. John wrote two letters to this man, Theodore, urging him to return to his vows. Frequently in the letters John brings up the image of pain. He, John, feels pain at the loss of a friend to the powers of lust and temptation, and he does everything in his literary power to urge his fallen brother back to his promises.
However, there is another pain that appears in the letter, the potential pain Theodore will face if he does not amend his life. The admonishment rings true today, perhaps even more so in our culture of instant gratification: “The unseemly pleasures of this life no-wise differ from shadows and dreams; for before the deed of sin is completed, the conditions of pleasure are extinguished; and the punishments for these have no limit. And the sweetness lasts for a little while but the pain is everlasting.”
These words should hang before every one of us sinners, all of us who reject our human nature in an attempt to satisfy our temporal wants. In other words, all of us.
To Those Touched By Scandal
Though he spoke strongly against public sinners, particularly those in authority who harmed the common good in their selfishness, St. John Chrysostom also had advice for those who suffered at the hands of corrupt officials. Though mercy shines forth in John’s preaching, it is always tempered by justice.
One particular example was the scandal of Eutropius, regent for the young Eastern Roman emperor Arcadius. Eutropius was ostensibly a religious man; however, he was a Byzantine politician in the worst sense of the phrase, and sought power even at the expense of human lives. Lives were literally lost because of him: he was partly responsible for a surge in gladiatorial games in Constantinople. This, rightly so, drew sharp rebukes from John, who was Patriarch of the city by that time. The two men were far from friends.
However, Eutropius’ fortunes changed, and after a very public fall from grace in 399 he sought refuge in the cathedral (ironic since Eutropius himself had enacted a law removing such protections). There he was found Sunday morning as the faithful filtered in for the Divine Liturgy. There he clung to the altar as St. John Chrysostom, until that point more an enemy than an ally, preached his sermon. He welcomed Eutropius to the Church, stating he would protect him even as those Eutropius sought as his support sought now to destroy him. To the congregation, who had been so wronged by the greed of this man, the saint had this to say:
How after this assembly has been dissolved will you handle the holy mysteries [the Eucharist], and repeat that prayer by which we are commanded to say “forgive us as we also forgive our debtors,” when you are demanding vengeance upon your debtor? Has he inflicted great wrongs and insults on you? I will not deny it. Yet this is the season not for judgment but for mercy; not for requiring an account, but for showing loving kindness: not for investigating claims but for conceding them; not for verdicts and vengeance, but for mercy and favour.
St. John knows the people have been wronged by Eutropius, and that there would be a time for justice (by the end of the year he was executed). Yet that Sunday, in that moment, he was a penitent begging for mercy, and St. John Chrysostom offered him God’s forgiveness. The victims of Eutropius’ crimes needed to see this, to understand that God brings good even out of the most heinous of circumstances.
To the Bishops
A proposed examination of St. John Chrysostom’s reaction to the current crises in the Church would be incomplete without wisdom from this Doctor of the Church for bishops. Being a bishop himself, this Patriarch of Constantinople knew well the calling and the challenges of the episcopate.
While there are many places in John’s corpus that discuss the episcopacy, arguably one of the most beautiful, and most applicable to the current crises in the Church, comes from a homily reflecting on the selection of Matthias as the successor of the traitor Judas. Towards the end of the homily, John speaks of bishops, particularly to those who might seek out the episcopacy as a way of gaining power and authority.
“Did you but know,” the saint says, “that a Bishop is bound to belong to all, to bear the burden of all?”
Bishops, St. John remarks, are not excused from normal faults and sins of lay people, for the bishop is to be the shepherd of the sheep. His warning only gets stronger as the homily progresses. “If you have sinned, but in your own person merely, you will have no such great punishment, nothing like it: but if you have sinned as bishop, you are lost,” as Moses was prevented from entering the Promised Land because of his act of faithlessness (see Numbers 20).
Between the pressures of caring for the Church and withstanding resistance against political pressure, as well as the typical moral struggle any Christian faces, a bishop bears a great weight on his soul.
In that light, the Patriarch declares, “I do not think there are many among Bishops that will be saved, but many more that perish: and the reason is, that it is an affair that requires a great mind.”
These are sobering words for anyone who accepts the call to the episcopacy. It is an even greater reason why we, the faithful should keep our bishops in our prayers. It is what St. John Chrysostom would have asked of us, and what our current bishops ask of us now. We would do right by them if we spare at least a prayer, even, or perhaps especially, if they have done wrong.
image: Louvre Museum [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons