Monday, November 12, 2012

Saint John the Merciful, Patriarch of Alexandria

Saint John the Merciful (also known as John the Almsgiver, John the Almoner, John V of Alexandria, John Eleymon, and Johannes Eleemon), was a patriarch of Alexandria about 100 years after the Chalcedonian split in Egypt (610-616 or 619).He is one of the most known saints who practiced incessantly the virtue of generosity among the poor but not only. Today he is celebrated as saint not only in the Orthodox and Catholic Churches, but also in the Coptic and Ethiopian- Eastern Orthodox Churches -, as well.

A life of mercifulness
The life of Saint John the Merciful was written by St. Leontius, bishop of Neapolis in Cyprus, who is also the author of the first biography of a saint fool, namely St. Symeon of Emesa, the Fool for Christ’s sake. The text about St. John is to be found beginning with col. 1623 in Migne’s Patrologia Graeca, volume 90, with the title “Vita Sancti Joannis Eleemosynarii” and also in Acta Sanctorum, t. II (January), p. 501ff.
According to Leontius, Saint John came from Cyprus, from a town named Amathus, being born c. 550 AD, as the son of Epiphanius, a patrician and the governor of the island. John was raised as a true Christian from childhood.  The biographer accentuates that he married almost forced by his parents and had children. But soon his wife died and his children too, so that John remained alone, practicing the virtue of almsgiving. On the recommendation of a friend, the imperial prefect of the capital city of Cyprus, called Nicetas, he was elected on the free seat of Alexandria. At his time, 100 years after the 4th ecumenical Council of Chalcedon (451), the Church in Egypt was split between the adepts of the local policy (called later „coptic”) and the „partisans” of the imperial policy. The doctrine about the one of the two natures in Christ was strongly instrumentalized in both directions, so that the majority of Egyptians did not accepted the Chalcedonian dogma rather from political reasons. The Orthodox were named in Egypt as „melkites”, that is, the partisans of the emperor, and despised for their faith which was “the faith of the emperor”.
Painting in the
Polish National
Art Museum, Warsaw
Saint John came in Alexandria on the not so popular „melkite” see, vacant since the death in 609 of Theodore, during the capture of the city by Nicetas. In 611 John assumed the throne, becoming the fifth Chalcedonian bishop of Alexandria to bear that name. Even unpopular, the Patriarchate possessed a great wealth in money and commercial (especially shipping) enterprises. 
In his youth John had had a vision of a beautiful maiden with a garland of olives on her head, who said that she was the Compassion, the eldest daughter of the Great King (=God). This had evidently made a deep impression on John's mind, and, now that he had the opportunity of exercising benevolence on a large scale, he soon became widely known all over the East for his liberality towards the poor. Even from the beginning of his service he repeated, that „If you desire nobility, seek it not in blood but in virtues, for this is true nobility”.
Also at the beginning of his services, he has sent his accountants on the streets of the city with the mission to make a list with his „lords”, these being the poor people. The list cuprindea 7500 names and these persons received every day food and other help from the Church’s income.  Of course, this attitude has brought a reaction: too many people were searching for the help of the patriarch, so that he decided to remain always on Wednesday and Friday towards the doors of a church and to listen the problems, even sometimes he was judging cases of injustice. In the days nobody came, he was sad and used to say that the humble John hasn’t gain anything and hasn’t brought anything to God, for his sins.
 Saint John was not only liberal with the resources of his see, but with his own goods. In one incident in his life he felt remorseful for accepting a richly-embroidered blanket as a gift and was unable to sleep until he sold it and gave the proceeds to the poor.
Once, while celebrating the Holy Liturgy, the patriarch remembered the words of Christ, „Therefore if you bring your gift to the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, then leave there your gift before the altar, and go your  way; first be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift (Matthew 5:23-24). In that moment he went to a clergyman who had something against him, leaving the service opened, fell before the priest’s feet and begged for forgiveness. After he had made peace with this man did he return to the altar and continued the Liturgy.
Another famous story about the patriarch is that he was once on his way to the Church of Saints Cyrus and he met a needy widow who spoke to him at length about her misfortune. The escorts became bored by the lengthy complaint, and urged the bishop to hurry to the church for the service, saying that he could hear the woman's story afterward. But John replied that: „And how will God listen to me, if I do not listen to her?” So he remained and heard the widow's complaint to the end.
His generosity did draw censure at times. Once a servant of him noticed that someone was abusing the distribution of goods in John's very presence, returning several times in different guises, but John replied that it might be Christ in disguise. Also when there was reported, that among the poor there are also wealthy people receiving alms, John said that Christ may hide under any appearances.
The care for the sick and the enslaved was also among his daily missions. He visited the hospitals three times every week, and he freed a many slaves, by offering money to the one who captured them.
External Politics
The political situation of the Byzantine Empire at the moment wasn’t quite well. The Persian War affected the eastern regions, including Palestine, Syria and Asia Minor. In this situation, John came into a conflict with his friend Nicetas, who was concerned to contribute to Emperor Heraclius’ war effort against the Persians. John firmly resisted and didn’t want to offer from the church’s wealth, which was in his vision the sole property of the poor. Finally Nicetas apologized himself and the Church wasn’t forced to contribute to the war. That doesn’t mean John didn’t care about the fate of the empire, but he tried to help the people who needed supplies. When the Sassanid Persians attacked strongly, St. John extended his mercy to the people of Palestine and Jerusalem (614). He sent convoys of essential supplies to Palestine and welcomed many refugees to Alexandria.
Painting of Titian
Relation with the non-Chalcedonians
John usually refused the controversial discussions. In the patriarchal palace accepted only commentaries on the Scriptures or other spiritual topics. He hosted sometimes learned theologians such as St. Sophronius, future patriarch of Jerusalem, and John Moschus, the author of the Leimonarion (Spiritual Meadow), but in spite of his strongly orthodox position, he was an example of religious tolerance during the Christological disputes. He refused to accept the violence in order to impose the Chalcedonian Orthodoxy. It is true that he used the theological ability of men such as Sophronius and John Moschus to defend the „imperial” position, but that was all. As a result of his efforts the number of Chalcedonian churches in the city increased ten-fold during his reign, according to his Life.
The religious disputes were also political ones, so the emperors urged to find a compromise against the dissolution of the empire.  So, in order to reach reconciliation between the Chalcedonians, who defended the two natures in Christ and the non-Chalcedonians, who defended the one nature, Emperor Heraclius (610-641) imposed a mixed formula, known in the history as „monoenergism” or later as „monothelism”. According to this position, there was defended the Orthodox position of two natures in Christ, but there was affirmed the existence of a single work (mono-erga) and a single will (mono-thelos) in Christ, which in fact was a disguised unorthodox formula, because the human nature would have been practically inactive in the Person of Christ.
John voiced opposition to Heraclius' early attempts at promoting monoenergism as a compromise solution to the schism over Chalcedon, but did not participate in the major controversies that soon developed, and finished with the conclusions of the sixth ecumenical Council of Constantinople (680)
Death of St. John
Saint John was forced to flee Alexandria by the Persian invasion of Egypt in 619, or, after the Western sources, in 616. HeJohn boarded a boat to escape from danger, but along the way he fell ill and, arrived in Cyprus, he reposed at his birthplace, in 620 (or 616).  A few years later much of John’s work of reconciliation with the non-Chalcedonians of Egypt was undone by the violent persecution instituted by Cyrus (631–641), who combined both imperial and ecclesiastical authority as dual prefect and patriarch of Alexandria. During his reign, the Muslims invaded Egypt, who never came back under the Christian rule.
The celebration of St. John the Merciful occurs in the Orthodox Churches on 12 November (26 November in the Churches who respect the old calendar) , although he might have died on 11 November, when he is celebrated in the West. Another day of celebration is 23 January.

The Relics of St. John
The relics of Saint John were soon reported to be wonderworker. There were soon moved to Constantinople, then in 1249, during the 4th Crusade, to Venice. There is a church dedicated to him in Venice, the Church of San Giovanni Elemosinario, but his relics are preserved in another church, San Giovanni in Bragora, in a separate chapel.
Relics in the Cathedral of Bratislava

Column dedicated to the saint
in Casarano, Italy

San Juan el Limosnero, Patriarca de Alejandria
Relics of the saint in the church San Giovanni in Bragora from Venice
Apparently a part of the relics remained after the 4th Crusade further in Constantinople, because there is reported that another relic of St. John was sent by Sultan Bayezid II in 1489 to King Matthias Corvinus of Hungary. It was placed in the private Royal Chapel in Buda Castle, dedicated to St. John.  Now these relics are to be found in the St. John the Merciful Chapel, at the St. Martin's Cathedral in Bratislava, Slovakia. Some other relics are to be found in some monastery in Athos, as Dionisiou (his right hand), Vatopedi, Pantokrator, Dochiariou and Karakallou.
Saint John the Merciful is the Patron saint of the town Casarano, in southern Italy and the original patron saint of the monastic order of the Hospitallers.

Troparion (Hymn) of the Saint
By endurance you gained your reward, venerable Father; you persevered in prayer unceasingly; you loved the poor and provided for them in all things. Blessed John the Merciful, intercede with Christ God that our souls may be saved!

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