Today the Orthodox Church celebrates the memory of St Mark (Evgenikos), Metropolitan of Ephesus, justly famed for his refusal to compromise at the Council of Florence in 1439. I have always been particularly interested in St Mark's treatment of the question of purgatory, inasmuch as it is one of the clearest statements of Orthodox belief on the nature of the afterlife ever made, especially in his Encyclical of 1440. The following extract concerning the debates about the doctrine of purgatory at the Council of Florence comes from an unlikely source: the Oxford Movement's Tract number 79, On Purgatory (Against Romanism, No. 3), published in 1840. It was printed anonymously, but has since been established as the work of the great John Henry Newman. Of particular interest is his use of a first-hand account of the council written by the Greek ecclesiarch Syropulus (or Sguropulus), one of the Patriarch's five attendants.
The issue of purgatory was raised at the Council's fifth session. The Latins put down their argument on paper, and asked the Greeks to do the same. The latter, unfortunately, were divided among themselves. The Byzantine Emperor asked St Mark of Ephesus to draw up a statement of the Greek position, but the latter refused to do so unless it were submitted precisely as he had written it, knowing that the Emperor himself and many of the other Greek delegates were prepared to compromise, and would edit whatever he wrote. St Mark did later agree to compose a statement, as did the more compromising Bishop of Nicaea. The Emperor then took both and collated them into one, picking and choosing what he liked best. This Greek reply was given to the Latins, who in turn replied, and discussion continued. It is here that we pick up (words in italics are those of Syropulos; those in plain font are those of Newman):
"Meanwhile in private conversations the Latins begged the Bishop of Ephesus to propound plainly the doctrine which our Church holds concerning souls departed hence. But he did not state it, being hindered by the Emperor. And in proportion as they perceived him resisting, and not wishing to set forth our Church doctrine on the matter, so much the more did they press him, and intreat him, and remonstrate with him, and asked what he meant by his reserve, saying that every regular member of any Church was bound, when asked what was the Church's view on any question, at once to give it without hesitation or ambiguity. But the Bishop had his mouth stopped by the royal command."Newman's argument in this section is that the statements made by the Greeks (excepting St Mark) are inconsistent with the teaching of the Orthodox Church, and therefore not authoritative. We certainly agree with this position. The Church sings the following liturgical hymns in St Mark's memory:
John, a Spanish Bishop, then entered into a discussion with the Bishop of Ephesus with great dialectic skill, and Bessarion deserted to the Latins; at length, however the Emperor consented to Mark's speaking out' and he put the Latins into full possession of the Greek notions on the subject of Purgatory. The next sentences run as follows:—
"Our allowance was expended, and nothing more was given us in spite of our frequent demands: but, when we yielded to their demand and told them our Church's opinion on the question in discussion, then they gave us three months' allowance on the 30th of June, 689 florins." 5. ß. 18.
This was all that passed on the subject of Purgatory, before the final decree, which, as in other points, so in this, was overruled by the determination of the Latins and the need of the Emperor. But here let me instance another hardship inflicted on the Greeks, for which I have already prepared the reader.
"We sat down in sorrow, not only because of existing and expected perils, but for the loss of our liberty, for we were shut up as slaves. And when three months and more were passed, and all were indignant at our dependence upon strangers, the straits we were in, and our want of provision, ..... three clerics, under the spur of necessity, found an escape....... But the Patriarch learning it, and being indignant at it, wrote at once to the Doge of Venice, who found out the men and sent them to him."
After many months discomfort from the causes that have been enumerated, the Greeks came to an understanding with the Latins: indeed, from the first, they had very little trust or attachment to their view. Their doctrine is said to have been, that the souls of imperfect Christians went to a place of darkness and sadness, where they were for some time in affliction and deprived of the light of God's countenance, in which state they were benefited by Eucharistic offerings and by alms; to this the Latins wished to add, that souls without stain enter at once into heavenly glory, while those who have repented of sin but have not had time to complete the necessary penance, are consigned for a longer or shorter time to purgatorial fire. This was the difference between the Churches, and they compromised the matter thus: the Latins did not press the doctrine of fire, and the Greeks gave up—not a word, but a truth,—they allowed, contrary to the belief with which they had come to the Council, that those who are not in Purgatory are immediately beatified, and enjoy the sight of God.
It may be objected, and readily admitted, that the narrative of which the above are extracts, is drawn up by a writer unfriendly and unfair to the Latins. But it would seem to prove as much as this, viz. what was the popular view in Greece on the subject of these discussions and their termination, immediately upon it
A high ecclesiastic, as Syropulus was, would hardly have ventured to have set himself against a recent and solemn act of his own Church sanctioned by the Court, unless he had had a strong feeling with him. The very fact of his opposition proves that the conduct of the Greeks at Florence was but the act of a party at most in the Church; while the line of the history, their sufferings and compelled decision, is too clearly guaranteed to us as true by the known circumstances of the case. But we need not thus painfully deduce the real dissatisfaction of the Greek Church with the articles imposed upon its delegates at Florence. On their return home, they had to encounter so general an indignation and resentment at their conduct, that they were obliged at once to recant and confess their weakness, and throw themselves on the mercy of their brethren. Mark of Ephesus had not signed the decree, and became a rallying point for all who held by the popular religion; while the successor of the Patriarch was deserted even by his cross-bearers, and presided in an empty Cathedral. The feeling spread north and south; the patriarchs of Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem assembled a numerous Council, and disowned the acts of their representatives in Italy; and Isidore, the Primate of Russia, on returning to his country, was synodically condemned and imprisoned in a monastery.
Again, it may be objected that the great article of difference between Greeks and Latins was the question of the procession, not that of Purgatory, and after all, that the real point of repulsion between them lay in national jealousies; whereas they agreed together, as the Council shows, or at least with the slightest difference, on the question in which we are concerned, while the subsequent resentment of the Greeks at home had little or no reference to it; and that their agreement under such circumstances was only the more remarkable. It may be replied, that the object of the foregoing account has been to shew that the Greeks at Florence were not trustworthy, that they had neither the ease of circumstances, the learning, or the composure of mind to be witnesses of the traditionary and universal doctrine of their Churches. If this is proved by after circumstances, by the popular indignation as regards one doctrine, it takes all credit from their testimony as regards another. Moreover as regards the doctrine of Purgatory, they did not agree with the Latins in an important point, yet that point they gave up to them; most unfaithfully, considering them as stewards of Gospel truth; and, had they discerned the bearings of the Latin doctrine, which doubtless they did not, most treacherously. They admitted, against the national belief, the beatification of souls under specific circumstances, before the judgment, and in so doing they admitted practically almost as: much, as if they had subscribed to the doctrine of purgatorial fire. For, as the mention of fire on the; one hand is definite, and ascertains Purgatory to be strictly a place of punishment, which the general expressions of the Greeks did not strictly imply, so in like manner to separate off from it all the perfected saints, and transfer them to a better and heavenly state, does in effect sink it, by the contrast, to a place of privation and suffering. The presence of the souls of all saints, (to speak in general terms, that is, not to include the Martyrs whom the early Church has excepted) in Hades, Paradise, or Abraham's bosom, or by whatever other name we designate the Intermediate State, is our guarantee for the substantial blessedness of that State. We cannot spare the higher Saints from Paradise, in that they are our pledges for its heavenly character in the case of all believers. Thus as regards their own doctrine, the Greeks made most important admissions to the Latins, for making which they had no warrant, and therefore cannot be considered of authority in witnessing a Purgatory at all, any more than in the account they gave of it.
For more on the Orthodox teaching on the nature of heaven and hell, see my summary here.Troparian, tone 3Holy Mark, in thee the Church has found a zealot by thy confession of the sacred Faith;/ for thou didst champion the Fathers' doctrine/ and cast down the pride of boastful darkness./ Pray to Christ our God for those who honour thee, that we may be granted the forgiveness of sins.Kontakion, tone 3As one clad in invincible armour,/ thou didst cast down the pride of the Western rebellion;/ thou didst become an instrument of, the Comforter/ and shine Forth as Orthodoxy's defender./ Therefore we cry to thee: Rejoice, O Mark, boast of the Orthodox.
NB: This tract was written by Newman while still a member of the Church of England. After his conversion to Rome he naturally changed his position, as these sermon notes testify.