Teaching Compassion by Example

PATRIARCHS IN BOTH EAST AND WEST regularly take the name of one of their predecessors. As a result, they are generally identified as the second, third or tenth of that name in that see. The Greek Melkite Patriarch of Alexandria, John V, is an exception to that rule. He is known to history as John the Almsgiver and is remembered in Byzantine Churches on November 12.

Born in c. 552, John was the son of the governor of Cyprus, so his upbringing was that of an aristocrat. He married at his father’s behest, although his preference was for a celibate life. His friend and biographer, Bishop Leontios of Neopolis in Cyprus, wrote that John and his wife lived in continence until her father demanded that they live as husband and wife. The couple yielded to his demands and proceeded to have what Leontios called “a bountiful crop” of children. After a time, the children and then their mother died, leaving John free to live as a celibate devoted to the service of others.

John’s reputation as an extraordinary peacemaker and benefactor of the needy became so widely known over the following decades, that, still a layman, he was chosen – under pressure from Emperor Heraclius – to be Patriarch of Alexandria in 609.

The reason for his extreme generosity was only made known after his death by Leontios. One night when John was 15, he was awakened by a woman “whose face outshone the sun” and identified her as “the first of the daughters of the King.” She promised, “I will lead you into the presence of the King, for no one has as free access to Him as I have.” John knew that the King was the sole Compassionate Lover of mankind and identified this “first daughter” as Compassion. This experience as a teenager set the course of his life.

As patriarch, John immediately set out to assure daily support to over 7000 poor in his eparchy whom he called his “helpers.” Questioned by his staff, John replied, “Those whom you call poor and beggars, these I proclaim my masters and helpers. For they, and they alone, are really able to help us and bestow upon us the kingdom of heaven.”

To discourage the many administrators and employees in his service from taking bribes or being influenced by the rich, John increased all their salaries. At the same time he demanded that they never take a gift from anyone. Leontios notes that “by God’s grace their households so prospered from then on, that some of them did not even take their additional pay.” He himself refused the many gifts offered by people seeking advancement, citing Proverbs 15:27 (lxx): “He that is greedy for gain destroys himself, but he who hates taking gifts shall live.”

Alexandria Under Attack

During John’s eleven years as patriarch, his Church was faced with two insurmountable crises: the Monophysite controversy and the Persian invasion of Egypt. The unity of the Patriarchate of Alexandria had been ruptured at the fifth-century Council of Chalcedon. The terminology used by this council in its teaching on the nature of Christ was inconsistent with the language of St Cyril of Alexandria at the Council of Ephesus a few years earlier. The patriarch of Alexandria, Dioscoros I, who rejected the teaching of Chalcedon, was deposed and exiled. The council replaced him as patriarch with one of its adherents, Proterios of Alexandria. Dioscoros’ followers in Egypt continued to recognize him, as patriarch.

When Dioscoros died in 454, his supporters elected a successor who rejected the teaching of Chalcedon, while Proterios and his successors supported the council. From this point, there would be two hierarchies. The majority of the Egyptian Christians followed Dioscoros and his successors; today they are known as the Coptic Orthodox Church. The Chalcedonians, who followed the successors of Proterios, are now known as the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Alexandria and All Africa.

As long as Alexandria was ruled by the Byzantine Empire there was conflict (often violent) between these two groups. John’s predecessors had attempted to enforce the Council of Chalcedon using the military and had failed. When John became patriarch there were only seven churches in Alexandria following the doctrine of Chalcedon.

John combated the Monophysites, not with arms but with alms. He was accessible to all and his liberality was for all, even for those who tried to cheat him. Approached by a beggar, John gave him six coins. The beggar then changed his clothes and approached from another street with the same request. When he tried a third time he was recognized, but John ordered that the man be given twelve coins: “Perhaps this is my Christ and He is trying me.” As a result his actions were recognized as based on his profound faith. By the end of John’s patriarchate his seven churches had become seventy.

The Persian Invasion

For most of the first millennium the rival “superpowers” in the Middle East were the Roman/Byzantine and the Persian Empires. In the early seventh century the Persians advanced through Syria and by 611 had conquered Syria and parts of Asia Minor.
Many Christians – including a number of bishops and priests – fled from Syria to Egypt. When St John saw that many of these refugees were in need, he built a number of hostels to house them and paid the clergy among them as if they were his own.

When Palestine fell to the Persians a few years later, St John mounted a large program of assistance for the Christians of the Holy Land, and ransomed a large number of captives from the Persians. Leontios notes that the Persians themselves were impressed by his compassion and generosity “for even an enemy respects a man’s virtue.”

The Persian armies invaded Egypt in 618 and seized Alexandria the next year, aiming to depose the prefect and the patriarch. St John took refuge in Cyprus where he survived an assassination attempt but died in Cyprus in the year 620.

From Leontios’ Life of St John

“One day when [St John] determined to stop so many people from leaving the church as soon as the Gospel had been read in order to spend their time in idle talk instead of in prayer, what did he do? As soon as the Gospel had been read in the church he slipped away, came out himself and sat down outside with the crowd. Everyone was amazed, but the righteous one said to them, ‘Children, the shepherd must be where the sheep are. Come inside and I will join you. If you stay here, I will stay too. I come to this church for your sakes – after all, I could hold the service at home in my chapel if it was for myself.’”

When the Arabs seized control of Egypt in 642, the Greek presence in the country was all but eliminated and in later years the Chalcedonian patriarchs often resided in Constantinople, where they adopted the Byzantine rite. It was the arrival of Greek and Syrian Christians in the early nineteenth century which helped revive Egypt’s Chalcedonian (Byzantine) patriarchate. In the twentieth century the Greek Orthodox patriarchate expanded through missionary activity into central and southern Africa. It now has 23 eparchies in countries from Angola to Zimbabwe.