"Today the concept of truth is viewed with suspicion, because truth is identified with violence. Over history there have, unfortunately, been episodes when people sought to defend the truth with violence. But they are two contrasting realities. Truth cannot be imposed with means other than itself! Truth can only come with its own light. Yet, we need truth. ... Without truth we are blind in the world, we have no path to follow. The great gift of Christ was that He enabled us to see the face of God".Pope Benedict xvi, February 24th, 2012

The Church is ecumenical, catholic, God-human, ageless, and it is therefore a blasphemy—an unpardonable blasphemy against Christ and against the Holy Ghost—to turn the Church into a national institution, to narrow her down to petty, transient, time-bound aspirations and ways of doing things. Her purpose is beyond nationality, ecumenical, all-embracing: to unite all men in Christ, all without exception to nation or race or social strata. - St Justin Popovitch

Monday 18 January 2016


[Irenikon] "God's Mercy is Greater!"

by Father Dr. Hubert van Dijk, ORC

Doctor of the Church for the third millennium St. Therese of Lisieux

St Therese of Lisieux, who was declared Doctor of the Church by Pope John Paul II on October 19, 1997, felt the calling in the monastery to teach others and wanted to be a teacher (docteur)1  Early on, God revealed the mysteries of His Love to her. She writes about this: "Ah! Had the learned who spent their life in study come to me, undoubtedly they would have been astonished to see a child of fourteen understand perfection's secrets, secrets all their knowledge cannot reveal because to possess them one has to be poor in spirit!" 2

In his apostolic letter Divini Amoris Scientia, published when St Therese was declared Doctor of the Church, the Holy Father says that one should not look for a scientific revelation of God's mysteries."Thus we can rightly recognize in the Saint of Lisieux the charism of a Doctor of the Church, because of the gift of the Holy Spirit she received for living and expressing her experience faith, and because of her particular understanding of the mystery of Christ... That assimilation was certainly favored by the most singular natural gifts, but it was also evidently something prodigious, due to a charism of wisdom from the Holy Spirit."3

Her writings offer an abundance of ideas concerning practically every field in theology and spirituality, a multitude which even a hundred years after her death bas been far from exhausted. As the popes repeatedly express: Therese of Lisieux is a gift to the Church. Before the year 2000, she was declared Doctor of the Church, becoming the third woman amongst the thirty-three recognized Doctors of the Church. She died young. Not only is she the youngest of all, but also the best known, loved, and read! Already she has given the Church a lot, and in the dawn of a new millennium, she will continue to bless the faithful with her many gifts. Thus, she is also known as "Doctor of the Church of the third millennium."

"One does not need to go to Purgatory"

Little Therese's theology is a theology that springs from life, a theology of experience. She received a fervent Catholic upbringing at home, in her parish community, as well as at the school of the Benedictine nuns in Lisieux, and thus, she was familiar with the teaching of Purgatory. Being lead by-the Holy Spirit, thoughts, notions, and ideas developed which finally became, "The teaching of the Little Flower on Purgatory."4

The common teaching within the Church is that Purgatory can hardly be avoided. While still only a novice, the saint commented about this with one of the sisters,  Sr. Maria Philomena, who believed in the near impossibility of going to heaven without passing through purgatory:

You do not have enough trust. You have too much fear before the good God. I can assure you that He is grieved over this. You should not fear Purgatory because of the suffering there, but should instead ask that you not deserve to go there in order to please God, Who so reluctantly imposes this punishment. As soon as you try to please Him in everything and have an unshakable trust He purifies you every moment in His love and He lets no sin remain. And then you can be sure that you will not have to go to Purgatory.5
She even said that we would offend God if we didn't trust enough that we would get to heaven right after dying. When she found out that her novices talked occasionally that they would probably have to expect to be in Purgatory, she corrected them saying: "Oh! How you grieve me! You do a great injury to God in believing you're going to Purgatory. When we love, we can't go there."6 Now, this is a new doctrine, but only for those who don't know God, who are not childlike, who don't trust. It is so correct to see things this way. It is true that God will judge us at one point, but He is always and first our Father Who... suffers when He has to punish His child and sees its suffering. The child should do His will just out of love, and not to avoid punishment. And this really means that God does not want Purgatory! He allows that His children suffer, but only as if He had to look away.7

   If St. Therese is correct that one does not need to be in Purgatory because God Himself does not want this and would love to help us, the thought that Purgatory can be avoided is suddenly not so far-fetched anymore. But first there is the problem of the . aforementioned opinion which says that only few will avoid Purgatory. This is confirmed by great saints and mystics like St. John of the Cross who says, "Only a small number of souls achieve perfect love"8 (perfect love is necessary to go straight to heaven). St. Teresa of Avila also had the experience that only few will be able to avoid Purgatory.9 St. John Vianney said, "It is definite that only a few chosen ones do not go to Purgatory and the suffering there that one must endure, exceeds our imagination."10

One also has to take into consideration that even practicing Christians are convinced that even the good and faithful and those consecrated to God will have to be exposed to purification in Purgatory for a certain amount of time. The reason for this is always the same: "It is not easy to avoid Purgatory. No one is a saint, and I will certainly have to spend some time there myself." They add to this that "God is just" or "we certainly deserve this."

Therefore, it is even more amazing what St. Therese has to say. Once she encouraged her novice, Sr. Marie de la Trinire to have the faith that it was possible even for her to get to heaven right away. She wondered "If I fail even in: the smallest things, " may I still hope to get straight to heaven?" St Therese, who knew well the weaknesses of her novice, replied: "Yes! God is so good. He will know how He can come and get you. But despite this, try to be faithful, so that He does not wait in vain for your love."11

God is Father rather than Judge.

Once St. Therese had a confrontation regarding this topic with Sr. Marie Febronia, who not only was sixty-seven years old but also was sub-prioress. She had heard that St. Therese encouraged the novices to believe that they could go straight to heaven. She did not like this as she considered this kind of confidence presumptuous, and thus she reproached St Therese. St Therese tried lovingly and calmly to explain to Sr. Febronia her point of view but with no success as Sr. Febronia clung to belief. For St. Therese God was more Father than Judge, and she took the liberty of finally responding, "My sister, if you look for the justice of God you will get it. The soul will receive from God exactly what she desires."

The year had not passed when, in January 1892, Sr. M. Febronia together with other sisters fell prey to the flu and died. Three months later Sr. Therese had a dream which she related to her Mother Prioress and which was then documented: 
"O my Mother, my Sr. M Febronia came to me last night and asked that we should pray for her:. She is in Purgatory, surely because she had trusted too little in the mercy of the good Lord. Through her imploring behavior and her profound looks, it seemed she wanted to say, You were right. I am now delivered up to the full justice of God but it is my fault. If I had listened to you I would not be here now."12

St. Therese's "doctrine" in 7 key words

1. Purgatory became a rule rather than the exception.
An infinite number of souls who suffer in Purgatory and for whom the Church prays daily after consecration did not need to go there. If we think in human terms, God does not wish for us to need Purgatory. God does not put us here on earth, where we are tested and are suffering after the fall, only to let us suffer again--and much worse--in Purgatory. Everyone receives enough graces in order to go straight to God after passing the trials on earth. However, Purgatory is an emergency entry to Heaven for those who have wasted their time. However, what God considered the exception became the rule, and the rule--to go straight to heaven--became the exception.

2. To cope with the "inevitable" is a grave error.
Since God does not really want Purgatory, He does not want it for me either! But then I also have to not want it! Nobody would expose themselves to the danger of Purgatory by living a mediocre and--as is the case so often today--a sinful life. If they only thought of the intense sufferings in Purgatory. In this regard, the mystics unanimously say that the least suffering in Purgatory is much greater than the greatest suffering here on earth! The reason for this is that once in Purgatory, one does not go through the time of God's Mercy but of God's Justice. Here, the Lord's word applies: "1 tell you, you will not get out until you have paid the very last copper' (Lk 12:59). The many who carelessly say, "I will probably spend some time there," are gravely wrong. Nobody just spends some time there, one has to suffer there like one has never suffered nor could have suffered while on earth. One often even suffers a long time there also. If the Poor Souls in Purgatory had known on earth what to expect in eternity, Purgatory would have remained empty.
3. Purgatory is a waste of time.

   This is what St. Therese says, "I know that of myself I would not merit even to enter that place of expiation since only holy souls can have entrance there. But I also know that the Fire of Love is more sanctifying than is the tire of Purgatory. I know that Jesus cannot desire useless sufferings for us, and that He would not inspire the longings I feel unless He wanted to grant them."13 It is true that Purgatory is a wonderful grace, for if needed, without the purification in Purgatory we would not go to Heaven, and the work of art which God intended and created us to be would not be completed. But St. Therese is right: at the moment of our death we already have our place in Heaven. Afterwards, there is no growing in grace anymore. Whoever does not go through Purgatory does not miss anything.

4. We need a more positive image of God.

We already know that St. Therese told her novices that they offended God when they thought they would go to Purgatory. That is a very shocking statement: for if this is correct millions of Christians are offending God or at least hurt Him. And yet this is the case. They are focused only on themselves, thinking--not without reason--that they deserve Purgatory. They do not notice God Who is by their side and would love to help them so much. The fact that we fear Purgatory so much also has to do with a rather negative image that we have of God. We, Christians of the 20th Century, were like so many, raised with the image of a strict God, anxious to punish us as often as we deserve it. This thinking goes back to heresies like Jansenism. Quietism, or Calvinism. 14

5. Love banishes fear

The question of whether Heaven will follow right after death is a question of trust. God does not need our merits in order to take us straight to Him but He needs all of our trust. Or the other way around--it is not -our sins that can prevent God from giving us this grace but rather our lack of trust. Therefore, we must draw the conclusion that everything depends solely on trust. There is no trust without perfect love. And vice versa, there is no love without trust.

And this is exactly what the Apostle John writes in his first letter, "In this is love perfected with us, that we may have confidence for the day of judgment, because as He is so are we in this world. There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and he who fears is not perfected in love" (1 Jn. 4:17-18)
This text enlightens our topic very much. Judgment Day is the day of our death. Whoever achieves perfect love at the moment of their death sees God as so merciful and generous that they cannot believe in punishment in Purgatory. We are dealing with the same kind of grace in the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick. St. Thomas Aquinas teaches us that this Sacrament has as its real fruit the wiping out of punishment due to our sins.15 After those who have received the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick, others present often notice that the sick enter a period of growing peace and trust, together with a great surrender to the Will of God, and even serenity and desire for Heaven. This also applies to those who up to that point did not believe or even lived in mortal sin. Even these people, as the great theologians of the scholastics say--for example, St. Albert the Great or St. Bonaventure--go straight to Heaven without having to go through Purgatory first. This shows the wonderful grace coming from the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick.16

6. The last will be the first.

While many Christians do receive the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick, experience tells us that they do not go straight to Heaven. The mystics often relate that many priests and religious suffer a long time and have to wait for their release. However, all of them or almost all of them have received the Sacrament of the Anointing. What is the reason for this? The answer is certainly that they did not receive the Sacrament with the necessary repentance or surrender to the Will of God, or that they did not want to change their flaws and vices a long time before their death.

St. Therese of Lisieux tells us that she heard that sometimes great saints with many merits come before the Judgment of God, but have to go to Purgatory because our justice before God is often unclean. That is why she recommends to give immediately away all the merits of our good deeds, and that it is better to appear before God empty-handed.17 She recommends to her oldest sister and godmother Marie, to be given Heaven free of charge by God.18

While on the one hand the first ones don't always get to Heaven first, on the other hand there are enough examples that the last ones become the first ones. Therese refers in her writings to the Lord's mercy towards the good thief,19 and wishes that the story from the "desert fathers," about how a great sinner called Paesie died out of love and is being taken straight to heaven, should be added to her autobiography, "Souls will understand immediately, for it is a striking example of what I'm trying to say."20 

When our great hour comes, as St. Therese writes to Abbe Roulland, missionary in China, if only we trust, the Blessed Virgin will obtain "the grace of making an act of perfect love" should we have "some trace of human weakness" and so will we reach heaven immediately after death.21

7. St. Therese's teaching, a great message for the third millennium
One can rightfully say that Therese is turning all common opinions on Purgatory upside down.22 She wants to appear before God empty-handed and explains why it can be easier for sinners who have nothing to rely upon, to reach Heaven than the great saints with all their merits.. She emphasizes that trust alone is enough, that merits are no guarantee but often an obstacle for the straight way to Heaven, and that sins do not need to be an obstacle. After a 'messed-up' life, God can still take one straight to Heaven if the dying person only has trust. And how easy it can be to trust if there are no merits but only one's misery! Through trust she shows the shorter way to Heaven to the small and humble. And so many can and will go that way. She writes about this to her sister Marie: "... what pleases Him (God) is that He sees me loving my littleness and my poverty, the blind hope that I have in His mercy... That is my only treasure, dear Godmother, why should this treasure not be yours?..."23
As has been said, she has made sanctity available for everyone through her little way, and this is also true for the straight way to Heaven... This will no longer be an exception. Once those who are smart enough to gather from the treasures of our new Doctor of the Church will walk this way easily, especially those who want to be part of the legion of little souls which St. Therese asked God for at the end of her manuscript B, "I beg You to cast Your Divine Glance upon a great number of little souls. I beg You to choose a legion of little Victims worthy of Your LOVE!"24 Yes, by listening to her wonderful message there will be many, many souls... and with that, Purgatory stops being the unavoidable detour to Heaven!


    St. Therese of the Child Jesus gave us a lot to think about. There are yet many new thoughts to be understood in terms of theology. For us, however, the most important, even existentially significant of everything she wrote is the message on Purgatory. The question of what happens to us after death should move us deeply. Let us just remember Sr. Febronia and her suffering in Purgatory; her silent message from the next world should move us. "It seemed," says Therese, "as if she wanted to say: If I had listened to you I would not be here now." This is actually shocking when you think about it. One has to admit that Sr. Febronia entered the next world through the wrong door. And with her, thousands and millions who would have managed to avoid Purgatory. And why did they not achieve this? The simple reason is that nobody showed them the correct way. Considering this, one does understand that Therese is a true gift to the Church. God gave her to us as leader and comforter for the apocalyptic days in which we very obviously live. Her message concerning Purgatory is a true grace of God' s merciful love for the moment of our death. One can apply the urgent exhortation of our LORD: "'He who has ears to hear. let him hear" (Lk. 8:8).

Father Dr. Hubert van Dijk, ORC

1. I would like to enlighten souls-as did the Prophets and the Doctors.' St Therese of Lisieux. Story of a Soul. ICS. Washington
    DC, 1996, Ms B, 2v, pg. 192.
2. St. Therese of Lisieux. Story of a SOUL, ICS, Washington DC, 1996, Ms A, 49r. Jig. 105.
3. Divini Amoris, I.c., Nr. 7.
4. Philippe de la Trinite, La Doctrine de Sainte Therese sur Ie Purgatoire. Editions du Parvis, CH-1648 Hauteville/Suisse 1992,
    pg. 16. .
5. Annales de Sainte Therese, Lisieux. Nr. 610, Febr. 1982. Translated from the German.
6. Last Conversations, ICS. Washington DC. 1971, pg 273..
7. La Doctrine, l.c. pg 16. Translated from the German.
8. St. John of the Cross, The Dark Night, IT. ch. XX.
9. Ferdinand Holbőck. Das Fegefeuer, Salzburg 1977, page 94f. Translated from the German.
10. La Doctrine, I.c.page 22f. Translated from the German.
11. Lucien Regnault, La Pensee de Ste. Therese de 1'Enfant Jesus sur Ie Purgatoire in Annales de Sainte Therese, 1986, Suppl. Nr
    101, pages 21-29, quote on page 26. Translated from the German.
12. Annales de Sainte Therese, Nr. 610. Feb. 1983, page 5. Translated from the German.
13. Story of a Soul, Ms A, 84v, pg.181.
14. La Pensee, l.c., page 23. Translated from the German.
15. St Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, Suppl. Qu. 30, art. 1. Translated from the German.
16. P. Philipon. Vie Spirituelle, Jan./Feb. 1945, pages 21-23; 16-17. Translated from the German.
17. La Doctrine, l.c. page 13. Translated from the German.
18. St. Therese of Lisieux, Letters St. Therese of Lisieux, ICS, Washington DC, 1913, Vol. II, pg 998, LT 197.
19. Pious Recreations, RP 6, 9v, translated from the German.
20. Last Conversations. pg. 89. CJ, 11.7.6
21. Letters of St. Therese of Lisieux. Vol. II, pg. 1093, LT 226.
22. La Pensee, l.c., pg. 28. Translated from the German.
23. Letters of St. Therese of Lisieux, Vol. II, pg. 999, LT 197.
24. Story of a Soul, pg. 200. Ms B, 5v.
(1) Webmaster's Note: This article, in German, appears in the December 2001, and the January 2002 issue of "Der Fels" (A German Catholic Publication) - see www.der-fels.de/2001/12-2001.pdf  and www.der-fels.de/2002/01-2002.pdf respectively. It was translated into English by  Père (Father) de la Trinité, ocd. Fr. Van Dijk, confirmed the authenticity of his writing - which I had requested because it appears that our website is the only place where this article appears in English. We have checked the references noted in the Footnotes, they all check out. Fr. Van Dijk hopes that we can make his paper known to the world. We shall try to do that. / Fred Schaeffer, SFO, webmaster.

World Mercy Congress ‘Catches Fire’. Is hell the weigh station to heaven?
St Isaac the Syrian

by Dan Valenti
my source: Department for External Church Relations of the Moscow Patriarchate ROME, April 5, 2008 /PRNewswire/.

a disciple of St Isaac the Syrian meets the Pope of Mercy
In a stunning ecumenical moment at the Catholic Church’s first-ever World Congress on Divine Mercy, Russian Orthodox Bishop Hilarion Alfeyev, bishop of Vienna and Austria, told a rapt audience of 8,000 that God’s love places no limit on his mercy toward humanity, even to the point of imposing a temporal limit on hell.

Quoting St. Isaac the Syrian, a 7th-century holy man revered in Russian Orthodoxy as "famous among saints," Bishop Hilarion noted that "God does nothing out of retribution. Even to think that way about God would be blasphemous. Even worse is the opinion that God allows people to lead a sinful life on earth in order to punish them eternally after death. This is a blasphemous and perverted understanding of God, a calumny of God."

That teaching runs counter to Catholicism’s view of hell as a destination of permanent damnation. And yet the "radically beautiful" teaching, as one delegate put it, was not only allowed by congressional organizers working in the name of Pope Benedict XVI, it was invited.

Bishop Hilarion was speaking at invitation from the World Mercy Congress international executive team, headed by Cardinal Christoph Schönborn of Austria, a man seen by many Vatican watcher as a potential successor to Pope Benedict.

The bishop said that Divine Mercy shows "God’s full love," and for that reason, St. Isaac was "quite resentful of the widespread opinion that the majority of people will be punished in hell, and only a small group of the chosen will delight in Paradise. He is convinced," the Bishop added, "that, quite to the contrary, the majority of people will find themselves in the Kingdom of heaven, and only a few sinners will go to hell, and even they only for the period of time which is necessary for their repentance and remission of sins."

Bishop Hilarion said that what is traditionally thought of as "hell" is actually closer to Catholicism’s teaching of purgatory: a place of temporal punishment for the remission of sin. A soul in purgatory is guaranteed of going to heaven.

Many observers were encouraged that the Vatican would include this teaching as part of the congress, seeing in it a hopeful sign of rapprochement between East and West. As one delegate put it, the congress, having the courage to invite Bishop Hilarion, had "caught fire."

Thus the World Congress on Divine Mercy found its electric moment. Bishop Hilarion’s remarks were enthusiastically applauded, and after the talk, an excited crowd of well-wishers stepped forward to thank him for his words. Bishop Hilarion exchanged warm words with Cardinal Schönborn. Cardinal Schönborn thanked Bishop Hilarion for his teaching, and the two men talked for several minutes, warmly shaking hands. Schönborn is acting on Pope Benedict’s behalf in moderating the plenary sessions of the Congress.

Benedict opened the congress on Wednesday, April 2, with a Mass in St. Peter’s Square on the 3rd anniversary of the death of Pope John Paul II.

Source: Association of Marian Helpers

Bishop Hilarion Alfeyev: St Isaac the Syrian, a theologian of love and mercy

Excerpts from the paper delivered at the World Congress on Divine Mercy, Lateran Basilica, Rome, 4 April 2008

In this paper I would like to present the teaching of St Isaac the Syrian, one of the greatest theologians of the Orthodox tradition, on love and mercy.

St Isaac the Syrian, known also as Isaac of Nineveh, lived in the seventh century and was a hermit. Little is known about his life. He spent much time as a hermit and composed books on monastic life. At a certain point he was consecrated Bishop of Nineveh, but very soon after consecration abdicated from episcopacy.

The following East Syrian legend, preserved in Arabic translation, tells us of his abdication. The first day after his ordination, when Isaac was sitting in his residence, two men came to his room disputing with each other. One of them was demanding the return of a loan: ‘If this man refuses to pay back what belongs to me, I will be obliged to take him to court’. Isaac said to him: ‘Since the Holy Gospel teaches us not to take back what has been given away, you should at least grant this man a day to make his repayment’. The man answered: ‘Leave aside for the moment the teachings of the Gospel’. Then Isaac said: ‘If the Gospel is not to be present, what have I come here to do?’ And seeing that the office of Bishop disturbed his solitary life, ‘the holy man abdicated from his episcopacy and fled to the desert’ (Cf. S.Brock, Spirituality in Syriac Tradition. Kottayam, 1989, p. 33).

The precise date of Isaac’s death is unknown, as is the date of his birth. It is quite likely that already during his earthly life he was venerated as a saint. After his death his glory increased as his writings spread. Joseph Hazzaya, who lived in the eighth century, called him ‘famous among the saints’ (A.Mingana, Woodbroke Studies, t.VII, Cambridge, 1934, p. 268). Another Syrian writer calls him ‘the master and teacher of all monks and the haven of salvation for the whole world’ (J.B.Chabot, De sancti Isaaci Ninevitae, Paris, 1892, p. VII). By the eleventh century, due to the Greek translation of his writings, Isaac became widely known in the Greek-speaking East. In the Middle Ages Isaac’s writings were translated into several European languages. Form this time his name became known and appreciated also in the West.

Divine love which reveals itself through the created world

God, in Isaac’s understanding, is first of all immeasurable and boundless love. The idea of God as love is central and dominant in Isaac’s thought: it is the main source of his theological opinions, ascetical recommendations and mystical insights. His theological system cannot be comprehended apart from this fundamental idea.

Divine love is beyond human understanding and above all description in words. At the same time it is reflected in God’s actions with respect to the created world and humankind: ‘Among all His actions there is none which is not entirely a matter of mercy, love and compassion: this constitutes the beginning and the end of His dealings with us’ (II/39,22). (Here and below the figure ‘II’ refers to Part II of Isaac’s writings: Isaac of Nineveh, ‘The Second Part’, chapters IV-XLI, translated by Sebastian Brock, Corpus Scriptorum Christianorum Orientalium 555, Scriptores syri 225, Louvain, 1995). Both the creation of the world and God’s coming on earth in flesh had the only aim, ‘to reveal His boundless love to the world’ (Chapters on Knowledge IV,79).

Divine love was the main reason for the creation of the universe and is the main driving force behind the whole of creation. In the creation of the world divine love revealed itself in all its fullness: ‘What that invisible Being is like, who is without any beginning in His nature, unique in Himself, who is by nature beyond the knowledge, intellect and feel of created beings, who is beyond time and space, being the Creator of these, who… made a beginning of time, bringing the worlds and created beings into existence. Let us consider then, how rich in its wealth is the ocean of His creative act, and how many created things belong to God, and how in His compassion He carries everything, acting providentially as He guides creation, and how with a love that cannot be measured He arrived at the establishment of the world and the beginning of creation; and how compassionate God is, and how patient; and how He loves creation, and how He carries it, gently enduring its importunity, the various sins and wickednesses, the terrible blasphemies of demons and evil men’ (II/10,18-19).

Divine love is a continuing realization of the creative potential of God, an endless revelation of the Divinity in His creative act. Divine love lies at the foundation of the universe, it governs the world, and it will lead the world to that glorious outcome when the latter will be entirely ‘consumed’ by the Godhead: ‘What profundity of richness, what mind and exalted wisdom is God’s! What compassionate kindness and abundant goodness belong to the Creator! With what purpose and with what love did He create this world and bring it into existence! What a mystery does the coming into being of the creation look towards! To what a state is our common nature invited! What love served to initiate the creation of the world..! In love did He bring the world into existence; in love is He going to bring it to that wondrous transformed state, and in love will the world be swallowed up in the great mystery of Him who has performed all these things; in love will the whole course of the governance of creation be finally comprised’ (II/38,1-2).

The will of God, which is full of love, is the primal source of all that exists within the universe (II/10,24). God is not only the Creator of the universe and its driving force: He is first of all ‘the true Father’, ‘who in His great and immeasurable love surpasses all in paternal affection’ (I/52, 254). (Here and below figure ‘I’ refers to the English translation of Part I of Isaac’s writings: The Ascetical Homilies of Saint Isaac the Syrian, [transl. by D.Miller], Boston, Massachusetts, 1984). Thus His attitude to the created world is characterized by an unceasing providential care for all its inhabitants: for angels and demons, human beings and animals. God’s providence is universal and embraces all (I/7, 65). None of His creatures is excluded from the scope of the loving providence of God, but the love of the Creator is bestowed equally upon all: ‘...There is not a single nature who is in the first place or last place in creation in the Creator’s knowledge.., similarly there is no before or after in His love towards them: no greater or lesser amount of love is to be found with Him at all. Rather, just like the continual equality of His knowledge, so too is the continual equality of His love’ (II/38,3).

All living creatures existed in God’s mind before their creation. And before they have been brought into being, they received their place in the hierarchical structure of the universe. This place is not taken away from anyone even if one falls away from God: ‘Everyone has a single place in His purpose in the ranking of love, corresponding to the form He beheld in them before He created them and all the rest of created beings, that is, at the time before the eternal purpose for the delineation of the world was put into effect... He has a single ranking of complete and impassible love towards everyone, and He has a single caring concern for those who have fallen, just as much as for those who have not fallen’ (II/40,3).

The providential care of God and His love extends to angels, who were the first product of God’s creative act, including those who had fallen away from God and had turned into demons. According to Isaac, the love of the Creator towards fallen angels does not diminish as a result of their fall, and it is not less than the fullness of love which He has towards other angels (II/40,2). ‘It would be most odious and utterly blasphemous’, Isaac claims, ‘to think that hate and resentment exists with God, even against demonic beings; or to imagine any other weakness, or passibility, or whatever else might be involved in the course of retribution of good or bad as applying, in a retributive way, to that glorious Nature. Rather, He acts towards us in ways He knows will be advantageous to us, whether by way of things that cause suffering, or by way of things that cause relief, whether they cause joy or grief, whether they are insignificant or glorious: all are directed towards the single eternal good’ (II/39,3).

To say that the love of God diminishes or vanishes because of a created being’s fall means ‘to reduce the glorious Nature of the Creator to weakness and change’ (II/38,4). For we know that ‘there is no change or any earlier or later intentions, with the Creator: there is no hatred or resentment in His nature, no greater or lesser place in His love, no before or after in His knowledge’ (II/38,5). Nothing that happens in creation may affect the nature of the Creator, Who is ‘exalted, lofty and glorious, perfect and complete in His knowledge, and complete in His love’ (II/10,23).

This is why God loves equally the righteous and sinners, making no distinction between them. God knew man’s future sinful life before the latter’s creation, yet He created him (II/5,11). God knew all people before their becoming righteous or sinners, and in His love He did not change because of the fact that they underwent change (II/38,3). Even many blameworthy deeds are accepted by God with mercy, ‘and are forgiven their authors, without any blame, by the omniscient God to whom all things are revealed before they happen, and who was aware of the constraints of our nature before He created us. For God, who is good and compassionate, is not in the habit of judging the infirmities of human nature or actions brought about by necessity, even though they may be reprehensible’ (II/14,15).

Even when God chastises one, He does this out of love and for the sake of one’s salvation rather than for the sake of retribution. God respects human free will and does not want to do anything against it: ‘God chastises with love, not for the sake of revenge… Far be it that vengeance could ever be found in that Fountain of love and Ocean brimming with goodness!’ (I/48, 230).

Thus the image of God as Judge is completely overshadowed in Isaac by the image of God as Love (hubba) and Mercy (rahme). According to him, mercifulness (mrahmanuta) is incompatible with justice (k’inuta): ‘Mercy is opposed to justice. Justice is equality of the even scale, for it gives to each as he deserves... Mercy, on the other hand, is a sorrow and pity stirred up by goodness, and it compassionately inclines a man in the direction of all; it does not requite a man who is deserving of evil, and to him who is deserving of good it gives a double portion. If, therefore, it is evident that mercy belongs to the portion of righteousness, then justice belongs to the portion of wickedness. As grass and fire cannot coexist in one place, so justice and mercy cannot abide in one soul’. Thus one cannot speak at all of God’s justice, but rather of mercy that surpasses all justice: ‘As a grain of sand cannot counterbalance a great quantity of gold, so in comparison God’s use of justice cannot counterbalance His mercy. As a handful of sand thrown into the great sea, so are the sins of the flesh in comparison with the mind of God. And just as a strongly flowing spring is not obscured by a handful of dust, so the mercy of the Creator is not stemmed by the vices of His creatures’ (I/51, 244).

Rejecting with such decisiveness the idea of requital, Isaac shows that the Old Testament understanding of God as a chastiser of sinners, ‘visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation’ (Ex.20:5; Num.14:18), does not correspond with the revelation that we have received through Christ in the New Testament. Though David in the Psalms called God ‘righteous and upright in His judgments’ (Ps.117:137), He is in fact good and merciful. Christ himself confirmed God’s ‘injustice’ in His parables, in particular in the Parables of the Workers in the Vineyard and of the Prodigal Son (Mt.20:13-15; Luke 15:20-22), but even more so by His incarnation for the sake of sinners: ‘Where, then, is God’s justice, for while we are sinners Christ died for us?’ (I/51, 250-251).


According to Isaac, the final outcome of the history of the universe must correspond to the majesty of God, and that the final destiny of the humans should be worthy of God’s mercifulness. ‘I am of the opinion that He is going to manifest some wonderful outcome’, Isaac claims, ‘a matter of immense and ineffable compassion on the part of the glorious Creator, with respect to the ordering of this difficult matter of Gehenna’s torment: out of it the wealth of His love and power and wisdom will become known all the more - and so will the insistent might of the waves of His goodness. It is not the way of the compassionate Maker to create rational beings in order to deliver them over mercilessly to unending affliction in punishment for things of which He knew even before they were fashioned, aware how they would turn out when He created them - and whom nonetheless He created’ (II/39,6).

All afflictions and sufferings which fall to everyone’s lot are sent from God with the aim of bringing a person to an inner change. Isaac comes to an important conclusion: God never retaliates for the past, but always cares for our future. ‘...All kinds and manner of chastisements and punishments that come from Him’, Isaac suggests, ‘are not brought about in order to requite past actions, but for the sake of the subsequent gain to be gotten in them... This is what the Scriptures bring to our attention and remind us of.., that God is not one who requites evil, but He sets aright evil’ (II/39,15-16).

The idea of love contradicts the idea of requital, Isaac insists. Besides, if we are to suppose that God will punish sinners eternally, this would mean that the creation of the world was a mistake, as God proved to be unable to oppose evil, which is not within His will. If we ascribe requital to God’s actions, we apply weakness to God: ‘So then, let us not attribute to God’s actions and His dealings with us any idea of requital. Rather, we should speak of fatherly provision, a wise dispensation, a perfect will which is concerned with our good, and complete love. If it is a case of love, then it is not one of requital; and if it is a case of requital, then it is not one of love’ (II/39,17).

All of God’s actions are mysteries that are inaccessible to human reasoning. Gehenna is also a mystery, created in order to bring to a state of perfection those who had not reached it during their lifetime. According to Isaac, Gehenna is a sort of purgatory rather than hell: it is conceived and established for the salvation of both human beings and angels. However, this true aim of Gehenna is hidden from those who are chastised in it, and will be revealed only after Gehenna is abolished. All those who have fallen away from God will eventually return to Him because of the temporary and short torment in Gehenna that is prepared for them in order that they purify themselves through the fire of suffering and repentance. Having passed through this purification by fire, they will attain to the angelic state. ‘Maybe they will be raised to a perfection even greater than that in which the angels now exist; for all are going to exist in a single love, a single purpose, a single will, and a single perfect state of knowledge; they will gaze towards God with the desire of insatiable love, even if some divine dispensation (i.e. Gehenna) may in the meantime be effected for reasons known to God alone, lasting for a fixed period, decreed by Him in accordance with the will of His wisdom’ (II/40,5).

God cannot forget any of His creatures, and for everyone their proper place is prepared in the Kingdom of heaven. But for those who are unable to enter immediately into the Kingdom, the transitory period of Gehenna is established: ‘No part belonging to any single one of all rational beings will be lost, as far as God is concerned… He has devised the establishment of the Kingdom of heaven for the entire community of rational beings - even though an intervening time is reserved for the general raising of all to the same level’ (II/40,7).

Isaac was quite resentful of the widespread opinion that the majority of people will be punished in hell, and only a small group of the chosen will delight in Paradise. He is convinced that, quite the contrary, the majority of people will find themselves in the Kingdom of heaven, and only a few sinners will go to Gehenna, and even they only for the period of time which is necessary for their repentance and remission of sins: ‘By the device of grace the majority of humankind will enter the Kingdom of heaven without the experience of Gehenna. But this is apart from those who, because of their hardness of heart and utter abandonment to wickedness and the lusts, fail to show remorse in suffering for their faults and their sins, and because these people have not been disciplined at all. For God’s holy Nature is so good and compassionate that it is always seeking to find some small means of putting us in the right, how He can forgive human beings their sins - like the case of the tax collector who was put in the right by the intensity of his prayer (Luke 18:14), or like the case of a woman with two small coins (Mark 12:42-43; Luke 21:2-3), or the man who received forgiveness on the Cross (Luke 23:40-43). For God wishes for our salvation, and not for reasons to torment us’ (II/40,12).

The teaching on universal salvation, which is so explicitly preached by Isaac the Syrian, has never been approved by the Orthodox Church. On the contrary, Origenist idea of the apokatastasis ton panton (restoration of all), which has certain resemblance with this teaching, was condemned by the Fifth Ecumenical Council. However, we would not completely identify Isaac’s idea of the universal salvation with Origenist ‘restoration of all’. In Origen, universal restoration is not the end of the world, but a passing phase from one created world to another, which will come into existence after the present world has come to its end. This idea is alien to Christian tradition and unknown to Isaac. The latter is more dependent on other ancient writers, notably Theodore of Mopsuestia and Diodore of Tarsus, who also developed the idea of universal salvation, yet in a way different from Origen’s. On the other hand, it would not be fair to say that Isaac simply borrowed the ideas of his predecessors and inserted them into his own writings. Isaac’s eschatological optimism and his belief in universal salvation are ultimate outcomes of his personal theological vision, whose central idea is that of God as love. Around this idea the whole of his theological system is shaped.

Nevertheless, Isaac’s teaching on universal salvation evokes the following questions: what is the sense of the whole drama of human history, if both good and evil are ultimately to be found on an equal footing in the face of God’s mercifulness? What is the sense of sufferings, ascetic labour and prayer, if sinners will be sooner or later equated with the righteous? Besides, how far do Isaac’s opinions correspond to the Christian tradition and to the teaching of the Gospel, in particular, to the Parable of the Last Judgment, where the question concerns the separation of the ‘sheep’ and the ‘goats’?

First, in speaking about the absence of any middle realm between Gehenna and the Kingdom of heaven, Isaac does not deny the reality of the separation of the sheep from the goats, and he even explicitly refers to it. But his attention is directed far beyond this separation, for he does not regard it as final and irreversible. As we saw, the Last Judgment is a reality which Isaac recommends one to ponder over every day, and the experience of the separation of a sinner from his fellow human beings is clearly depicted by Isaac when he speaks of the Judgment. However, his main point is that the present life is a time when the separation actually takes place, and the Last Judgment will only reveal that spiritual state which was reached by a person during his life. Thus, the Parable should not be understood as a dogmatic statement concerning the final destiny of the righteous and sinners, but as a prophetic warning against not having and manifesting love for one’s fellow humans during one’s earthly life.

Secondly, Isaac warns that the torment of Gehenna is terrible and unbearable, even though it is limited in time. Gehenna is a reality that is in no way denied by Isaac. But he understands it in the context of the Gospel’s message about God’s unspeakable love and boundless mercy. For Isaac, God is primarily a householder making those who worked only one hour equal to those who have borne the burden of the whole day (Matt.20:1-15). A place in the Kingdom of heaven is given to a person not on the basis of his worthiness or unworthiness, but rather on the basis of God’s mercy and love towards humankind. The Kingdom of heaven is not a reward, and Gehenna is not a requital: both are gifts of the merciful God ‘Who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth’ (1 Tim.2:4).

Finally, the theological system of Isaac the Syrian is based on the direct experience of the mystical union of an ascetic with the love of God. This experience excludes any possibility of envy of other human beings, even to those who have reached a higher spiritual state and thus have a chance of receiving a higher place in the Kingdom of heaven. Moreover, the experience of unity with God as love is so full of delight in itself that it is not for the sake of any future reward that a person prays, suffers and toils in ascetical labours: in this very suffering, in this very prayer and ascetical labour, the experience of encounter with God is concealed. The reason for prayer, bearing afflictions and keeping the commandments is, therefore, not one’s striving to leave other human beings behind and to obtain a place in the age to come that is higher than theirs. The sole reason for all ascetical toils is the experience of the grace of God which a person acquires through them. An encounter with God, a direct mystical experience of the divine love which one receives during one’s lifetime is, for Isaac, the only justification for all struggles and efforts.

by Robert Royal
Andrea Tornielli, an Italian journalist who puts questions to Pope Francis in the just published book/interview The Name of God is Mercy, raises a crucial point midway through this short text: “Sometimes, even from the Church, we hear ‘Too much mercy! The Church must condemn sin.’”

If anything still unites the various faith groups claiming the name Christian – and it’s not clear there is – it may be the complaint that we’ve lost a sense of sin. There’s the current ecumenical emphasis on God’s love, but also many disputes about what love means and how it works. Between the decline of “sin” and rise of “love,” Christians today often feel their churches are not much different from Baby-Boomer Buddhism, or New Age groups offering a comforting cocoon of vague cosmic consciousness.

But hear Pope Francis, “The Church condemns sin because it has to relay the truth, ‘This is a sin.’ But at the same time it embraces the sinner who recognizes himself as such, it welcomes him, it speaks to him of the infinite mercy of God.” [Emphases added.] Here, in a nutshell, is the whole book: a perhaps surprising condemnation of sin in the name of truth by Pope Francis, the welcoming of the sinner who understands what he is, and the offer of mercy.


All fundamental Catholic teachings. But it’s the relative emphases and the “Francis effect” that have caused confusion and controversies. For instance, recent reports from Italy and elsewhere that Francis’ Year of Mercy has led to a decline in Confessions. People somehow have the impression they no longer need sacramental absolution. Some that do still come resist even gentle priests who impose penances: “who are you to judge me” or “I don’t have time for all that, besides God understands.”

Francis argues, citing Jesus’ own words:

“Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained” (John 20: 19-23). Therefore, the apostles and all their successors – the bishops and their colleagues the priests – become instruments of the mercy of God. They act in persona Christi. This is very beautiful. It has deep significance because we are social beings. If you are not capable of talking to your brother about your mistakes, you can be sure that you can’t talk about them with God, either, and therefore you end up confessing into the mirror to yourself.
The media have filtered out this side of Francis (his frequent missteps, lack of clarity, and systematic incoherences haven’t helped).

But Francis does not stop at “mistakes,” as in the passage above. He works out a fairly substantial explanation of why we need the grace to recognize that we’re sinners: “Without that grace, the most one can say is: I am limited, I have my limits, these are my mistakes.” But recognizing oneself as a sinner is something else. It means standing in front of God and asking for what only he can do in forgiving and helping us.

Francis has repeatedly both encouraged Confession and said that it is not “dry cleaning.” Not merely a mechanical process for removing stains; we need to change who we are, something much more radical.

All perfectly traditional Catholic teaching, and the mystery is why, despite what he says, something else gets communicated. Partly it’s because he devotes little space to such reflections, much more to mercy, even here, so that it seems like the Church is all mercy, all the time.

The Church must, of course, proclaim that Jesus loved us so much that he willingly died on the Cross for us. But to be fully faithful to Him, it must also recall that He calls own disciples evil, warns about the strait gate that leads to eternal life and that few find it. And about the eternal fires of Gehenna. For decades now, the Church has been preaching essentially Francis’s message, and people not only don’t repent and confess. They leave in ever larger numbers.

Biographies of the pope haven’t explained why he seems so fixated on repudiating “rigid” Catholics, since they’re a small minority, even among regular churchgoers. In his homily to the thousands who came to Philadelphia from around the globe for the World Meeting on Families, for instance, he warned against rigidity and legalism, which – to say the least – seemed inappropriate for that crowd.

Pope Francis hears a confession at World Youth Day in Rio, 2013
Pope Francis hears a confession at World Youth Day in Rio, 2013
In the book, Francis provides other examples of the rigidity he finds objectionable. The “scholars of the law,” above all, the ones who, because they know a lot about theology, philosophy, or ethics, think they’re not themselves sinners. We’ve all met these types, liberals and conservatives; it’s been a commonplace in moral theology, since the universities were first founded in the Middle Ages.

The problem with this example, though, is that he also comes close to saying that study and law are themselves perhaps a distraction. “Scholars” wrongly go into libraries and “consider pros and cons,” not out to the peripheries and help people. But the Church is large, as large as the world, and it needs all sorts of people (cf. 1 Cor. 12) to reach that world. Were Aquinas or Francis de Sales or Newman morally deficient because they didn’t focus on corporal works of mercy? Put that way, Francis wouldn’t say so, but gives that impression.

Other examples are also heartfelt, but not particularly persuasive: the priest handling an annulment who brusquely asks for $5000 upfront; the pastor who refuses a church funeral for a newborn who died before it could be baptized? Such cases exist, but are so few amidst massive other sins and disorders that it’s hard to see why they should bulk so large (John XXIII, Paul VI, John Paul I and II, Benedict XVI all affirmed mercy without displacing so much else in Catholic thought) in the Church at this moment.

Still, read The Name of God is Mercy to better understand Pope Francis and what he’s about. (The Bull of Indiction for the Holy Year appears in an appendix.) Even if you believe there’s much else that the Church urgently needs to bring into the world today, he’ll make you think more deeply about your own hardness of heart and failures to show mercy.

You can buy The Name of God is Mercy at The Catholic Thing store at Amazon.

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