Today we commemorate a great saint of the second half of the fourth century. His life story spans events in both Constantinople and Rome, revealing his theological prowess and ecclesiastical importance. For Passionists, there is an easy identification with his fame as a preacher. Copious homilies establish his rhetoric as “golden”.
How do we today appreciate these words of his?
Do you wish to honour the body of Christ? Do not ignore him when he is naked. Do not pay him homage in the temple clad in silk, only then to neglect him outside where he is cold and ill-clad. … What good is it if the Eucharistic table is overloaded with golden chalices when your brother Is dying of hunger? Start by satisfying his hunger and then with what is left you may adorn the altar as well. Evangelium S. Matthaei, homily 50:3–4
As a rhetorician, his general style was “down to earth” and was not reticent about shaming his audience. When we remember that he established hospitals for the poor in Constantinople we cannot doubt his seriousness.
It is safe to say, then, that Chrysostom had more in mind than noting the distance between rhetoric and reality … in other words his words were not meant to describe an unfortunate fatalism about the poor, but a conviction that the lives of both the comfortable and the wretched could (ought to) change because Christ-life does that sort of thing.
Pope Francis, likewise, is a prolific preacher. His rhetorical style, too, has drawn comment. He has enormous concern(s) about the poor. It’s no secret that his rhetoric about the church of the poor, acquiring the smell of the sheep, etc. strains the imagination of those among us who acquiesce to a deep gulf between rhetoric and reality. We hear such things as: “the Pope is a moral leader, but not an economist”.
Today is a good day to give some thought to a recent claim * that Francis’ rhetoric of encounter with the poor actually insists that, for the Christian, that gulf can be overcome in the economy and in the Church. The smell of the sheep will be distressful for the business world, as also the ecclesiastical world. There is a lot for us as preachers to appreciate about Francis’ rhetoric. As the author of this claim puts it: the rhetoric and reality split will be a tension bridged by rhetoric-become-reality, or in Francis’s terms, “a word already made flesh and constantly striving to take flesh anew.” Ev G 233
It’s a good day to celebrate Chrysostom’s rhetoric of shame for the seriousness it brought to preaching and Francis’ rhetoric of encounter for its contemporary challenge.
* Kevin Grove: Theological Studies 2019, Vol. 80(3) 530–553