Monday, September 13, 2010

St. John the "Golden-Mouthed" - Father David Stokes (RIP)

Today' liturgy features the memorital of St. John Chrysostom, who was born at Antioch, c. 347 and died at Commana in Pontus on September 14, 407.

John--whose surname "Chrysostom" (which means "golden-mouthed") occurs for the first time in the "Constitution" of Pope Vigilius in the year 553--is generally considered the most prominent doctor of the Greek Church and the greatest preacher ever heard in a Christian pulpit. His natural gifts, as well as exterior circumstances, helped him to become what he was.

At age 20 St. John Chrysostom met Bishop Meletius who inspired him to devote himself to an ascetic and religious life. He studied Holy Scriptures and frequented the sermons of Meletius. About three years later he received Holy Baptism and was ordained lector.

But the young cleric, seized by the desire of a more perfect life, soon afterwards entered one of the ascetic societies near Antioch, which was under the spiritual direction of Carterius and especially of the famous Diodorus, later Bishop of Tarsus. Prayer, manual labour and the study of Holy Scripture were his chief occupations, and we may safely suppose that his first literary works date from this time, for nearly all his earlier writings deal with ascetic and monastic subjects.

Four years later, Chrysostom resolved to live as an anchorite in one of the caves near Antioch. He remained there two years, but then as his health was quite ruined by indiscreet watchings and fastings in frost and cold, he prudently returned to Antioch to regain his health, and resumed his office as lector in the church.

Probably in the beginning of 381 Meletius made him deacon, just before his own departure to Constantinople, where he died as president of the Second Ecumenical Council. The successor of Meletius was Flavian. Ties of sympathy and friendship connected Chrysostom with his new bishop. As deacon he had to assist at the liturgical functions, to look after the sick and poor, and was probably charged also in some degree with teaching catechumens.

At the same time he continued his literary work, and we may suppose that he composed his most famous book, "On the Priesthood", towards the end of this period, or at latest in the beginning of his priesthood.

In the year 386 Chrysostom was ordained priest by Flavian, and from that dates his real importance in ecclesiastical history. His chief task during the next twelve years was that of preaching, which he had to exercise either instead of or with Bishop Flavian. But no doubt the larger part of the popular religious instruction and education devolved upon him.

The ambiguity and intrigue surrounding John, the great preacher, are characteristic of the life of any great man in a capital city. Brought to Constantinople after a dozen years of priestly service in Syria, John found himself the reluctant victim of an imperial ruse to make him bishop in the greatest city of the empire.

Ascetic, unimposing but dignified, and troubled by stomach ailments from his desert days as a monk, John became a bishop under the cloud of imperial politics. If his body was weak, his tongue was powerful. The content of his sermons, his exegesis of Scripture, were never without a point. Sometimes the point stung the high and mighty. Some sermons lasted up to two hours.

His lifestyle at the imperial court was not appreciated by many courtiers. He offered a modest table to episcopal sycophants hanging around for imperial and ecclesiastical favors. John deplored the court protocol that accorded him precedence before the highest state officials. He would not be a kept man.

His zeal led him to decisive action. Bishops who bribed their way into office were deposed. Many of his sermons called for concrete steps to share wealth with the poor. The rich did not appreciate hearing from John that private property existed because of Adam's fall from grace any more than married men liked to hear that they were bound to marital fidelity just as much as their wives were. When it came to justice and charity, John acknowledged no double standards.

Aloof, energetic, outspoken, especially when he became excited in the pulpit, John was a sure target for criticism and personal trouble. He was accused of gorging himself secretly on rich wines and fine foods. His faithfulness as spiritual director to the rich widow, Olympia, provoked much gossip attempting to prove him a hypocrite where wealth and chastity were concerned. His actions taken against unworthy bishops in Asia Minor were viewed by other ecclesiastics as a greedy, uncanonical extension of his authority.

Two prominent personages who personally undertook to discredit John were Theophilus, Archbishop of Alexandria, and Empress Eudoxia. Theophilus feared the growth in importance of the Bishop of Constantinople and took occasion to charge John with fostering heresy. Theophilus and other angered bishops were supported by Eudoxia.

The empress resented his sermons contrasting gospel values with the excesses of imperial court life. Whether intended or not, sermons mentioning the lurid Jezebel (see 1 Kings 9:1—21:23) and impious Herodias (see Mark 6:17-29) were associated with the empress, who finally did manage to have John exiled. He died in exile in 407( and the Catholic Encyclopedia [1913]).

* * *

O God, strength of those who hope in you, who willed that the Bishop Saint John Chrysostom should be illustrious by his wonderful eloquence and his experience of suffering, grant us, we pray, that, instructed by his teachings, we may be strengthened through the example of his invincible patience. Through our Lord.

* * * * * *


Today at St. Joseph's Church in Kentville, NS, the Church of Yarmouth will commend to the Lord the soul of a warm and kindly priest, Father David Stokes, whose entire priestly service of God's people took place in Nova Scotia's picturesque Annapolis Valley (though in recent years, following his retirement, weekend supply took him throughout the diocese).

Father Stokes was born on a Marian Feast, then the Purification of Mary, on February 2, 1937, in Kentville; likewise, he died on a Marian Feast, the Nativity of Mary, on September 8, 2010 in Soldiers Memorial Hospital, Middleton.

Following graduation from High School, David Stokes went to St. Francis Xavier University in Antigonish (1955-1958), from which he graduated summa cum laude. Admitted to Holy Heart Seminary in Halifax, he was ordained a priest on May 11, 1962, by Mgr Albert Leménager, the first bishop of Yarmouth.

Father Stokes's pastoral ministry in the Valley began at St. Patrick's, Digby (1962-1965), then at Holy Cross, Plympton (1965-1968), St Monica's, Middleton (1968-1978), St. Francis of Assisi, Wolfville (1978-1983), St. Louis, Annapolis (1983-1999) and St. Anthony, Berwick, while he was also associated with St. Joseph, Kentville (1999-2001) until retirement (2001).

When I was named Administrator of the Yarmouth Diocese in 2002, one weekend he sheperded me around the Wolfville Parish and Acadia University, where I celebrated a Lord's Day Eucharist for the Catholic students on campus, then took me out for dinner. Invariably his interactions with staff, students--whoever--were kindly and affirming, which gave me some insight into his character.

May the Lord whom he served generously give him a merciful judgment, guide him to the springs of eternal life and grant him the reward of his labours.


  1. This feast always stands out in my mind because it was on this day, now 26 years ago, that I stood in a field in Moncton for Mass with Pope John Paul II. He preached a homily on St. John Chrysostom. I was fortunate to see John Paul several times, although this occasion, because it was here, in Canada, was the most memorable. For those interested, the Holy Father's homily from that Mass is posted at the CCCB site (

    P.S.: This comment was mistakenly published as a comment to yesterday's post and, for that reason, is re-published (correctly) here.

  2. David Twaddle, the second cousin of Father Stokes, has just started Theology here at St. Augustine's Seminary. He is with the Archdiocese of Toronto, and has fond memories of Father Stokes.