Reveal Your Saints and You Reveal Your Church

Reveal Your Saints and You Reveal Your Church

Understandably, there have been several articles, podcasts, press releases, videos, and other media in recent weeks for the meeting between the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew and Pope Francis, the present archbishop of the city of Old Rome.

The Patriarchate of Constantinople has spared no expense in promoting this event, which commemorates the fiftieth anniversary of a similar meeting in Jerusalem between the Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras and Pope Paul VI (January 1964).

For many, this event is little more than a well-leveraged commemoration of an extended olive branch between these two ancient, Christian faiths. For others, concern over the future of their respective churches takes center stage. Will this event be used as an impetus for doctrinal compromise? Will the future of either Eastern Orthodoxy or Roman catholicism hang in the balance as a result of this pending exchange of pleasantries?

What concerns me most is not this event in particular, but the language and statements being made by those on either side of the proverbial ecumenical ‘fence.’ I am fully in favor of a ‘dialogue of love’ and mutual respect between both Romes—Old and New. But when it comes to doctrinal compromise or even dialogue, we must be far more careful. The post-doctrinal Rome of Vatican II is not the ‘stodgy’ church of Trent—but this means she is far more slippery.

The script behind this dialogue is not new. Going back to the councils of Basel, Ferrara, and Florence in the mid-fifteenth century, attempted reunification of the Orthodox churches of the East and the See of Rome has a storied past. But in every age, and at every turn, a Saint has emerged to preserve the apostolic faith in spite of frenzied attempts to usher in its demise. While some in the age of pluralism might prefer to forget, the Church honors three of these Saints as the ‘Pillars of Orthodoxy.’

Despite her best attempts at the contrary, the gates of Hades have yet to prevail against the Church of Jesus Christ. And if the Son of God is to be believed, they never will. This is an important, foundational belief to the Christian faith—it is not tangential or secondary. Ecclesiology is Christology, and when we begin to separate the two, we begin to separate the Church from her very Head and Life. This is not ‘extreme’—this is Christianity 101. This is our Baptismal confession.

In September of 2000, the eminent professor Alexey Osipov (of the Theological Academy in Moscow) gave a lecture on the ‘Fundamentals of Theology.’ In that talk, professor Osipov focused on the differences between Rome and Orthodoxy and what separates us today—we know what separated us in the tenth, thirteenth, and even nineteenth centuries; but what about today?

In his lecture, the professor focuses almost singularly on the topic of glorified (or ‘canonized’) Saints. In the recognition of Saints, the Church reveals less about the glorified figures and more about herself. By revealing to the faithful a person worthy of both veneration and fervent petitions, the Church reveals her inner being; she reveals what she believes about God himself:

Indeed, any Local Orthodox Church or non-Orthodox church can be judged by her saints. Tell me who your saints are and I will tell what your church is. Any church calls as saints only those who realized in their life the Christian ideal, as this Church understands it. That is why canonization of a certain saint is not only testimony of the Church about this Christian, who according to her judgment is worthy of the glory and suggested by her as an example to follow. It is at the same time a testimony of the Church about herself. By the saints we can best of all judge about the true or imaginary sanctity of the Church.

Osipov goes on to then describe in detail both the writings and actions of several ‘saints’ of the Christian West; that is, of the Roman catholic church.

In this evaluation, he unapologetically draws a pointed line of demarcation between both Orthodoxy and Roman catholicism. When we look at certain ‘Doctors’ of the Roman faith, such as Catherine of Siena (fourteenth century) and Teresa of Avila (sixteenth century), we see—per professor Osipov—spiritual prelest, an open door to demonic deception, and an assurance of glory that rivals Christ himself.

Of Teresa specifically, psychologist William James once wrote:

[H]er understanding of religion was reduced to endless flirting between the worshipper and the deity.

This is no exaggeration, with Teresa herself revealing innumerable ‘flirtations’:

From this day you will be My spouse . . . From now on I am not only your Creator, God, but also the Spouse . . . The Beloved calls my soul with such penetrating whistle that I cannot overhear it. This call so touches the soul that it breaks down with desire. —Spanish Mystics, p. 88

In a drawn contrast, Osipov numbers great ascetics of the Orthodox tradition who spend their entire lives asking for yet one more day to repent. At the end of his life, Francis of Assisi remarks, “I do not know any transgression of mine that I have not atoned by confession and repentance,” while St. Sisoes of Egypt laments: “Verily, I do not know, if I have at least started the cause of my repentance.”

The mystical theologians of the Orthodox ‘East’ have routinely condemned this prelest or spiritual ‘flirtation,’ so exemplified by the doctors and saints of Rome. For example, in the writings of St. Nilus of Sinai:

Do not desire to see sensually Angels or Virtues, or Christ, otherwise you’ll go mad taking a wolf for the shepherd and bowing to demon-enemies. —153 Chapters on Prayer 115 (Philokalia, vol. 2)

And again, in St. Gregory of Sinai:

Never accept things when you see something sensual or spiritual, inside or outside, even if it has an image of Christ or an angel or a certain saint . . . The one who accepts it easily gets seduced . . . God does not resent one being attentive to himself, if one fearing to get seduced does not accept what He gives . . . but rather praises him as a wise one. —Hesychast Instruction (Philokalia, vol. 5)

Osipov concludes:

Unfortunately, the Catholic church has lost the art to distinguish the spiritual from the sensual, and sanctity from reveries, and thus also Christianity from paganism.

Since the 1970s, and especially since the fall of the Iron Curtain, dialogue between Rome and Orthodoxy has accelerated at an expected, and even profitable level. Many concessions have been made on the part of the Vatican with respect to the Filioque clause, for example, while a rediscovery of the Greek fathers has influenced Roman theologians like Benedict XVI, the (rare) Pope emeritus. A full transformation is far from reality, but the theological ‘direction’ of Rome is more ad Orientem than ever before.

Nevertheless, the walls that divide are real. They are neither the mere fantasies of ‘extremists’ nor the hobby horses of ‘radical traditionalists.’ A divide between both Rome and the East is palpable; it is definable; it can be clearly laid out and explained. Despite all of the advances in recent memory, there are real, meaningful, and important distinctions between Roman catholicism and the holy, apostolic, Orthodox-Catholic Church of the Christian ‘East.’

Many would immediately draw these distinctions by looking to the age-old signs: the Filioque clause, the mandated celibacy of clergy, azymes vs. the leavened artos of the New Testament, Papal supremacy/infallibility—and so on. But I tend to think the differences are more subtle and yet, strangely, more infectious.

The differences of both doctrine and piety lie not solely between altered Creeds and disputed Councils, but in our affirmations of who best represent our respective faiths.

Reveal your Saints, and you reveal your Church. And in this conversation, a difference between ‘East’ and ‘West’ could not be more pronounced.


  1. Mark says

    I kept waiting for an exposition of the Saints on each “side” with a contrast. Is that to come in part two? It seems as though you never got around to the big reveal promised by the headline and thesis.

    • says


      Fair enough. I didn’t want to simply copy-and-paste all of Osipov’s words, but you can see the contrasts he draws here.

      It is more or less an expansion on the few examples I gave: Saints consumed with prelest and self-glory vs. Saints consumed with humility and repentance (to put it roughly).

      Hope this helps!

    • says

      Thanks for the feedback. See the link above, and I included a few excerpts that draw these comparisons more clearly. Hope this helps!

  2. says

    Christos Anesti!

    (You may be interested to know that our priest Abuna George, was in Nazareth in 1964 and met with Pope Paul VI when he visited just after the Jerusalem meeting. The Ecumenical Patriarch unfortunately had to attend to other matters and did not, to my knowledge travel to Nazareth, certainly not on that day).

  3. says

    In his Russian writings and lectures Osipov also compares Elder Sophrony Sakharov with Catholic saints that he believes to be in spiritual delusion, and thus has taught for years about the dangers of reading Elder Sophrony’s works. It will be quite interesting if Elder Sophrony does indeed get canonized by the Orthodox Church.

    • says


      It’s hard to comment too much on speculation. But I will offer a few thoughts:

      1. Saints are not infallible, and so many Saints have writings, works, ideas, etc. that are not necessarily fully sanctioned by the Church.

      2. Professor Osipov’s concerns are largely (as I understand it) with one work in particular by Elder Sophrony. And he was not alone (among the Russians) in a certain reaction to that work. This does not ‘disqualify’ one from being glorified as a Saint.

      3. There are very clear lines that can be drawn between the ‘mystics’ of the Latin church and the ascetics and desert fathers of the East.

      That certain people, such as Uniates, gather all of these figures under one roof (or rather, under the Pope) does not nullify or remove this reality. It only confuses matters and (for me, at least) betrays the legacy of the ‘Pillars’ mentioned in the original article. They cry, ‘Gregory, Photios, Mark!’ while they respond, ‘We never knew you.’

      • says

        Fair points, Gabe.

        I brought up Osipov’s views on Elder Sophrony in order to point out that he may not be the best reader of hearts when it comes to the saints. It seems to me that if Elder Sophrony was Catholic, he perhaps would have been lumped into the same article by Osipov.

        Also, there are many saints that could seem “off” if we isolated aspects of their lives. For example, Saints Jerome and Epiphanius persecuted St. John Chrysostom. St. Isaac the Syrian was not in communion with the Orthodox Church. I even remember that St. Nicholas Velimirovic (a saint often criticized) wrote in the Prologue of Ohrid about one female saint, whose name I can’t remember at the moment, who cut out her eyes in order to prevent some local guy from lusting over them.

        • says

          Osipov’s perspective on the Latin saints is not given in a vacuum, though.

          I chose him as a voice for this particular post, but there are many other authors or even Saints that could be cited along the same lines.

          If anything, I chose him because he is among the most recent. Ecumenists might dismiss older Saints or teachers who draw such distinctions as “out of date” or irrelevant, given the ever-changing nature of the post-Vatican II Roman church.

          By citing Osipov, I was seeking to avoid this out-of-hand dismissal.

  4. Karen says

    I wonder what Osipov might say about someone like Mother Theresa of Calcutta, whose life was characterized by an ascetic faithfulness to her call to serve despite being deprived of any sense of the felt Presence of God for most of her monastic career. In many ways her spirituality seems more Orthodox than not and to contrast with some of the examples Osipov chose. I know she was also a native of Albania, and I speculate that perhaps there was a significant Orthodox influence on her early life and on the Catholicism in which she was raised. It does seem telling when it is sensual “mystics” like St. Catherine of Avila that earn the title “Doctor” of the Church in Catholicism. Is it a proper parallel to compare the title of “Doctor of the Church” in Catholicism with that of “Theologian” in Orthodoxy?

    • says

      To be clear, I don’t mean to be critical of Roman saints in totality. I just think it’s telling to point out this variances where they do exist. Mother Teresa, and many other modern ‘saints’ of the Roman communion have a lot of positives, despite not being venerated by us as true Saints.

      The title of ‘Doctor’ was just as common in the East as in the West, especially prior to the schism (e.g. St. John Chrysostom is a ‘Doctor’ of the Church). However, it is not as commonly used in the Orthodox Church today.

      The title of ‘Theologian’ is different altogether, and seems to be unique to the East.

  5. Sam says

    I’m glad I’m not the only one who’s made this conclusion. The concept of prelest as taught by the Orthodox Church was important in my own conversion from Roman Catholicism to Orthodoxy, because it showed a clear departure of the West from the true universal spirituality of the undivided Orthodox Catholic Church of the first 10 centuries.

    What’s particularly disheartening is how popular many of the figures you describe above are with Catholic young people, and how they correlate these types of experiences with the modern charismatic movement. Yet calling into question the authenticity of these experiences it tantamount to making an attack on Christ himself. Lord, have mercy.

    • says

      That’s a great point.

      I think the unfortunate correlation between the charismatic movement in evangelicalism and the liturgical abuses or abnormalities of the Vatican (since Vatican II) is inescapable, and many of these people strongly associate with the pseudo-visions of Fatima and Lourdes along with these ‘erotic-divine’ ‘saints.’

  6. Nicholas says


    Is it fair to compare the quasi-pornographic expressions of Catherine of Sienna (who claimed to have received the foreskin of Christ for a wedding ring) with the divinely-erotic poetry of Theresa of Avila? The divine eroticism we see in St. Symeon’s writings is not so unlike hers.

    • says

      Is it fair to compare the quasi-pornographic expressions of Catherine of Sienna (who claimed to have received the foreskin of Christ for a wedding ring) with the divinely-erotic poetry of Theresa of Avila?


      The divine eroticism we see in St. Symeon’s writings is not so unlike hers.

      This is just an assertion without examples. I would strongly disagree, nevertheless, as I’m sure would most Orthodox Christians. There’s a vast difference between the extremes we see in them and that of Saints like Symeon the New (and, of course, not all Saints are infallible in all that they say or claim).

      For the purposes of this post, I think Professor Osipov’s claims hold up.