Posterity often gives to leaders nicknames that record their most striking traits. Guess what the Greek Christians of Alexandria, Egypt, found the chief trait of their generous archbishop patriarch John?
For fourteen centuries, Christianity – East and West – has remembered him solely as Joannes Eleemosynarius: John the Giver of Alms.
John was born in the isle of Cyprus around 550 AD, the son of the governor. A nobleman of means, John married young and had several children. Death soon took away both his wife and family. The devout widower therefore resolved to become a monk. On entering the monastery, he gave his personal wealth to the needy, and soon won the respect of all as a person of gentle holiness.
Around the year 608, the Greek Christians of the great patriarchate of Alexandria, having lost their bishop, asked that this John of Cyprus be named to succeed him. Now about fifty, John accepted. The diocese he took over was in a sad state. Theological disputes and other antagonisms had well nigh destroyed the spirit of mutual love among its Christians. The task of reconciliation seemed almost superhuman.
The new patriarch came prepared with a solution that was superhuman. He would set an example of Christian charity towards the poor. That, he rightly believed, would re-create an atmosphere of love among his people.
On first arriving, John asked for a list of his “lords and masters.” “Who?” they asked him. “The poor,” he replied. The poor who go to heaven, he explained, are most powerful in helping those who have helped them on earth. We need that help. So he was given a list of 7500 known poor. These he took under his official protection.
Every Wednesday and Friday he sat all day in front of the church to receive anybody who was in need or had other complaints. For those poor people and for local charitable institutions he emptied the diocesan treasury. “God will provide,” he said to his treasurers, when they gasped at seeing the diocesan capital depleted. At the same time, he forbade all his officers and servants to accept presents, which were a sort of bribe. He likewise saw to it that taxes imposed on the poor were repealed, and that fraudulent weights and measurements used so oppressively in dealing with the lower classes were standardized. When refugees from Syria and Palestine swarmed into Egypt before the plundering armies of Persia, Patriarch John gave them first aid and helped them to rebuild the nations of the displaced persons.
All along, John set a constant example of personal charity. Once, for instance, an admiring friend gave him a warm rug to replace the one thin blanket on his bed. Uncomfortable about this luxury, the bishop used it one night only. The next day he sold it and gave the price to the poor. His benefactor, learning of the trick, gave him a new blanket, which he promptly sold; then still another and another. John told him, with a smile, “We shall see who will get tired first.”
The point was, of course, that when others saw his love for the needy, they opened their own purses. If they didn’t, he good-naturedly ribbed them until they forked over for the poor.
Meanwhile, Patriarch John was taking good care of his other church duties. One delightful story is told of his dealings with those who were casual about attending Mass. Noticing that many amused themselves outside the church during divine service, he went out one day during the liturgy and sat among them. “My children,” he explained, “the shepherd must be with his flock” Embarrassed by this tender rebuke, they missed Mass no more.
John died in exile in 619 because of a Persian invasion, although he met his end, it so happened, in his native Cyprus. But he left Alexandria a far better place than he had found it.
In his youth, John the Almsgiver had had a vision of a beautiful woman wearing a crown of olive leaves. Identifying herself as Charity or Compassion, she had said to him, “I am the oldest daughter of the King. If you will be my friend, I will lead you to Him.”
Following her counsel, he had brought charity back to Alexandria. He had also become a symbol of compassionate love to all Christians. Today he is honored as a man of supreme charity by Christians of both East and West.
–Father Robert F. McNamara