Saint of the Day: St. John the Merciful

(Welcome to our Saint of the Day series! Each weekday, we present you with an excerpt from Fr. George Poulos' Orthodox Saints series, published by Holy Cross Orthodox Press.Today's saint, John the Merciful, comes from Volume 4 of the series.) 

Saint John the Merciful

Second only to the Byzantine emperors in both church-state matters, but second to none in the eyes of the people, the patriarchs have been spiritual leaders down through the ages in a common cause of the welfare of mankind and the glory of God, but each has left his own mark on the history of Orthodoxy. One of the noblest and in all probability the most generous of our noble and generous patriarchs was a man named John, whose sensitivity to the needs of the poor and the oppressed earned him the rather appropriate title of John the Merciful. His generosity has tended to obscure his many other attributes, not the least of which was an administrative perceptiveness, a scholarly approach to theology and an unselfish dedication to promoting the well-being of peoples from all parts of the world, regardless of race or creed.

John was born on the island of Cyprus in the year 555, the son of Epiphanios and Kosmia, a devout Christian couple of considerable means who saw to their only child’s every need. The father was not only rich but was the prefect of Cyprus as well, so that John grew up in a cordial atmosphere, enjoying every advantage, knowing nothing of the poverty which he did his best to eliminate later. He was married and thereafter placed in charge of the family enterprises, a duty he pursued with none of the zeal he found in actively participating in church affairs.

John’s religious leanings and strong faith in Jesus Christ stood him in good stead when he was sorely tested by the tragedy of losing in rapid succession not only his parents, but his wife as well to a disease which spared him. Left alone, he gave himself over completely to serving the Messiah and set about alleviating the suffering of so many less fortunate than himself. He adopted the ascetic way of life, disposing of his entire estate for the benefit of the needy and the afflicted. A man of infinite mercy, he saw to the establishment of hospitals to care for the sick, orphanages for homeless children, and the distribution of food to the poor. His largesse knew no bounds, and his philanthropy was made known in every corner of the empire.

Emperor Heraklios was so impressed by John’s kindness that he offered the influence of his office in a sponsorship of John’s ever-increasing benevolence. Soon John was a familiar figure and welcome guest of the royal house at Constantinople. It was at the insistence of the emperor that John agreed to serve as patriarch of Alexandria, a city which received him with wild acclaim and which sorely needed a spiritual leader who could cope with the many problems that beset that Christian community. In 608 John succeeded to the patriarchal throne of St. Mark, the first bishop of Alexandria, a throne which by now was tottering on the brink of financial disaster and was assailed on all sides by divergent factions and heresies. These woes were no match for John, who lost no time in balancing the books and bringing harmony where there had been dissidence for years.

In a few short years John had a spiritually and financially healthy community which rallied to the side of any stricken community, of which there were many in the surrounding area. When a famine set in on the remote British Isles, John managed to fill a ship with food and supplies and boarded the vessel himself to see to the proper distribution once it reached its destination. Shortly after he returned, he was host to hundreds of Syrian refugees who had fled the Persian conquest and sought solace in Alexandria. No one was turned away, and the manner in which John was able to provide from a seemingly endless larder is a tribute to his genius as an organizer and to his ability to induce the affluent to share their wealth.

With the fall of Jerusalem in 614 to the Persians, the already burdened city of Alexandria accepted an additional 7,500 refugees. John not only saw to their needs but was able to raise enough money to ransom the Patriarch Modestos of Jerusalem and to arrange further payment to the Persian conqueror Rasmiozis for sparing the sacred shrines of Christendom in the Holy City. Openly criticized by some, John nevertheless proceeded to expend church funds as well as private donations for the cause of Christianity.

When at last the Persian hordes could no longer be contained, John the Merciful returned to his native Cyprus, where he died in 619. He was the original patron saint of the city of Jerusalem and of the Knights of Malta.
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