A Summary of On the Priesthood by St. John Chrysostom

Work Cited:

St. John Chrysostom, “On the Priesthood: A Treatise in Six Books” translated by Rev. Patrick Boyle, C.M. The Newman Book Shop, Westminster, Maryland: 1943, print.

Translation used from Greek text, Benedictine edition, found in Migne’s collection of Greek Patrology.StJohnChrysostom.jpg


St. John Chrysostom is the most eloquent, the most popular and most practical preacher that has ever flourished in the Church. Preaching was to him a labour of love. Moral reformation of the people was the end he had in view.

“A single man inflamed with zeal was sufficient to reform a whole people” ~ St. John Chrysostom, Sermon to the people of Antioch, 5, 12.

The source of his eloquence was the holy scripture and his knowledge of the people. The source of his influence over his flock was not so much his eloquence as his love of souls.

“No one has read this book without feeling his heart inflamed with the love of God. It sets forth how venerable and how difficult is the office of the priesthood, and it shows how to fulfill as it ought to be fulfilled.” ~ Isidore of Pelusium

St. John Chrysostom (347-407), a Latin Doctor of the Church, wrote a short treatise as a deacon in a dialogue form between his friend, Basil, and himself on the dignity of the priesthood. During the 4th century, while Christianity was becoming the official religion of Rome, the priesthood was immersed in a new-found power structure that was encapsulating it.

On the Priesthood is really Chrysostom’s defence of why he betrayed Basil in tricking him into getting ordained, while Chrysostom hid.





Book 1

John tricks Basil: Although Basil and John are great friends, John tricks Basil into being the only one ordained (John hid when the men who would ordain them approached).

John defends his deception: by explaining that it is really tact and prudence to find new ways out of difficult situations. The deception was really for the benefit of the one deceived, Basil.

Book 2

John defends refusing the priesthood:

  • Tells Basil his spiritual weakness renders him unfit: no experience in priestly roles, had spent his whole life in vain and worldly things.
  • Chrysostom exalts the priesthood as greater than the monastic life & an overwhelming honour requiring the greatest amount of faithfulness.

“Let the difference between the pastor and his flock be as great as that which exists between senseless beasts and man endowed with reason” ~ St. John, pg. 22

Book 3

John exalts the priesthood:

  • Priests are more august than princes & kings – A king has administration of earthly matters, whereas a priest has administration of heavenly matters (Mt 16:18).
  • Priests are more powerful than parents – they begot us to the present life, but priests to the life to come.
  • A priest needs to be as pure as the angels: sins of a priest injure many and render a far worse judgment for the priest.
  • Priests must be detached from money & good managers of money

“The priesthood far excels royal dignity as the soul excels the body” (38)

“For the office of the priesthood is executed upon earth, yet it ranks amongst things that are heavenly, and with good reason… Wherefore it behoves the priest to be as pure as if he stood in heaven itself amidst those Powers” (40).

“Therefore, the beauty of a priest’s soul should be, in all respects, so resplendent as to gladden and enlighten the souls of all who see him” (58).

“For all measure the gravity of a sin, not by the gravity of the act, but by the dignity of him who commits it” (58).

And all men are ready to pass judgment on the priest as if he was not a being clothed with flesh, or one who inherited a human nature, but like an angel, and emancipated from every species of infirmity (59).

Would you also learn from another miracle the exceeding sanctity of this office? Picture Elijah and the vast multitude standing around him, and the sacrifice laid upon the altar of stones, and all the rest of the people hushed into a deep silence while the prophet alone offers up prayer: then the sudden rush of fire from Heaven upon the sacrifice:—these are marvellous things, charged with terror. Now then pass from this scene to the rites which are celebrated in the present day; they are not only marvellous to behold, but transcendent in terror. There stands the priest, not bringing down fire from Heaven, but the Holy Spirit: and he makes prolonged supplication, not that some flame sent down from on high may consume the offerings, but that grace descending on the sacrifice may thereby enlighten the souls of all, and render them more refulgent than silver purified by fire. Who can despise this most awful mystery, unless he is stark mad and senseless? Or do you not know that no human soul could have endured that fire in the sacrifice, but all would have been utterly consumed, had not the assistance of God’s grace been great.

John Chrysostom. (1889). Treatise concerning the Christian Priesthood. In P. Schaff (Ed.), W. R. W. Stephens (Trans.), Saint Chrysostom: On the Priesthood, Ascetic Treatises, Select Homilies and Letters, Homilies on the Statues (Vol. 9, p. 47). New York: Christian Literature Company.

Book 4

John explains how to discern the call:

“In my opinion, then, though called and pressed by many, a man ought to pay no attention to them but he should first of all examine his own soul, and weigh everything carefully, and only then should he yield to pressure. For no man would venture to undertake to build a house unless he were a builder, nor would any man undertake to heal the sick unless he had a knowledge of medicine” (85-6).

“Impose not hands lightly upon any man; neither be a partaker of other men’s sins” (1 Tim 5:22)

John explains the importance of preaching:

  • A means of healing.
  • Necessity of priest to acquire the skill.
  • Defends St. Paul as an eloquent speaker.

“There is but instrument and means of healing; that is preaching” (92).

“There is but one method and way of healing appointed, after we have gone wrong, and that is, the powerful application of the Word”

“Hence it behoves a priest to make every effort to acquire this talent [effective preaching]” (97).

Book 5

John explains more on preaching:

  • Preaching requires great labour and diligence.
  • Preacher must have contempt of praise – Or else he will preach to please his audience rather than improve them.

A preacher must have a noble disposition to be able to check that inordinate and useless passion of the people, and to direct their attention to what is more profitable, and so to lead and control them without being himself the slave of their fancies. Now this cannot be attained but by two means: that is, by contempt of praise, and by a talent for oratory ~ St. John Chrysotom, pg. 108

Book 6

John on the purity of the priest:

“For the soul of the Priest ought to be purer than the very sunbeams, in order that the Holy Spirit may not leave him desolate, in order that he may be able to say, “Now I live; and yet no longer I, but Christ liveth in me” (121).

How pure should the priest be who takes into his hands the Lord of all at the altar.

The soul of a priest should shine as a light illuminating the whole world (125-6).

Comparing with the life of monks:

  • A monk enjoys greater repose than a bishop. The life of a monk is not such a proof of virtue as the life of a good priest.
    • Manages his ship in the harbour.
  • The practice of virtue is harder for priests who labour for the good of the people than for monks. The sins of the priests are more severely punished than those of the faithful.
    • Manages his ship in the midst of ocean tempest rages.

Also, the priest should be prudent and of wide experience, and no less versed in secular affairs than they who are engaged in them, yet more free from all attachments than monks who dwell in the mountains (126).

 A priest must be in the world but not of the world.

As fire tries metals, so the test of the clerical state tries of what temper are the souls of men. His faults are not only laid bare, but rendered more dangerous and inveterate.

Two illustrations for how Chrysostom feels about being asked to be a priest:

  1. Most beautiful, virtuous woman in the whole world… transcends all other beauties… instead of being married to her love… is now wedded to a crippled, mean, abject, low born man…
  2. The same young man… without any war experience… rushed into the scene of a battle… and asked to lead the troops against the fiercest of enemies. –> Reality is even far worse too! says St. John.

“Do you wish then that I should become a leader of the soldiers of Christ? But this would be to act as general for the devil, for whenever he who ought to marshal and order others is the most inexperienced and feeble of all men, by betraying through this inexperience those who have been entrusted to his charge, he commands them in the devil’s interests rather than in Christ’s” (144)

Basil now realizes the extent of the evil John brought upon him. Begs for John’s help.

On this, he weeping yet more, rose up. But I, having embraced him and kissed his head, led him forth, exhorting him to bear his lot bravely. For I believe, said I, that through Christ who has called thee, and set thee over his own sheep, thou wilt obtain such assurance from this ministry as to receive me also, if I am in danger at the last day, into thine everlasting tabernacle (145).



  1. I am a fan of Chrysostom

  2. Please include links to document indicators (27), (30), etc.

  3. St. John Chrysostom is a wonderful writer

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