St. John the Almsgiver

Author: Rev. Alban Butler


Feast: January 23

He received his surname from his profuse alms-deeds; was nobly descended, very rich, and a widower, at Amathus in Cyprus, where, having buried all his children, he employed the whole income of his estate in the relief of the poor, and was no less remarkable for his great piety. The reputation of his sanctity raised him to the patriarchal chair of Alexandria about the year 608, at which time he was upwards of fifty years of age On his arrival in that city, he ordered an exact list to be taken of his Masters. Being asked who these were, his answer was, "The poor;" namely, on account of than great interest in the court of heaven in behalf of their benefactors.1 Their number amounted to seven thousand five hundred, whom he took under his special protection, and furnished with all necessaries. He prepared himself, by this action, to receive the fulness of grace in his consecration. On the same day he published severe ordinances, but in the most humble terms, conjuring and commanding all to use just weights and measures, in order to prevent injustices and oppressions of the poor. He most rigorously forbade all his officers and servants ever to receive the least presents, which are no better than bribes, and bias the most impartial. Every Wednesday and Friday he sat the whole day on a bench before the church, that all might have free access to him to lay their grievances before him, and make known their necessities. He composed all differences, comforted the afflicted, and relieved the distressed. One of his first actions at Alexandria was to distribute the eighty thousand pieces of gold which he found in the treasury of his church, among hospitals and monasteries. He consecrated to the service of the poor the great revenues of his see, then the first in all the East, both in riches and rank. Besides these, incredible charities flowed through his hands in continual streams, which his example excited every one to contribute according to their abilities. When his stewards complained that he impoverished his church, his answer was, that God would provide for them. To vindicate his conduct, and silence their complaints, he recounted to them a vision he had in his youth, of a beautiful woman, brighter than the sun, with an olive garland on her head, whom he understood to be Charity, or compassion for the miserable; who said to him: "I am the eldest daughter of the great King. If you enjoy my favor, I will introduce you to the great monarch of the universe. No one has so great an interest with him as myself, who was the occasion of his coming down from heaven to become man for the redemption of mankind." When the Persians had plundered the East, and sacked Jerusalem, St. John entertained all that fled from their swords into Egypt; and sent to Jerusalem, for the use of the poor there, besides a large sum of money, one thousand sacks of corn, as many of pulse, one thousand pounds of iron, one thousand loads of fish one thousand barrels of wine, and one thousand Egyptian workmen to assist in rebuilding the churches; adding, in his letter to Modestus, the bishop, that he wished it had been in his power to have gone in person, and contributed the labor of his hands towards carrying on that holy work. He also sent two bishops and an abbot to ransom captives. No number of necessitous objects, no losses, no straits to which he saw himself often reduced, discouraged him, or made him lose his confidence in divine providence, and resources never failed him in the end. When a certain person, whom he had privately relieved with a most bountiful alms, expressed his gratitude in the strongest terms, the saint cut him short, saying, "Brother, I have not yet spilt my blood for you, as Jesus Christ, my master and my God, commands me." A certain merchant, who had been thrice ruined by shipwrecks, bad as often found relief from the good patriarch, who the third time gave him a ship belonging to the church, laden with twenty thousand measures of corn. This vessel was driven by a storm to the British Islands, and a famine raging there, the owners sold their cargo to great advantage, and brought back a considerable value in exchange, one half in money, the other in pewter.

The patriarch lived himself in the greatest austerity and poverty as to diet, apparel, and furniture. A person of distinction in the city, being informed that our saint had but one blanket on his bed, and this a very sorry one, sent him one of value, begging his acceptance of it, and that he would make use of it for the sake of the donor. He accepted of it, and put it to the intended use, but it was only for one night; and this he passed in great uneasiness, with severe self-reproaches for being so richly covered, while so many of his masters (his familiar term for the poor) were so ill accommodated. The next morning he sold it, and gave the price to the poor The friend being informed of it, bought it for thirty-six pieces, and gave it him a second, and a third time; for the saint always disposed of it in the same way, saying facetiously, "We shall see who will be tired first." He was well versed in the scriptures, though a stranger to the pomp of profane eloquence. The functions of his ministry, prayer, and pious reading, employed his whole time. He studied with great circumspection to avoid the least idle word, and never chose to speak about temporal affairs, unless compelled by necessity, and then only in very few words. If he heard any detract from the reputation of their neighbor, he was ingenious in turning the discourse to some other subject, and he forbade them his house, to deter others from that vice. Hearing that when an emperor was chosen, it was customary for certain carvers to present to him four or five blocks of marble, to choose one out of them for his tomb, he caused his grave to be half dug, and appointed a man to come to him on ail occasions of pomp, and say "My lord, your tomb is unfinished; be pleased to give your orders to have it completed, for you know not the hour when death will seize you." The remembrance of the rigorous account which we are to give to God, made him often burst into the most pathetic expressions of holy fear. But humility was his distinguishing virtue, and he always expressed, both in words and actions, the deepest sentiments of his own nothingness, sinfulness, miseries, and pride. He often admired how perfectly the saints saw their own imperfections, and that they were dust, worms, and unworthy to be ranked among men.

The saint regarded injuries as his greatest gain and happiness. He always disarmed his enemies of their rancor by meekness, and frequently fell at the feet of those who insulted him, to beg their pardon. Nicetas, the governor, had formed a project of a new tax, very prejudicial to the poor. The patriarch modestly spoke in their defence. The governor in a passion left him abruptly. St. John sent him this message towards evening "The sun is going to set:" putting him in mind of the advice of the apostle: Let not the sun go down upon your anger. This admonition had its intended effect on the governor, and pierced him to the quick. He arose, and went to the patriarch, bathed in tears, asked his pardon, and by way of atonement, promised never more to give ear to informers and tale-bearers. St. John confirmed him in that resolution, adding, that he never believed any man whatever against another, till he himself had examined the party accused; and that he punished all calumniators and tale-bearers in a manner which might deter others from so fatal a vice. Having in vain exhorted a certain nobleman to forgive one with whom he was at variance, he soon after invited him to his private chapel to assist at his mass, and there desired him to recite with him the Lord's prayer. The saint stopped at that petition; Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those that trespass against us. When the nobleman had recited it alone, he conjured him to reflect on what he had been saying to God at the hour of the tremendous mysteries, begging to be pardoned in the same manner as he forgave others. The other, feeling himself struck to the heart, fell at his feet, and from that moment was sincerely reconciled with his adversary. The saint often exhorted men against rash judgment, saying, "Circumstances easily deceive us: magistrates are bound to examine and judge criminals; but what have private persons to do with others, unless it be to vindicate them?" He used to relate many examples of persons who were found innocent and eminent saints, though they had been condemned by the world upon circumstances; as that of a certain monk, who brought to that city a Jewess whom he had converted, but was accused as guilty of lewdness with her, and cruelly scourged; for he said nothing to justify himself, out of a desire of humiliation and suffering. But his innocence and sanctity were soon after brought to light. St. John employed Sophronius and John Moschus in reducing to the faith the Severians and other heretics. Observing that many amused themselves without the church, during part of the divine office, which was then of a very considerable length, he followed them out, and seated himself among them, saying, "My children, the shepherd must be with his flock." This action, which covered them with confusion, prevented their being guilty of that irreverence any more. As he was one day going to church, he was accosted on the way by a woman who demanded justice against her son-in-law that had injured her. The woman being ordered by some standers-by to wait the patriarch's return from church, he overhearing them, said, "How can I hope that God will hear my prayer, if I put off the petition of this woman?" Nor did he stir from the place till he had redressed the grievance complained of.

Nicetas, the governor, persuaded the saint to accompany him to Constantinople, to pay a visit to the emperor. St. John was admonished from heaven, while he was on his way, at Rhodes, that his death drew near, and said to Nicetas, "You invite me to the emperor of the earth; but the King of heaven calls me to himself." He therefore sailed for Cyprus, and soon after died happily at Amathus, about the year of our Lord 619, in the sixty-fourth of his age, and tenth of his patriarchal dignity. His body was afterwards carried to Constantinople, where it was kept a long time. Fine Turkish emperor made a present of it to Matthias, king of Hungary, which he deposited in his chapel at Buda. In 1530 it was translated to Tall, near Presbourg; and, in 1632, to the cathedral itself of Presbourg, where, according to Bollandus, it still remains. The Greeks honor this saint on the 11th of November, the day of his death; but the Roman Martyrology on the 23d of January, the day marked for the translation of his relics. His life, written by his two vicars, Sophronius and Moschus, is lost; but we have that by Leontius, bishop of Naplouse in Cyprus, from the relation of the saint's clergy, commended in the seventh general council. It is published more correct by Rosweide and Bollandus. We have another life of this saint, conformable to the former, given us by Metaphrastes.. See Le Quien, Oriens Christi, t. 2, p. 446.


1 Luke xvi 9.

(Taken from Vol. I of "The Lives or the Fathers, Martyrs and Other Principal Saints" by the Rev. Alban Butler, the 1864 edition published by D. & J. Sadlier, & Company)