St. John the Almoner, Archbishop of Alexandria: 23 January

Br. Columba Maria

A native of Cyprus, he had been married in early life but, both his children having died, he studied and was ordained to the Priesthood when over 50. By the will of God, he was consecrated Archbishop of Alexandria in Egypt in 606. On taking possession of this important see, he told his assistants, “Go through the town and draw me up a list of all my masters.” They not understanding, he replied, “I call my masters and helpers them whom you call the beggars and mendicant, since it is they who will help us and give us the kingdom of heaven.”

The list was duly drawn up, numbering 7,500 souls, and he commanded that each day each should be given what was necessary to live. His assistants remonstrated from time to time that he was naïve; occasionally, for example, someone would appear wearing jewellery who they would declare unworthy of alms. But our saint (like other saints!) would have none of it: “If you want to be distributors of humble John, or moreover Jesus Christ, obey simply what is commanded you by these words: ‘Give to all who asketh of thee’… if all the men in the world were assembled in Alexandria to ask an alms, it would not exhaust His treasures nor those of His church.”

There are many extraordinary examples in his life that demonstrate how God rewards fraternal charity. One tells of a merchant shipman who suffered a great loss at sea and came to beg of John, who said to him: “The Lord Our God, Who must be forever blessed, have mercy on you. I am persuaded that no more shipwreck will befall you, and you only fell into this one because the ship itself was ill-gotten.” He put him in charge of a ship that belonged to the church in Alexandria, and with a cargo of 20,000 bushels of wheat. Though the man’s patience was tried by stormy weather, he at length rolled up on the British coast, and the natives were only too happy to pay well for his cargo as they were suffering a famine.

The senator Nicetas saw both the generosity of the patriarch and the treasures at his disposal and thought the imperial finances could benefit from them. Coming to see John, who was not at all disturbed, John addressed him: “I do not believe it would be just to give to an earthly king what is given to the king of heaven. But if you are persuaded to the contrary, I say to you that humble John will not give you a pound, but there under my bed is the chest where I put the money of Jesus Christ; do what you will with it.” The senator brought two assistants and they all but emptied the church’s coffer. On their way they passed some messengers arriving from Africa with fresh cargo—jars labelled “Excellent Honey”. Nicetas remembered that John never held a grudge and asked the messengers to ask John for a jar for him. The jars actually contained money, and the patriarch duly sent him a jar by the messengers, telling them to open it in his presence, and to read him this note: “Our Lord, Who said ‘I will not abandon you,’ is incapable of lying, because He is the true God. And so a miserable man, who will one day be the food of worms, should know better than to tie His hands, Him who gives food and life to all creatures.” Nicetas was cut to the quick and went back to John to confess his fault. They became good friends.

Another year, the Nile did not flood its banks as customary, with a resultant scarcity. A rich man, Cosmas, who had been married twice, thought that he might, in giving much of his fortune to John for the poor, succeed in having himself raised to the diaconate. John delicately told the man, “While charity does cover a multitude of sins, it is also true, as Saint James tells us, that whoever does not observe the law in all its extent, but sins against one of the commandments, is guilty. And He Who has hitherto multiplied five loaves can also multiply the bushels of wheat that are still in my cellar. So I say to you, my son, what is said in the Acts of the Apostles: "You have no part in this good work, and will have no share in the fruit.’” As Cosmas went sadly away, news arrived of two ships arriving back, full of Sicilian wheat.

John erected winter shelters for the poor in Caesarea, and was visiting them one day with one of his suffragan bishops, Troïle, who was very fond of money, and that day had 30 pounds of gold to buy engraved tableware. Hearing of this, John said to him, “My brother Troïle, love and help the brothers of Jesus Christ.” These words somehow did the trick and he handed John the money. When he got home, however, he became so agitated at his loss that he succumbed to a fever and took to his bed. The Patriarch heard of it and visited him. He told him that he had wanted to give each of the poor some money, and that his treasurer not having enough, he had asked him for some. Now, however, he was able to reimburse him, and handed him over 30 pounds. Troïle was delighted and was soon on his feet again. John mischievously then asked him for a written transfer of the heavenly reward he would naturally have gotten for the alms. Bishop Troïle duly wrote one out. That night in a dream, however, he saw his name being taken off the door to an indescribably beautiful heavenly mansion, and replaced with John’s. He became very charitable.

Saint John died on 11 November 619 or 620, and his feast is celebrated in the West on 23 January, the anniversary of the translation of his relics from his native Cyprus, where he had been buried between two earlier Bishops who kindly rolled over to make room for him in the tomb!

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