Jean-François Thiry: «No one can force another to be saved»
Vladimir Legoyda
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Obviously, this is a recurring topic for us. But, you know, to me, the biggest surprise in all of these topics was that the more we talk, the more it seems to me that the topic is very complicated and that sometimes by forgiveness we mean something that has nothing to do with it. When a person says, “It’s easy for me to forgive”, I usually don’t believe it, because I think that to give your true forgiveness means hard work for anyone. And to spice it up a little bit, I would say that only a saint is able to give genuine forgiveness as it was meant by the Gospel. Do you agree with this or not?

Yes, I do. Because usually what I call forgiveness is just forgetting. Okay, let’s forget it. And since I have a bad memory, I’m good at it. But it’s not forgiveness, it doesn’t go inside me. It doesn’t change me. Of course, I agree with that.

So, if I give my forgiveness to someone, it should change me?

Yes, sure. It should change you, because after all, we always think of ourselves as being right, that we are right. So, we have to proceed from that. You know, there is a very interesting thing... There is a phrase read by the priest during the mass. He says, “Lord, don’t look at my sins, but at the holiness of Your Church.” Usually we always think the opposite, “Well, I tried, I did everything with a good heart.” And the Church is, of course, is wrong.” So, forgiveness to me is to step back a little bit from my confidence—yes, I’m wrong, I can’t have everything taken into account, because I’m no God.

You know, I think it’s more important when you ask for forgiveness. When you ask for forgiveness, you assume that you may have been wrong somewhere, but when you give your forgiveness, shouldn’t you stop thinking that you’re right?

Yes, sure. If forgiving a person, you feel it as a victory thinking that the person finally realized that you were right. If there is no movement on your part, I think it would be a tremendous abuse of the other. Any act of forgiveness requires mutual actions. When the prodigal son comes back home, the father goes out to meet him. He can’t stay inside the house, saying, “I told you I shouldn’t have left.” Anyway, that’s how we tend to act often.

And if the son doesn’t come back, can you still forgive him?

I do not know. There is a friend of ours who created a very good image, he says, “What did the father have to do when his son had left?” The father’s task was to preserve the hearth, so that there would always be a place for his son to come back to. I guess you have to keep that place where you can welcome the other person anyway.

You can... If you say that giving forgiveness is a move on your part as well, then let’s imagine a situation where you haven’t forgiven a person for a while, and they do not ask for your forgiveness. Can you forgive this person? Have you had such situations in your life?

Yes, I have, two of them. I can give you the names.

No, that’s not necessary.

But it’s very hard. In one case, I realized that it’s better to leave this relationship, that it’s better to forget about it. The other case is in my family, so I can’t just forget it, and I have to keep coming back to that relationship. It hurts a lot, it’s very difficult, it means falling all the time because you cannot renounce your claim on the other, their understanding, etc. It’s all very difficult.

I think I know what you’re talking about now, I’d like to get back to it later. Here’s something I really want to ask you in the Forgiveness section. The Catholics and the Orthodox have very different sacrament of confession, when we ask for God’s forgiveness. I remember we once discussed a show or a movie...

A book launch?

No, no, it was something else. I remember you said that it’s not that you didn’t like—but still—when somebody said, “...if I have the blessing of my confessor.” Hence, I have a question. In the Orthodoxy, a confessor has the role of a spiritual father. What about their role in the Catholic Church today? I understood from your comment that we have a little...

Yes, I think we see these roles differently. Generally speaking, the role of a spiritual father is not very common currently in the Catholic Church. It was much more common in the 19th century. It’s significantly less common now. But in any case, it has to do the Catholic Church child sexual abuse cases, and not only because a spiritual father cannot guide the conscience of another person. First of all, a spiritual father shall, let’s say, ask the questions that will help a person to move through life, but it is not in their place to say what this person must do and what they mustn’t do. The Catholics don’t see a spiritual father’s role in this way.

I think that for the Orthodox, this view is rather common among some believers, because I remember the words said by priest Roman Medved, one of the new martyrs and confessors of the Church of Russia. There is this remarkable phrase, I wonder if you would agree with it or not, by the way. He said That the task of a confessor, a priest, is to educate a person in such a way—but to educate them, after all—that they can appear before God on their own and choose the good by themselves.

I totally agree with these words.

So, there isn’t...

He is a Catholic, then.

No, he isn’t. But he used the word “educate”, so he meant a process...

Yes, education is extremely important, it allows to see the reality.



The last section is Love, and it’s the simplest topic of all. You were twenty-three years old when you came to Novosibirsk. Here is my favorite story. You had your first speech at the pedagogical institute, you had this class in righteousness, so you delivered the speech and then you said, “Any questions?” A girl raised her hand and said, “Are you married?” You said, “No. Any other questions?” She raised her hand again, “Do you want to get married?” You said, “Well, I’m twenty-three years old, we don’t get married that early. Maybe you have other questions?” She raises her hand for the third time, “Don’t you want to marry a girl from Novosibirsk?” You said, “I arrived yesterday, give me some time, please.” That’s a great story, but my question is this: you are laic, and you have chosen this way in your congregation, having taken a vow of celibacy, and basically, you deliberately chose to abstain from certain forms of love. Because love is manifested in family, in the relationship between a man and a woman, in children. You’ve cut that off deliberately. It’s very interesting, because as far as I know, from time to time the Catholic world debates over the abolishment of celibacy for priests. That is, there are debates about whether the celibacy for should be abolished. And you, not being a priest, took this vow voluntarily. What are the reasons, what is the purpose of it, why did you do it? Don’t you see here what I have just mentioned, i.e. The cutoff from...

I certainly don’t see it as cutting off of this love. To me, it’s the opposite, to be honest. I have a few married friends, and that love just ends, shuts out. I’ve given a chance love many women instead of just one.

As they say now: in a good sense of this word.

Yes, in a good sense. It’s a different kind of love, but it’s true. But I forgot the first question.

Well, actually, I only have two questions, about the reason and the purpose. Why? What made you...?

Speaking about the purpose, again, it was never like I got up one morning and thought, “Why shouldn’t I do it?” I never thought like that. The year I lived in Novosibirsk I had to endure difficult living conditions, and it was difficult, my work, and language, and making friends, and so on. I realized that life is only possible when devoted to Jesus Christ. Those words are so pale when you just tell them out loud. While it’s hard to put that experience in words, but He has to be given everything, same as I got everything. If it’s not for Him that I live, I’m going to lose something in this world. It’s more of a response to His love for me. That’s why I chose it. I didn’t even know it existed. It’s just that I was told later, “You know you can live like that, in poverty, in obedience, in chastity.” And those are exactly the pieces of advice from the Gospel. I said That I wanted to live this life, because that’s the way I want to spend all my life.

But look, because the Christian tradition... With all due respect for your sincerity, you’re not the first person in history who...

No, I am not.

So, in the Christian tradition, those who wanted to devote their life fully to Christ, both among the Orthodox and the Catholics, they would go to a monastery and become monks. Why didn’t you go to a monastery and become a monk?

That was an interesting question. But my confessor told me, “What is the greatest need in the world today?” The world needs priests or people who would testify—that’s how I put it now, I thought about it. And I thought: there are still a lot of priests in the world, even if this vocation undergoes crisis in the Western countries, but there are still a lot of priests. But a laic person who could do some work and still act differently, out of different motivation than just making money, having women and so on, and whom people around could ask, “Why do you live like that?” It seemed to me at the time, that it is what the world needs most. Not people who live like that because they wear a cassock and a cross, but a simple layman who lives in the world, but he lives differently because he lives with Christ. In my opinion, it’s what the world needs most. Everywhere, I think, and in Russia as well. Because, you know, when you wear a cassock people expect you to live like that. To the contrary, a priest doing wrong things, causes outrage. That’s scandalous for us. But a layman living might be shocking, in a good way.

But historically, people went to monasteries to wear cassocks, because it’s almost impossible to live like that in the world, it’s very difficult. You must have felt this burden, right?

Yes, that’s why I don’t live alone, I live with my brothers, there are four of us.

So, it’s sort of a brotherhood of monks?

Yes, it is. It’s just that we work and live in the world.

Going back to the topic we started talking about, in your recent interview with Elena Yakovleva from Rossiyskaya Gazeta, you said, “I have a younger brother in Belgium. He’s hanging around, watching TV, and we are not getting along. All my efforts to build a relationship with him are a total failure. It gives me a lot of pain, I can’t change anything, and I realize that somehow, I have to love his path of self-destruction. To respect his choice means to go through this experience of realizing that my inner self is not all-powerful...”

I realize I’m touching a very sensitive subject here, but you’ve talked about it before. He is not the only sibling you have, you also have a sister and a brother. I understand what you mean saying that you realize that your inner self is not all-powerful. I don’t understand why you say that you have to love his path of self-destruction. How is that?

It means that one can only come to their salvation only by their own choice. No one can force another person to save themselves. And that doesn’t mean not being there for him, not trying. If you have a son who takes drugs, you will be there for him, and you can lock him in a room all you want, but that doesn’t solve the problem. He needs... If he doesn’t make this decision to quit and to find some other source of hope sooner or later, then it won’t work. That’s how it is for me. I understand that I shouldn’t leave him, I should be there for him, but it’s the path he has chosen. It’s weird. I haven’t really been able to put into proper words this idea of loving another person’s path even if it leads to self-destruction.

But in this case, does to love means not to force his will?

Yes, it does.

To give him the freedom that... I remember, once a confessor told me that no matter how deep a person falls, God always opens a door for him at any level, so that he can come out again... But I guess it is very, very painful...

Yes, it is. But I had to come to this approach. It’s been a long road, with my brother, because I tried different approaches, I tried to coach him to do something, but it got worse and worse. I’m going to Belgium soon, and I don’t know how things will really work out. But it’s his life. It’s weird, but it’s his life. I can only go back to that challenge again, that it’s his life: it’s your life, do something that’s important to you, that you can actually do.

I am going to ask you my last question About the apostle Paul and his famous hymn to love: love is patient and kind, etc. Which of these characteristics of love mentioned by the apostle do you find the most challenging?

I would probably say that maybe the most challenging thing is to be resentful...

Not to be resentful.

Not to be resentful is probably the hardest. Because it’s so easy, it’s so easy to do it. And you believe that it helps you to relieve your mind...

You feel something like “He is bad means I’m good”.

I think we still have a long way to go.

There is lots of work to do.

Thank you very much, dear Jean-François, we have run out of time. And I want to ask you to put a full stop in a sentence. Let’s say a friend of yours or just a person you know who lives in Russian and who is Orthodox asks for your advice: “I talk to you, I read Chesterton, I love the Western world. In fact, I wonder if I should convert to Catholicism.” Where would you put a full stop in the sentence “Support impossible to avoid answering”?

I would put it after “impossible”.

“Support impossible. To avoid answering”. Why?

I don’t like such categorical phrases.

So, I give you the chance to explain.

I have to understand what his path is. Once I was asked a very good question. I was in a seminary in Voronezh, and a seminarian asked me, “If I came to see you in Belgium and converted your sister to Orthodoxy, what would you say?” It is clear what he wanted to say.

Yes, it is. It’s just another way of asking, “What are you doing here?”

Yes, exactly. And I told him, “You know, you would come to see me, and I have brothers and sisters there. I’ve got a brother who’s unchurched, who has no interest in any of this. If you convert him to Orthodoxy, I would be happy. If you converted my sister who sometimes goes to church, I wouldn’t accept it, I would think she hadn’t fully tested her path within the Catholic Church.” So, I think in this case you have to see what it is, too. Mostly people do it for some strange reasons. Not always, sometimes they do it for deep personal reasons, because of some events happened in their life, etc.

Perhaps, in this regard we’ll shoot an alternative ending. We have never done it, but this time I want to do it. I’m going to ask you one more question. Many times you answered the question why you would not convert to Orthodoxy, and you said that you had considered it and had left this part behind you, because it is important for you to keep the connection with Roman...

Well, I have not left it behind actually.

Now, I have a question. Do you assume that your current stance on this issue, that your wish to remain Catholic, may change? Where would you put a full stop in the sentence “Change impossible to exclude”?

I would put a full stop after “change”. Because we cannot know what life has in stock for us. It could be that we will finally get back to this unity—I see it as communication—that suddenly Rome and Moscow will be in communication again, and then everything will be fine. I assume this is possible.

It’s an interesting way to answer the question. Thank you so much! It was Jean-François Thiry, a Catholic who genuinely loves Orthodoxy.