Saint Peter Chrysologus, Bishop and Doctor
c. 380–c. 450
July 30—Optional Memorial
Liturgical Color: White
Patron Saint of Imola, Italy, invoked against fever and mad dogs
A golden tongued bishop preaches to a golden city
In 330 A.D., the Emperor Constantine transferred his capital from Rome to a newly constructed city he named after himself in present day Turkey. The Roman Empire and its ancient traditions continued but under a new guise. The Empire slowly oriented itself toward Greek, not Western, art and culture; adopted Orthodoxy, not Catholicism, as its religion; and communicated in the Greek, not the Latin, language. Contantinople’s walls were finally breached in 1453 by the Ottoman Turks, bringing a definitive end to Byzantium, or the Eastern Roman Empire, after more than a millennium. Due to the capital’s transfer in the fourth century, Italy was in disarray at the time of today’s saint in the fifth century. Weeds pushed through the cracked marble of Rome’s ruined temples. The Western emperors, more warlords than kings, migrated back and forth throughout the 400s between disintegrating Rome and a newly fortified city on the Adriatic Sea. It was imperial Ravenna, Byzantium’s sole toehold in Italy. It was a jewel box of a city sparkling with mosaics. Ravenna throughout the 400s and 500s was a mini-Constantinople, Byzantine to its fingertips, basking in the glow of imperial splendor, and abuzz with the construction of palaces, churches, and mausoleums. And it was of vibrant fifth-century Ravenna that Saint Peter Chrysologus was appointed archbishop in about 425 A.D. He served the city well for the next twenty-five years.
Saint Peter preached his first episcopal homily to the empress and is depicted in a contemporary mosaic alongside of her and the emperor, proving Peter mingled with the elites and enjoyed their support. Peter developed a reputation as a skilled preacher. One-hundred-and-seventy-six of his sermons still survive. In later centuries Peter would be given the moniker Chrysologus, the “Golden Worded,” in recognition of his oratorical skills. The name may also have been given by Western theologians to purposefully rival the Eastern world’s famous Saint John Chrysostom, the “Golden Mouthed.”
Apart from his homilies, the only surviving document of Peter’s is a letter he wrote to Eutyches, a central figure in the complex, and sometimes vicious, Christological and Marian debates of the fifth century. Peter vigorously supported Pope Saint Leo the Great’s teachings on the Incarnation, while Eutyches and others in the East had drifted into monophysitism or versions of it. Monophysitism held that Christ possessed a mixed nature which mingled both human and divine elements. The Council of Chalcedon in 451 would formally adopt Leo’s teaching, condemn monophysitism, and teach forever and always that a fully divine nature and a fully human nature dwelled inside the one person of Jesus Christ without confusion, co-mingling, or alteration. This complex reality, called the hypostatic union, is precisely what gives such meaning, color, and richness to all that Christ said and did.
During the burning theological controversies preceding Chalcedon, just after Pope Leo clarified orthodox teaching on Christ’s one person and two natures, Chrysologus wrote his letter to the confused Eutyches. Concisely and charitably, Chrysologus encouraged the heretic to submit to the Bishop of Rome: “Obediently heed these matters of which the most blessed Pope of the city of Rome has written, because Blessed Peter, who lives and presides in his own See, proffers the truth of faith to those who seek it…we cannot decide upon cases of faith without the harmonious agreement of the Bishop of Rome.” Peter’s letter proves just how early and widespread Christianity understood that the Bishop of Rome was the one hub where all of Christianity’s many spokes united.
Although much is known of Peter’s time and place, both theologically and culturally, few details remain of his life or ministry apart from his sermons. These sermons show rhetorical flair in expounding on the Incarnation, Mary’s role in mankind’s redemption, and in the need for penance and conversion. Saint Peter’s golden words impressed the populace of a golden city for decades. We can assume that our saint lived as elegantly as he preached. Saint Peter Chrysologus was proclaimed a Doctor of the Church in 1729.
May all priests and deacons be graced with your passion, clarity, and eloquence, Saint Peter. Help the faithful who seek the fullness of the Word of God to find Him and aid those who are distracted and apathetic to pay heed to God’s interventions in their lives.