John was born in Amathus of Cyprus c. 550 to the patrician Epiphanios, a governor of the island. He married and had children, but was a widower when he was called to become Patriarch of Alexandria on the recommendation of his friend, the city’s imperial prefect Niketas. The Chalcedonian see of Alexandria had been vacant since the death in 609 of Theodore during the capture of the city by Niketas. In 611 John assumed the throne, becoming the fifth Chalcedonian bishop of Alexandria to bear that name.
“Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy,” said our Lord in His Sermon on the Mount. Patriarch John was remarkable for his almsgiving or mercy (eleemosyne in Greek, hence his title Eleemon, or Mercilful). To someone who was astounded at his generosity he recounted a vision he had seen in his youth in which Compassion appeared to him as a beautiful maiden and told him that she was the eldest daughter of God. The Patriarchate of Alexandria had at its disposal immense wealth in both money and commercial enterprises, including shipping, and John put it all at the disposal of the poor. At the beginning of his patriarchal service he ordered his stewards to compile a list of all the poor and downtrodden in Alexandria, which turned out to be over seven thousand men. The Saint ordered that all of these unfortunates be provided for each day out of the church’s treasury. He was not only liberal with the resources of his see, but with his own goods. In one incident in his Life he felt remorseful for accepting a richly-embroidered blanket as a gift and was unable to sleep until he sold it and gave the proceeds to the poor. He also made himself available to anyone who had a petition, grievance, or request.
Twice during the week, on Wednesdays and Fridays, he emerged from the doors of the patriarchal cathedral, and sitting on the church portico, he received everyone in need. He settled quarrels, helped the wronged, and distributed alms. Three times a week he visited the sick-houses, and rendered assistance to the suffering.
Twice the Saint gave money to a merchant that had suffered shipwreck, and a third time gave him a ship belonging to the Patriarchate and filled with grain, with which the merchant had a successful journey and repaid his obligations. Another time, as he was on his way to the Church of Saints Cyrus and John, it happened that he met a needy and unfortunate widow who spoke to him at length about her misfortune. The Patriarch’s escorts became bored by the woman’s lengthy complaint, and urged the bishop to hurry to the church for the service, intimating that he could hear the woman’s story afterward. John said to them: “And how will God listen to me, if I do not listen to her?” He would not leave until he heard the widow’s complaint to the end.
His generosity did draw censure at times. The Saint never refused suppliants. One day, when the Saint was visiting the sick, he met a beggar and commanded that he be given six silver coins. The beggar changed his clothes, ran on ahead of the Patriarch, and again asked for alms. Patriarch John gave him six more silver coins. When, however, the beggar sought charity a third time, and the servants began to chase the fellow away, the Patriarch ordered that he be given twelve pieces of silver, saying, “Perhaps he is Christ putting me to the test.” In another case he came to loggerheads with his friend Niketas when the latter, concerned to contribute to Emperor Heraclius’ war effort against the Persians, tried to appropriate some of the church’s wealth to that end, an attempt which John firmly resisted and which ended in Niketas’ apology.
His care was not limited to his own flock in Alexandria, but extended to the people of Palestine in their sufferings during the Persian invasion and sack of Jerusalem. John sent convoys of essential supplies to Palestine and welcomed many refugees to Alexandria.
Patriarch John took care of spiritual as well as bodily nourishment, and in meals and other gatherings in the patriarchal palace would only converse on the Scriptures or other spiritual topics. He also patronized the learned wanderers Saints Sophronios, future patriarch of Jerusalem, and John Moschos, author of the Leimonarion (Spiritual Meadow).
John the Merciful was known for his gentle attitude towards people. Once, the Saint was compelled to excommunicate two clergymen for a certain time because of some offense. One of them repented, but the other fellow became angry with the Patriarch and fell into greater sins. The Saint wanted to summon him and calm him with kind words, but it slipped his mind. When he was celebrating the Divine Liturgy, the Saint was suddenly reminded by the words of the Gospel: “If you bring your gift to the altar and remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift before the altar … first, be reconciled with your brother, and then come and offer your gift” (Mt. 5:23-24). The Saint came out of the altar, called the offending clergyman to him, and falling down on his knees before him in front of all the people he asked forgiveness. The cleric, filled with remorse, repented of his sin, corrected himself, and afterwards was found worthy to be ordained to the priesthood.
There was a time when a certain citizen insulted George, the Patriarch’s nephew. George asked the Saint to avenge the wrong. The Saint promised to deal with the offender so that all of Alexandria would marvel at what he had done. This calmed George, and John began to instruct him, speaking of the necessity for meekness and humility. Then he summoned the man who insulted George. When Patriarch John learned that the man lived in a house owned by the church, he declared that he would excuse him from paying rent for an entire year. Alexandria indeed was amazed by such a “revenge,” and George learned from his uncle how to forgive offenses and to bear insults for God’s sake.
John, a strict ascetic and man of prayer, was always mindful of his soul, and of death. He ordered a coffin for himself, but told the craftsmen not to finish it. Instead, he would have them come each feastday and ask if it was time to finish the work.
Patriarch John has been considered an example of religious tolerance during the divisive Christological disputes of Late Antiquity, but the evidence for this is mostly negative, as he is not presented in his Life as using violence to impose Chalcedonian Orthodoxy. It is clear from his Life that he was a firm supporter of Chalcedonian doctrine and that he used the theological ability of men such as Sophronios and John Moschos to defend and promote it. As a result of his efforts the number of Chalcedonian churches in the city increased ten-fold during his patriarchal reign, according to his Life.
Patriarch John voiced opposition to Heraclius’ early attempts at promoting monoenergism as a compromise solution to the schism over Chalcedon, but did not participate in the major controversies that soon developed. He was forced to flee Alexandria by the Persian invasion of Egypt in 619. Returning to Cyprus, he died soon thereafter. A few years later much of John’s work of reconciliation with the Non-Chalcedonians of Egypt was undone by the violent persecution instituted by Cyrus, who combined both imperial and ecclesiastical authority as dual prefect and patriarch of Alexandria.
After Saint John entered the eternal Kingdom of his Lord, his wonderworking and incorrupt relics were translated to Constantinople, then to Budapest and Presburg, and finally settled in Venice. The main source for his biography is a Life written by Leontios of Neapolis in Cyprus. John is commemorated in the Orthodox Church on November 12.
John distributed and gave to the hungry, which was received by Christ who stood beside them!The Merciful departed on the twelfth without anything.
Apolytikion in the Plagal of the Fourth Tone
In patiently enduring, you obtained your reward, O venerable father. You persevered in your prayers without ceasing; and you loved the impoverished and you satisfied them. We entreat you, intercede with Christ God, O blessed John the Merciful, for the salvation of our souls.
Kontakion in the Second Tone
Thy riches and wealth didst thou disperse unto the poor; thou now hast received the Heavens’ riches in return. For this cause, O all-wise John, we all honour thee with our songs of praise as we keep thy memorial, O namesake of almsgiving and of mercy