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Tuesday, May 29, 2018

The Unchangeability of God as the Basis for His Unchangeable Justice and Mercy for Human Beings

     For years people in society, including Roman Catholics, have tended to consider God primarily or completely under the image of a God of mercy.  There is certainly good reason in Scripture, Tradition and Magisterium for considering God under such an image.  He has revealed Himself as the all merciful God.  He desires mercy for all human beings.[1]  In fact, He has offered them His mercy throughout their human history.  In this sense, they have received this mercy from Him in their creation and salvation as human beings.  Indeed, in His mercy He has willed to create them in His goodness and save them from sin and death.  For this reason, people have rightly believed and hoped in the mercy of God.  They have faithfully believed and hoped that they would become through His mercy the holy people He created and saved them to be.  That is not the problem.  The problem is that many people have tended to reduce God’s creation and salvation of human beings to His mercy alone.   In doing so, they have acted as if His mercy is all they required from Him for their salvation.  In the early 1950’s the Dominican, Friar Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, O.P., mentioned this as a problem that had already developed years earlier among many people in the Catholic Church.  Consequently, they either ignored or neglected Catholic Teaching about the justice of God in God’s creation and salvation of human beings.  For this reason, Garrigou-Lagrange says that parents, teachers, catechists and priests began teaching and preaching less and less, if at all, about the justice of God in the family, in parochial schools, in religious education and in liturgy.  In particular, the subjects or beliefs under the justice of God that people tended to ignore or neglect included the stain of spiritual death for mortal sin, the debts of temporal and eternal punishment for sin, the Sacrament of Penance, penitential acts to atone or satisfy for sin, suffering virtuously in this life, Purgatory and Hell.  

     According to the Magisterium of the Church, all these beliefs or teachings proclaim that human beings can either receive or lose the mercy of God for all eternity.  The choice is theirs. The Church certainly did not create these beliefs or teachings herself. On the contrary, she received them from Christ Himself through the apostles.  The problem was that more and more people had a difficulty believing that Christ would preach these beliefs or truths of God’s justice for sin.  As a result, in practice they removed the justice of God from the mercy of God, as the effect from the cause.  In doing so, they failed to offer God’s people a full or true understanding of the mercy of God.  After all, separated from God's justice, the mercy of God became impoverished, fragmented and deformed.  As such, for them, the image of God under justice was contrary to His image of mercy. For here they conceived the justice of God merely as a merciless punishment of people for their sins.  They certainly had no desire to be punished as such, but they also may not have had any desire to repent.  As a consequence, they conceived the mercy of God as a grace from God that did not require a rational, free act from human beings, the act of repentance. They would receive His mercy merely because He loved them.  In this understanding of His mercy, all human beings became beneficiaries of His salvation, including unrepentant people who lived and died in mortal sin.  Hence, they removed all the just consequences for sin from Catholic formation.  For they falsified the justice of God as a useless, antiquated doctrine of punishment for sin that had no relevance or purpose in God’s creation and salvation of human beings. They failed to understand and appreciate that in the mercy of God He sends His justice to people for their salvation.  As Garrigou-Langrange had said in the 1950’s, the malformation of Catholics through false teaching had already harmed many people for years.  This problem has certainly continued in society and the Church today. 

     In their reading of Sacred Scripture, some people through the years have suggested a change in God from a God of justice in the Old Testament to a God of mercy in the New Testament.  In this sense, for them, God can learn and mature in Himself, including in relating to human beings through His actions.  For this reason, this would be a basis for their argument that God changes.  On the one hand, they claim that God mainly reveals Himself in the Old Testament as a God of justice who punishes His people and others for their sins.  As such, this is the image of God they have a difficulty believing and hoping in.  On the other hand, they also argue that God changes or matures in the New Testament, inasmuch as He reveals Himself there as a God of mercy who forgives and reconciles people to Himself and His Church for their salvation.  This is the image of God from their reading of Sacred Scripture that they can easily believe and hope in.  He is the merciful God who does not punish them for their sins in this life or in the afterlife because He loves them.  All the same, in reading all of Scripture in the Tradition, the Magisterium of the Roman Church has formally proclaimed through the centuries that the unchangeable God[2] has fully revealed Himself to human beings in history as a God of both mercy and justice, as recorded in Scripture and Tradition. Indeed, as a merciful and just God, He created and saved them as His people through His acts of mercy and justice. Accordingly, for the Church, God does not change.  He is not a God of justice who later becomes a God of mercy.  On the contrary, He remains Himself, just and merciful, for all eternity.

     In Sacred Scripture God proclaims through the prophet Malachi, "I, the LORD, do not change.”[3]  As Saint Thomas considers this proclamation, he offers three reasons for the unchangeability of God in the Prima Pars of the Summa Theologiae.[4]  In doing so, he argues that God is really unchangeable in Himself, in His divine substance, because He is the uncreated God, not a changeable creature.  For this reason, he says that God is not subject to the potentiality, composition and movement to full perfection that naturally define the nature or substance of a changeable created being.  On the contrary, as the uncreated God, God is pure act, completely simple and infinitely perfect in Himself.[5] Thus, God says, “I AM who I AM”.[6] “This is My name forever.” [7]  According to Thomas, this name “most properly belongs to God” alone.  For comprehending everything about who God is in Himself, it contains the divine essence or nature as infinite, indeterminate substance.[8]  In this sense, “He is who He is” in the substance of His uncreated being for all eternity.  On this basis, for Thomas, this name, above all, means that God is unchangeable in Himself. 

     Moreover, God’s unchangeability also means that in His providential plan of creation and salvation of human beings, God is unchangeable in His justice and mercy for them.  Indeed, He remains just and merciful to them in His actions for all eternity.  In the first place, His justice requires that He act justly to human beings according to the rule of His wisdom, called the law of His justice, or truth.  As a result, by this truth or law of God’s justice, God rightly administers to people what they naturally require or morally deserve or merit.  This means that they receive from God those things due them either from their human nature or their moral actions, good or evil.  In paying or administering this debt, God fulfills in human beings by an act of His will what His wisdom requires of them.  In doing so, He also does what His wisdom requires of Him as God.  For He alone can offer human beings what they require and merit in His just wisdom.  In this sense, the wisdom of God’s justice considers what is proper to God in relating justly to human beings, inasmuch as He offers to Himself what is justly due Him by directing His people to Himself through the justice He offers them.[9]  For they belong to Him as His creatures.  Hence, Thomas says that in God’s law of justice, God only wills for human beings what His wisdom approves.  For this reason, what He does for them according to His will, He does justly.[10]  Consequently, He cannot become unjust to them.  That would be irrational.  For He would be acting against His “unchangeable truth”[11] or law of justice.  As such, the unchangeability of the justice of God for human beings has a basis in the unchangeableness of His truth or wisdom.[12]  For instance, in His law of justice or truth He offers people either those goods that their nature requires or the recompense or punishment they deserve for their actions.  In the second place, the unchangeability of God also means that God is unchangeable in His mercy for human beings.  According to Thomas, the mercy of God removes defects from human beings by perfecting them in the particular forms of goodness they are deficient in.[13]  “God acts mercifully, not by acting contrary to His justice, but by doing something more than justice.”[14]  For instance, if a human being pays his debtor more than the amount due him, perhaps because his debtor is having financial difficulties, he acts mercifully to him.  For he does more than what is required for him.  Indeed, he helps remove his financial difficulties from him.  Similarly, God is merciful to human beings by doing more for them than what His justice requires.  He perfects them beyond the requirements of what is just by mercifully removing their defects from them.[15] Thus, in His mercy He confers upon them what they do not merit.[16]  Here the unchangeability of the mercy of God has a basis in the unchangeable goodness of God.  As goodness Himself, God cannot become merciless to them.  That would be contrary to His love.[17]  For His mercy for human beings naturally proceeds from the goodness of His divine will to love them in their deficiencies.  In loving them mercifully He removes their defects.  In doing so, He wills or desires their highest good, their participation in the goodness of His divine life, through an act of His mercy.  Accordingly, in God’s plan of creation and salvation, He remains unchangeable as a just and merciful God to them.[18] Thus, everything that God does for human beings providentially includes His justice and mercy.[19] 

     In fact, according to Thomas, the justice of God proceeds from the mercy of God.  Indeed, God's justice is an effect or fruit of His mercy.  For His mercy is the foundation and end of His justice.  As a result, His justice cannot be separated from His mercy.  In this sense, Thomas says that the justice of God for human beings presupposes His mercy for them.[20]  The definition or meaning of God’s justice here is the belief that people will receive from God what is due them.  First of all, what is due them has a basis in their created nature as human beings on Earth.  After He wills to create them from all eternity as rational bodily creatures, God becomes, in a sense, indebted to them.[21]  For this reason, in preparation for His creation of human beings, He first creates the right or just conditions for them to live on Earth.  As such, Thomas teaches that human beings in justice are due those desirable things or goods from God that they naturally require to live on Earth as the rational bodily persons He created them to be.  Accordingly, the seminal forms of those desirable things have being or actuality in the nature of human beings.  Hence, what is naturally due them from the justice of God, in a sense, is already in them by natural inclination.  For through their participation of the Eternal Law through natural law, God Himself naturally inclines them to those created goods on Earth that they need by nature as human beings.  In particular, as rational bodily creatures, human beings in general require from God the goods of their natural inclinations: food and water from the Earth to live; spouses to procreate and educate human life; people to develop friendships with in human society; and the truth to learn about God Himself.  These are all desirable things that human beings generally need to live as the people God created them to be.  Thus, as a race they are due such things in the justice of God.[22]  As a result, Scripture says, “He provides for all” human beings.[23]  Indeed, Jesus Himself tells His disciples to trust that God will provide for all their needs in life.  After all, He does this for all human beings, for the good and the bad, the just and the unjust, because He created them.[24]  This is the justice of God’s providential governance of human beings in creation.  At the same time, for Thomas, all the just actions that God does for human beings on Earth have a basis in the goodness of the mercy of God.  For God’s free decision to create human beings as particular creatures proceeds from His mercy by an act of His divine will.  Consequently, this divine act of human creation is not due human beings in the justice of God.  On the contrary, God does not have to create them.  He is not indebted to create them as human beings.  He creates them only because of His divine goodness. Therefore, Thomas says, in every divine action of God, considered in its primary source, there appears the goodness of the mercy of God.  In all that follows, the mercy of God remains, and acts with infinitely greater efficacy than secondary causes, inasmuch as He is the first cause or mover of all human beings.  In this sense, from His infinite goodness, God as a faithful and loving Father mercifully confers upon all people far more than what is naturally due them in justice.  On this basis, His mercy informs all His just actions for human beings.[25] 

     Furthermore, Thomas teaches that human beings also receive from God what is due them in justice for their moral actions in this life.  They can either do good or evil as moral persons.  According to Scripture, human beings define their actions as morally good or evil by their faithfulness or unfaithfulness to the Truth of God’s Word.  They receive this Word from God intellectually through natural reason and faith in divine revelation.  In their faithfulness to God’s Word, they offer Him the honor due Him as God, but they fail to do this in their unfaithfulness. Accordingly, after God created the first human beings, Adam and Eve, in His divine image as rational creatures, He blessed them that they would be faithful to His Word as good custodians or guardians of His creation in the garden of Eden.  This would be a faithfulness to God through good moral choices in their life. For this reason, God called them to faithfully tend to His creation, first and foremost through their faithful moral governance of their created human nature.  In doing so, He instructed them to eat from the trees of the garden as nourishment for their bodies.  His only prohibition for them was that they not eat from a particular tree.  As such, He would judge them either as faithful or unfaithful for their moral choices.  Thus, they would receive His justice and mercy for their morality.  This means that He created them to be morally responsible for their good or evil actions.  They could either be faithful through their moral goodness, or unfaithful through their moral evil.  For they received from God a rational, free nature to act from their understanding and freedom.  In this sense, their moral actions proceed from their intellect and will. This means that their understanding and freedom inform their moral actions.  Indeed, they define such actions morally.  This was certainly true of the moral action of Adam and Eve in the garden.  They understood the Word they received from God about not eating from a particular tree, but they still made the free moral choice to eat from this tree.  They acted contrary to the Word of God through their sin of disobedience.  They dishonored Him.  In doing so, they defined their action as morally evil.  In this act, they failed as guardians or custodians of God’s creation, especially in their call to guard their human nature from evil.  After this first or original sin in the garden of Eden, Adam and Eve received from God what was due them for their evil action.[26]  God Himself told them beforehand that He would punish them for moral evil.  For through their sin they failed to offer to God the honor due Him.  As a result, in the judgment of God, they incurred various just consequences from Him for their original sin as required by His justice, including the stain of death in their souls through the loss of their original holiness, concupiscence, the debt of eternal punishment and eventually bodily death.  In this fallen nature, they also lost their paradise on Earth in the garden of Eden, including their future glorious paradise in Heaven.  This represented the loss of their spiritual communion in the grace of God. 

     As bad as all this was for Adam and Eve, God in His mercy still loved them[27] and promised them, including their descendants, the blessing of salvation someday through a Son who would be born of a Woman as Savior.[28]  Through her fiat or yes, this Woman would bear the Son who would save human beings from their fallen nature of original sin, including all their particular sins.  From the first century, the Church has professed this Son of Man, the Son of the Woman, to be the Son of God, Jesus Christ, who was born as Man of the Blessed Virgin Mary for the salvation of all people.[29] In this sense, as a faithful and loving Father, God punishes Adam and Eve, including their descendants, through the consequences of their evil action, but would also have mercy upon them through the fruits or merits of the holy action of His Son.  As such, in God’s providential plan of salvation, His punishment of human beings is the means to fulfill His justice, but the end or terminus of this justice is His mercy.  Hence, in a sense, God’s justice is already an act of His mercy, inasmuch as His justice leads to His mercy.[30]  For as a merciful God, He sends His justice to human beings to prepare them to receive His mercy.  In this sense, He begins to mercifully reform and heal them through His just actions.  Thus, as the foundation and end of the justice of God, the blessing of God’s mercy is especially revealed in the good moral action of the Divine Person of the Son of God as Man. For He offered Himself as the Lamb of Sacrifice to the Father through His Passion and Death on the Cross.  In doing so, He mercifully suffered in Himself the just punishment due human beings for their original sin and particular sins, because of His love for them.  In this sacrificial act, the greatest moral act of mercy, He merited salvation for all people, for He satisfied for their sins as the justice of God required.  On this basis, once again, God reveals the unity and necessity of His justice and mercy in His plan of salvation for human beings.

     In reading the Genesis story about God’s creation of Adam and Eve, their original sin, and especially God’s divine action in the aftermath, God reveals that He remains unchangeable in Himself, including unchangeable in His divine action for them and for their descendants.  The All Holy God who first created them from the goodness of His mercy and established the right or  just conditions for them to live on Earth is the same All Holy God who administered His judgment of justice and mercy to them for their original sin.  For this reason, right after He punished them through various consequences as His justice required, He mercifully blessed them through a promise of salvation.  For He revealed to them that a Son would be born of a Woman someday who would save them, including their descendants, from all evil.  In this sense, God’s judgment of justice and mercy for sinful human beings remains unchangeable for all eternity.  In His justice He punishes them for their sins, but also offers them the blessing of His mercy.  Thus, in Scripture He first reveals this teaching through the human author of Genesis, especially in the story of Adam and Eve.  The Prophets also pronounce this revelation from God in their preaching.  According to the Prophet Jeremiah, God probes the mind and tests the heart as He judges His people for their sins.  For this reason, He will punish them as His justice requires, but will also offer them His mercy.[31] Furthermore, the Prophet Isaiah also proclaims this justice and mercy of God for human beings guilty of sin.[32]  In fact, throughout the Old Testament God reveals Himself to be just and merciful to His people.  He punishes them in His justice, but also calls them to open their hearts to receive His mercy.[33] For He desires their salvation.  On this basis, for the Prophets, God’s plan to save human beings through His justice and mercy, first revealed in Genesis, would be fulfilled in a Son of Man.

     As Saint Paul says, in the fullness of time God sent His Son to become the Son of Man through a Woman to save human beings.[34]  All the Gospels proclaim this Son of God to be Jesus Christ, the Son of the Virgin Mary. During His natural life as Man, He prepared the people of God through His preaching and healing ministry to believe that He was the Son of God, the Messiah, who would suffer and die for their salvation.  For this reason, He would become the Ideal or Perfect Model of human moral agency for all people.  As such, He alone would be their Savior, but they could only receive salvation from Him through a faithful act of repentance for their sins. Accordingly, throughout His ministry, He called human beings to repent for their sins.  In the Gospel He says, “I have not come to call the righteous to repentance but sinners.” [35]  After hearing this call from Him, people guilty of particular sins repented for them.  These penitents included Levi, Zacchaeus, a sinful woman, a lost son and a woman guilty of adultery.[36]  As a result, they received forgiveness from Christ through their repentance.  Hence, He proclaimed in His preaching, “the Son of Man has authority on Earth to forgive sins”.[37]  At the same time, He also had the authority to retain the sins of impenitent people.  This means that He would not forgive them if they did not repent.  For as rational, free human beings, they had closed their hearts to this offer of grace from Him.  They had made the moral choice not to repent to Him for their sins.[38]  Consequently, He would not release their sins from them through forgiveness.  On the contrary, He would retain their sins in them as a just punishment for their unrepentance.  In doing so, He hoped and prayed that this would help them open their hearts to the grace of repentance sometime during their life before they died.  For this reason, the desired end or terminus of His just punishment of these people was His mercy.  Thus, after His Resurrection, He appeared to His apostles and breathed the Holy Spirit upon them.  In this act, they received from Him a ministerial participation in His authority on Earth to forgive or retain the sins of the members of His Body, the Church.  He tells them, “Receive the Holy Spirit.  Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained.”[39]  On the one hand, through the Holy Spirit, the apostles received from Christ the faculty to forgive penitents for their sins ministerially, for they could act in the person of Christ the Head.  These penitents would be people who repented.  In doing so, they opened their hearts to receive the mercy of Christ.  This grace reconciled them to Christ and His Body, the Church.  On the other hand, the apostles also received a participation in the authority of Christ to retain the sins of impenitent people as a just punishment for their unrepentance.  For they closed their hearts to the mercy of Christ.  As a consequence, they remained unreconciled from Christ and His Church.  In this sense, Christ instituted Penance as a Sacrament in the Church as a means for His apostles and their successors to perpetuate His ministry of justice and mercy sacramentally on Earth through the Holy Spirit.  On this basis, in this Sacrament Christ reveals, once again, the unity and necessity of the justice and mercy of the Son of God, Jesus Christ, in His plan of salvation for all people. 

     In Church Teaching, the nature of the Sacrament of Penance, as instituted by Christ Himself, contains four parts.  These four parts include the three acts of the Catholic penitent, and the act of the priest.  According to the Church, the first part of the Sacrament is the act of the penitent called contrition.[40]  Thus, Thomas says, “the first requirement on the part of the penitent is the will to atone...by contrition”.[41]  This means in his desire to atone, through an act of his will, the penitent is contrite or sorry for his sins from his heart.  He is sorry for his sins against God, his neighbor and himself.  As a result, his contrition moves him to hate his sins.  This is his first renouncement of sin in his heart.[42]  For this reason, he is resolved not to sin again.  Accordingly, the Fathers of the Council of Trent teach that contrition includes sorrow and hatred for sin and the resolution not to sin again.[43]  Moreover, in the Catholic Tradition such a resolution would also require that the penitent be resolved to avoid all the voluntary near occasions of sin such as particular persons, places and objects that would easily lead him to sin in his human fragility.  The Tradition calls these near occasions voluntary for the penitent because he can avoid them through prudential moral choices.  Therefore, he would certainly have the responsibility to avoid them as a contrite moral agent.  In doing so, he would guard himself against sin.[44]  Finally, the Church teaches that contrition can either be perfect or imperfect in the penitent.[45]  On the one hand, perfect contrition means that the sorrow and hatred he has in his heart for his sins proceed from his love for God as his First and Greatest Love.[46]  As such, this is also called contrition of love or charity.  On the other hand, in imperfect contrition, the penitent has a sorrow and hatred for his sins for other reasons, such as a fear of eternal punishment in hell.  The goal or ideal of the penitent is certainly perfect contrition, but imperfect contrition is also acceptable.  Hence, in either case, the penitent has the required contrition for the celebration of the Sacrament.

     According to the Church, the second act of the penitent in the Sacrament of Penance is the confession of his sins.[47]  Accordingly, Thomas teaches that through confession the penitent subjects himself to “the judgment of the priest”.[48]  For here the priest, standing in the place of God, acts in the Person of Christ the Head, the Just and Merciful Judge.[49]  As the Church says, Christ Himself instituted the Sacrament of Penance for the penitent to receive His judgment of justice and mercy, after Baptism, through the ministry of the priest.  In this Sacrament, the Church only recommends the Catholic penitent to confess his venial sins[50] to the priest, but requires him to confess all his mortal sins to him.  On the one hand, his guilt for venial sin only wounds the grace of Christ in his soul. Consequently, he incurs only a debt of temporal punishment.  On the other hand, for mortal or deadly sin[51] he incurs a stain in his soul, called spiritual death, because this sin destroys the grace of Christ in him.  As a consequence, he subjects himself to the debt of eternal punishment.  The Fathers of the Council of Trent teach that these consequences or penalties proceed from the harmful “nature of sin”.[52]  For sin either wounds or destroys the grace of Christ in the soul of the penitent.  In this sense, through venial sin, the penitent does not lose the grace of Christ, the grace of justification, but he does lose this grace through mortal sin, including the theological virtue of charity.  Indeed, he loses all the blessings that Christ merited for him on the Cross for his salvation.  Consequently, he cannot enter Heaven spiritually dead through mortal sin.[53]  For this reason, the Catholic Church teaches that Christ instituted the Sacrament of Penance to reconcile to Himself and to His Church, the penitent guilty of mortal sin.[54] On this basis, the penitent certainly prepares himself to receive the justice and mercy of Christ through his confession to a priest.

     In the Catholic Tradition, the third and final act for the Catholic penitent in the Sacrament of Penance is for him to do satisfaction for his sins, as the justice of God requires.[55]  According to Thomas, in satisfaction the penitent offers to God the honor due Him, the honor he had denied Him through sin.   For this reason, the penitent remains bound to satisfy, but recompense here for the penitent can proceed no further than through an act that denies himself something that belongs to him in reparation for his sin, for God can acquire nothing from him.  As such, for this to be satisfactory, Thomas says that the justice of God requires that the act of the penitent be morally good and painful or sacrificial.  The goodness of the act honors God, but the pain of the act, the sacrifice, denies or removes something from the penitent that belongs to him.  This has a medicinal nature that helps him purify himself from the remains of the sin that may be in his heart, the tendency or inclination to the particular sin.  This penitential act of satisfaction is a just punishment that pleases God.  For here the penitent offers to God the honor due Him as God in reparation for the sin.  In Catholic Teaching, such an act could include prayer, fasting or almsgiving.  They all satisfy for sin, for they are all good acts honoring God that involve the penitent denying or renouncing something from himself sacrificially in atonement for sin, his material goods (alms), bodily pleasure or nourishment (fasting), and his self-will (prayer).[56]  Accordingly, in the Sacrament of Penance, Thomas says that the penitent “atones according to the decision of the minister of God…in satisfaction”.[57] For as a just and merciful judge in the Tribunal of the Confessional, the priest assigns the penitent a just penance to satisfy for his sins as atonement.  As for the penitent, he subjects his will to the judgment of the priest by his faithful, moral choice to do the satisfactory penance as a just punishment for his sins.  In doing so, he receives the justice and mercy of Christ through the priest.  For the terminus or end of his just punishment is the merciful satisfaction for his sins.  In doing so, he atones for them penitentially through his participation in the merits of the satisfactory Passion of Christ.[58]  Additionally, the Fathers of the Council of Trent teach that God also calls the penitent to offer up as voluntary satisfactory penances for his sins, the trials or crucibles that he may suffer in this life, including bodily, spiritual and mental illness, injustice and persecution.[59] As Thomas teaches, these satisfactory penances or punishments that the penitent receives either from the priest in the Sacrament of Penance or from God in his life reestablish a balance or harmony in the order of God’s justice that was lost through the sin.[60] 

      Finally, the Church teaches that the act of the priest completes or perfects the Sacrament of Penance as a ministry of the Keys.[61]  In particular, he completes the Sacrament by his faculty to forgive the penitent of all his mortal sins, including his debt of eternal punishment, through the grace of absolution.[62]  For after the penitent offers the required contrition and confession of his sins and subjects his will to the just satisfactory penance he receives from the judgment of the priest, the priest mercifully absolves the penitent of the stain and eternal debt of his mortal sins.[63] As a result, he becomes sanctified as a son of God through the grace of justification he receives from Christ in the absolution.  This reconciles him to Christ and His Church.  For this reason, reestablished in the grace of Christ through the ministry of the priest, the penitent can finally atone for his sins penitentially as the justice of God requires.  As such, the judgment of the priest in the confessional is “both just and merciful.”[64]  In a sense, he punishes satisfactorily, but also absolves mercifully.  Accordingly, after the penitent receives this justice and mercy of Christ through the penance and absolution of the priest, there remains some debt of punishment[65] for the penitent to atone for by satisfaction.  This is not the eternal debt, but the temporal debt.  For the debt of the “temporal punishment of sin remains” for the penitent to satisfy for penitentially in justice.[66]  In this sense, after Saint Paul receives the mercy of Christ, His forgiveness, through the healing ministry of Ananias, he learns that he will also have to suffer much in this life for the Name of Christ as a just temporal punishment for his mortal sins against Christ and His Body, the Church.[67]  Thus, Paul paid this temporal debt to the justice of God through the trials, crucibles and persecutions he suffered for the Holy Name of Jesus in this life. In doing so, he made satisfaction for his sins through His participation in the satisfactory Passion of Christ, the source of all satisfaction. On this basis, the absolution of the priest mercifully cleanses or purifies the penitent of his stain and eternal debt for mortal sin, but his temporal debt remains for him to satisfy the justice of God penitentially in this life.

     In her faith the Church professes her belief that after this life on Earth, a person receives from Christ in death the particular judgment that he merited for himself in life through his free, moral choices.[68]  For the Church, this judgment involves the justice and mercy of Christ.  First of all, if the penitent dies in the grace of Christ, but “imperfectly purified”[69] either because he is guilty of venial sin, or because he has not fully atoned for the debt of temporal punishment[70] in this life through the satisfaction of penance, he will be temporarily detained in Purgatory until he is ready for Heaven.[71]  For this reason, the Catholic Tradition proclaims that the basis for “the Christian doctrine of Purgatory is the Christological grace of penance.”[72]  Indeed, Purgatory proceeds from the “inner necessity” of the nature of penance as a continual penitential readiness in the heart of the reconciled penitent to be fully conformed to Christ in holiness through an interior process of purification.[73]  If he fails to complete his purification during his life on Earth through satisfactory penance, he will be fully purified in Purgatory in the afterlife.  As a result, by this purification, he will fully image the beauty of the All Holy Son of God in glory.  Thus, in Church Teaching, “Purgatory”, from the Latin “purgare”, means to purify or cleanse the soul of the person spiritually.[74]  As such, this is the “final purification” that he requires to be fully sanctified in Christ for Heaven.[75]  In this sense, he will certainly become a saint in Heaven someday through the mercy of Christ, but only after he has received the justice of Christ.  In fact, the justice of Christ in Purgatory mercifully prepares the deceased person for the mercy of Heaven.  For he did not depart this life fully perfected as a holy son of God.  On the contrary, he died imperfectly in the grace of Christ through venial sin or the debt of temporal punishment.  According to Thomas, in this spiritual state of imperfection the deceased person retains in his soul the full habitual beauty of the grace of justification, including all the virtues, which he first received from Christ in Baptism, but also later in Penance.  Hence, venial sin and the temporal debt neither destroy nor lessen this interior habit of the spiritual beauty of Christ in his soul.  He remains fully in the grace of Christ habitually.  On the other hand, Thomas also teaches that the deceased person, guilty of venial sin or temporal punishment, has failed to complete or perfect in himself his full actual beauty as a moral person in this life through the acts of virtue.[76]  Indeed, he has reached only a partial or imperfect spiritual beauty morally.  For in this life he has failed through his free moral actions to fully purify himself spiritually of venial sin or to atone for the full debt of temporal punishment through satisfaction.  Therefore, in his life this imperfect spiritual state impaired the full beauty of the acts of the virtues in him.  For this reason, he died habitually in the beauty of the grace of Christ, but imperfectly as to the full moral beauty of the acts of the virtues of Christ.  In this sense, he departed this life not fully formed or perfected in Christ as a spiritual, moral person.  Consequently, he cannot enter the Heavenly Jerusalem in this imperfect state.[77]  

     In Saint Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians, he proclaims to them his belief in a purification in the afterlife for deceased members of the Church who die in the grace of Christ, but imperfectly, because of their moral actions in this life.[78]  According to his reasoning, if a deceased shepherd or minister of the Church can be purified of imperfection in the afterlife for his moral actions, certainly the sheep or lay members of the Church, who die imperfectly in the grace of Christ, can also receive purification in the afterlife for their moral actions.  Accordingly, he first considers the labor that Christ called him to do as a minister on behalf of the Church in this life.  Indeed, he says that through “the grace of God”, he received the vocation or calling to be a “prudent master builder” of “God’s building”, His Church, in Corinth.[79]  For this reason, in his prudence, he laid the only “foundation” that he could lay for the Corinthians, the Person of Jesus Christ Himself.[80]  In this sense, he “planted” or established Christ in their hearts as their foundation.[81] For he preached the Gospel of Christ to them, reconciled them to Christ and His Body, the Church, through Baptism and Penance, taught them the Christian deposit of faith and morals and offered them the real presence of Christ in the Holy Mass.  Therefore, he formed them as a Church in Christ to become the Holy Temple of God.[82]

    As Paul develops his argument for purification in the afterlife in First Corinthians, he proceeds to consider the labor of his successor, the minister who succeeded him in Corinth.  This minister is building upon the foundation that Paul laid.[83]  For Paul says, “another is building upon” this foundation.[84] In this sense, his successor is not building upon some other foundation.  He is building upon the same foundation that Paul himself has already laid, the foundation of Jesus Christ.  As such, Paul’s successor in Corinth has labored prudently.  For this reason, Paul tells the Corinthians that just as Christ first called him to be a prudent master builder of the foundation of the Church in Corinth, Christ also calls his successor to be a prudent minister in building the Church upon this foundation.  For the minister, this will involve a prudential moral choice of the materials he will use to build the Household of God upon Jesus Christ, the foundation of the Church.  According to Paul, in building the Church, the minister can either use good materials that will last, such as gold, silver and precious stones, or he can use poor, temporary materials such as wood, hay and stubble.[85]  The choice is his.  On the one hand, Christ certainly calls the minister to use good materials alone in building the Church upon Christ.  These good materials represent the good moral actions of the minister. In fact, Thomas teaches that all the good moral acts of the virtues in the heart of the minister “are referred to the love of God and neighbor”.[86]  For he loves God as his First and Greatest Good and his neighbor as himself through virtue. Accordingly, these moral acts of love that proceed from virtue in the heart of the minister “are designated by ‘gold, silver and precious stones’”.[87]  Through them the minister builds the Church prudently.  On the other hand, he can also fail to use prudence.  Indeed, he can act imprudently.  For he can use poor or inferior materials for building the Church that would only last temporarily, such as “wood, hay and stubble”. Thomas teaches that these poor materials represent venial sins.  They are evil actions that neither build up the minister nor the Church.  For they do not belong to them foundationally or substantially.

     According to Paul, in either case, Christ will reveal the true nature of the minister’s actions for the Church.  Indeed, He will reveal his actions to be either morally good or evil.  For He will judge the minister for his “labor” in the House of God on “the Day” of the Lord.[88]  First of all, this Day of the Lord refers to the particular judgment that the deceased minister will receive from Christ in the afterlife on the Day of his death.  Indeed, in Paul’s Second Letter to the Corinthians, he tells them that upon death the soul of a person who dies will “appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that he may receive recompense, according to what he did in the body, whether good or evil.”[89]  Furthermore, in Paul’s Second Letter to Timothy, he tells him that he does not have much time to live.  He believes that death is near for him.  The “time of my departure is at hand.”  In fact, “on that day”, the day of his death, he will receive judgment from “the Lord, the just judge.”[90]  Accordingly, the Day of the Lord refers first and foremost to the Day he appears before the judgment seat of Christ in the afterlife on the Day of his death. On this day he will receive his particular judgment from the Lord for the life he lived.  In the second place, the Day of the Lord also refers to the Last Day, the Day of his resurrection, called the final or general judgment.[91]  Paul calls this Last Day the Parousia, meaning the Return or the Second Coming of Christ in glory to administer His final judgment of justice and mercy to all people in recompense for their moral actions in this life.[92]  Indeed, in this final judgment on the Last Day, the Day of Christ, the faithful people of God will be raised from the dead to the life of glory, but the unfaithful, people who died in mortal sin, will be raised to condemnation.[93]  On this basis, Christ, the just and merciful judge, will fully reveal the moral nature of person’s labor in the Church through the particular and general judgment.

     Specifically, in Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians, he proclaims that Christ will fully reveal in the afterlife His particular and general judgment of the person’s labor through the “fire” of His Holy Spirit.[94]  This is a judgment about the morality of the minister’s actions in building the Church during his life on Earth.  He began this building ministry in himself, in his heart, as a member of the Church of Corinth.  In Scripture the heart represents the soul, especially the highest part of the soul, the intellectual part.  For this reason, Jesus teaches His disciples that from the human heart proceeds all moral action, good and evil.  Accordingly, the minister’s building of the Church upon the foundation of Christ began in himself.  Consequently, Paul says, if a minister builds upon this foundation using gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay and stubble, Christ will certainly reveal the full nature or meaning of his labor.  As such, here Paul refers to a single subject or person who would be morally responsible for using both good and bad materials in building the Church upon the foundation of Christ.  As a result, the heart of the minister, who dies in the grace of Christ, in His love, through the merits of the gold, silver and stones of virtue in his soul, but imperfectly through the wood, hay and stubble of venial sin or the debt of temporal punishment, becomes the subject of the fire of the Holy Spirit in the afterlife.  As Christ reveals His judgment of justice and mercy to the deceased minister for his moral actions, He punishes and purifies him of his imperfections through the fire of the Holy Spirit. Therefore, the spiritual fruits of gold, silver and precious stones of virtue will remain in his soul through the grace of justification after Christ subjects him to the fire of the Holy Spirit, but his venial and temporal imperfections will be “burned up”.[95]  Consequently, Paul tells the Corinthians that this deceased minister will “suffer loss”, but he “will be saved” as “through fire”.[96]  In this sense, as good as this minister may have been for the Christians of Corinth during his life, he would not have died fully perfected in the grace of Christ if he had departed this life guilty of the imperfections of venial sin or temporal punishment in his soul.  Why else would Christ temporarily subject this minister to a fire that would punish and save him in the afterlife, as Paul says?  The only conclusion here would be that the minister would have died habitually in the grace of Christ, but not fully prepared for Heaven due to his imperfections. Hence, Paul teaches that the judgment of Christ would subject the deceased minister to the fire of the Holy Spirit in the afterlife as a means for him to receive the justice and mercy of Christ.  In this holy fire, the justice of Christ would punish the minister, but the mercy of Christ would purify him.  According to Paul, if the fruits from his labor remained in his heart under such fire, he would certainly receive his blessing from Christ.  For Thomas, the fruits that would remain in the deceased minister would include the virtues, especially the theological virtue of love, he first received from Christ through the grace of justification, but later matured or perfected through his good moral actions as he labored in the Church of Corinth. Thus, the minister would have done much good for the Corinthians during his life, but may have died imperfectly in the grace of Christ because of venial sin or the debt of temporal punishment. Hence, Thomas teaches that the soul of such a person would have to be fully purified or “cleansed by the fire of Purgatory”[97] before he could enter Heaven.  In this sense, he would certainly become a saint in Heaven someday after this purification.  This would prepare him spiritually for the final judgment of Christ on the Last Day.  For after being fully purified in Purgatory, he would be raised from the dead to the life of glory[98] through the fire of the Holy Spirit in the final judgment of Christ.  As such, here the fire of God’s Spirit fully conforms him to the image of Christ in glory.[99] On this basis, he will bear the image of the heavenly man, the Second Adam, Jesus Christ, through the divine action of the Holy Spirit.[100]

     On the other hand, the Church teaches that an unrepentant person who dies guilty of mortal sin, a sin that destroys his life in Christ, will remain spiritually dead forever.[101]  This is also the teaching of Thomas.  He says that the soul of the person who does not have the life of Christ in him at death will suffer everlasting punishment.[102]  For his free or voluntary, moral choice in this life to remain spiritually tainted in deadly sin becomes eternal in death.  In this sense, in the particular judgment, this person receives from Christ the moral choice he made for himself in life. Consequently, he has forever lost for himself the habitual grace of justification, including the theological virtue of love, that he first received from Christ in the Sacrament of Baptism.  This is the grace of holiness that made him spiritually alive in Christ habitually as a beautiful son of God.  For this reason, if he does not repent for sinning mortally before he dies, he will incur a judgment of condemnation from Christ in the afterlife.[103]  As such, Paul reminds the Christians of Corinth that such a person will not inherit the reign of God in Heaven.[104]  On the contrary, he will be punished forever as a “just judgment of God”.[105]  This means that he will suffer the fire of Hell eternally for the evil actions that he did in the body.  For he will pay his debt of eternal punishment there forever as the justice of God requires. As a consequence, the fire of Hell does not purify or cleanse the person’s soul, but only punishes him.  As bad as this just punishment would certainly be for such a person for all eternity, Thomas says that even he receives the mercy of Christ in Hell, insofar as Christ mercifully punishes him less than he could punish him for his evil actions.[106] In fact, for Thomas, Christ’s mercy may diminish the punishment of the person in Hell, at least occasionally, as the punishment continues for all eternity.[107] Accordingly, there is mercy in the justice of Christ even for the soul of the human person who has received from Christ a particular judgment of eternal condemnation in Hell.  All the same, in the final judgment Christ will raise him from the dead to eternal condemnation.[108]

     In conclusion, I hope I have helped at least some people understand and appreciate more fully that the unchangeable God remains just and merciful to human beings for all eternity.  Indeed, He reveals throughout history that His providential plan of creation and salvation of all people requires His justice and mercy.  Thus, God’s creation and salvation of human beings can neither be reduced to the mercy of God nor to the justice of God.  For this reason, Scripture, Tradition and Magisterium proclaim the unity and necessity of the justice and mercy of God.  In the first place, the justice of God requires that human beings incur just consequences for their sins, including the guilt and debt of temporal punishment for venial sins and the stain and debt of eternal punishment for mortal sins. In justice, God calls them to repent for these sins in the Tribunal of the Sacrament of Penance and to atone or satisfy for them through penitential acts and sufferings in this life.  If they die imperfectly in the grace of Christ through the guilt of venial sin or the debt of temporal punishment, they will suffer a final and just purification in the fire of Purgatory to be fully cleansed and sanctified for Heaven.   Christ also calls His priests to preach to the people of God about the just consequence of suffering the eternal fire of Hell in the afterlife if they fail to repent for their mortal sins in this life before they die.  According to Garrigou-Lagrange, such preaching has saved many people in the Church from Hell.[109]  In fact, in Medieval Europe the Spanish Dominican, Friar Vincent Ferrer, O.P., called the angel of judgment, moved many people to repentance through his preaching about the justice of God’s particular and general judgment. In doing so, he reminded them that they would suffer the justice of God in Hell if they did not repent. Secondly, the terminus or end of the justice of God is His mercy.  As a result, in the Sacrament of Penance, penitents guilty of mortal sin receive the mercy of Christ, His grace of forgiveness, through the absolution of the priest who acts in the Person of Christ the Head.  In this act, the priest mercifully releases them from their stain and debt of eternal punishment for their mortal sin.  After, they satisfy for such sin, paying the remaining debt of temporal punishment as the justice of God requires.  This prepares them to die in the love of Christ.  If they have made full satisfaction for their sin at such time, Christ would mercifully judge them ready for Heaven at the particular judgment.  If not, they would suffer a final purification in Purgatory to prepare them for Heaven.   On this basis, they have to open their hearts to God in this life by repenting for their sins and producing fruits of such repentance.  If they do not, Jesus says, “Depart from me, you accursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.”[110]  Consequently, they will suffer “eternal punishment.”[111]  Thus, the basis for God’s unchangeable providential plan of justice and mercy in His creation and salvation of human beings is His unchangeability.

In Christ with Blessed Mary,

Friar Mariano D. Veliz, O.P.



Aquinas, Thomas.  Summa Theologiae.  New York: Benzinger  
     Brothers, Inc., 1947.

Auer, Joseph and Ratzinger, Joseph.  Dogmatic Theology.  
     Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America 
     Press, 1988.

Cessario, Romanus.  The Godly Image.  Petersham, MA: St. 
     Bede's Publications, 1990.

Denzinger, Henry.  The Sources of Catholic Dogma. B. Herder  
     Book Co., 1957.

Garrigou-LaGrange, Reginald.  Life Everlasting.  Rockford, 
     Illinois: Tan Books and Publishers, Inc., 1952.

Pope John Paul II.  Catechism of the Catholic Church.  Vatican 
     City: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 2012..

Pope Pius V.  Catechism of the Council of Trent.  Charlotte, 
     North Carolina: Tan Books, 1982.

[1] Matthew 12:7.
[2] The First Vatican Council, Ecumenical XX, Session III, Dogmatic Constitution concerning the Catholic Faith, 1781-1788.
[3] Malachi 3:6.
[4] Summa Theologiae, Ia, Q. 9, a. 1.
[5] Ibid.
[6] Exodus 3:14.
[7] Ibid., 3:15.
[8] Summa Theologiae, Ia, Q. 13, a. 11.
[9] Ibid., Q. 21, a. 1.
[10] Ibid., a. 1-2.
[11] Ibid., Ia-IIae, Q. 93, a. 2.
[12] Ibid., Q. 97, a. 1.
[13] Ibid., Ia, Q. 21, a. 3.
[14] Ibid.
[15] Ibid.
[16] Ibid., a. 4.
[17] Ibid.
[18] Baruch 5:9; Psalms 89:3.
[19] Idem, Ia, Q. 21, a. 4.
[20] Ibid.
[21] Ibid., a. 1.
[22] Ibid.
[23] Wisdom 6:7 and Psalms 57:3.
[24] Luke 12:28-31 and Matthew 5:45.
[25] Summa Theologiae, Ia, Q. 21, a. 4.
[26] Genesis 3:6.
[27] Ibid., 3:21.
[28] Ibid., 3:15.
[29] Galatians 4:4.
[30] 2 Maccabees 6:12-17; Psalms 89:29-37; Sirach 30:1-2, 12-13; Proverbs 3:11-12; Judith 8:25-27; Hebrews 12:3-11; Revelation 3:19; Wisdom 3:2-9; Leviticus 26:14-46; Job 5:17-18; Isaiah 30:26.
[31] Jeremiah 31:18-20, 17:10.
[32] Isaiah 30:26b.
[33] 2 Maccabees 6:12-17; Psalms 89:21-37, 99:6-9; Sirach 30:1-2, 12-13; Proverbs 3:11-12; Judith 8:25-27; Leviticus 26:14-46; Baruch 5:9; Job 5:17-18; Isaiah 30:26b.
[34] Galatians 4:4-5.
[35] Luke 5:32, 15:1-31.
[36] Luke 5:27-32, 7:36-49, 15:11-32, 19:1-10; John 8:1-11.
[37] Luke 5:24.
[38] John 8:23-24, 9:40-41; Luke 12:9, 16-21, 18:18-25; Mark 3:28-29.
[39] John 20:22-23.
[40] Catechism of the Catholic Church, Part II The Sacraments of Healing, Article 4 The Sacrament of Reconciliation and Penance, VII. The Acts of the Penitent, Contrition, Paragraph 1451.
[41] Idem,  Summa Theologiae, IIIa, Q. 90, a. 2.
[42] Ibid., IIIa, Q. 84, a. 1.
[43] Council of Trent, Session XIV Doctrine of the Sacrament of Penance, Chapter IV, Contrition.
[44] Catholic Encyclopedia, Occasions of Sin.
[45] Council of Trent, Session XIV, Chapter IV, Contrition.
[46] Idem, Catechism of the Catholic Church, Paragraph 1452.
[47] Ibid., Paragraph 1456.
[48] Idem,  Summa Theologiae, IIIa, Q. 90, a. 2.
[49] Ibid.
[50] In this section of the article I am primarily concerned about mortal sins, not venial sins.
[51] 1 John 5:16-17; Genesis 2:17.
[52] Council of Trent, DS 1712-1713: 1820.
[53] Galatians 5:19-21, Romans 1:28-32, Ephesians 5:3-5.
[54] Idem, Council of Trent, Session XIV Doctrine of Penance, Chapter V, Confession.
[55] Idem, Paragraph 1459.
[56] The Godly Image, Chapter III, Pg. 61-62.
[57] Summa Theologiae, IIIa, Q. 90, a. 2.
[58] Idem, Council of Trent, Session XIV Doctrine of Penance, Chapter VIII, The Necessity and Fruit of Satisfaction.
[59] Ibid., Council of Trent, Session XIV Doctrine of Penance, Chapter IX, The Works of Satisfaction.
[60] Commentary on Book IV of the Sentences, Q. 13, a. 1.
[61] Idem, Catechism of the Catholic Church, Paragraph 981.
[62] Idem, Council of Trent, Chapter VI, The Minister of this Sacrament and Absolution; and Summa Theologiae, Supplemental, Q. 17, a. 1.
[63] Idem, Summa Theologiae, IIIa, Q. 86, a. 4.
[64] Idem, Catechism of the Catholic Church, Paragraph 1465.
[65] Ibid., Paragraph 1473; and Summa Theologiae, IIIa, Q. 86, a. 4.
[66] Ibid., Paragraph 1473.
[67] Acts of the Apostles 9:1-19; 2 Corinthians 11:23-29, 12:8-10.
[68] Idem, Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1021-1022.
[69] Ibid., 1030.
[70] Ibid., 1030-1031, 1472-1473.
[71] Idem, Catechism of the Council of Trent, Part I: The Creed, Article V, He Descended into Hell, Different Abodes Called Hell.
[72] Dogmatic Theology, Chapter VII, 2. Purgatory, 231.
[73] Ibid., 230-231.
[74] Idem, Catholic Encyclopedia, Purgatory.
[75] Idem, Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1030-1031.
[76] Idem, Summa Theologaie, Ia-IIae, Q. 89, a. 1.
[77] Revelation 21:10, 27; Isaiah 35:8.
[78] 1 Corinthians 3:10-15.
[79] Ibid., 3:9-10.
[80] Ibid., 3:10-11.
[81] Ibid., 3:6.
[82] Ibid., 3:16-17.
[83] Ibid., 3:10.
[84] Ibid.
[85] Ibid., 3:12.
[86] Idem, Summa Theologiae, Ia-IIae, Q. 89, a. 2.
[87] Ibid.
[88] 1 Corinthians 3:13.
[89] 2 Corinthians 5:8-10.
[90] 2 Timothy 4:6-8.
[91] Idem, Dogmatic Theology, 9 Eschatology, Death and Eternal Life, Chapter VII Hell, Purgatory, Heaven, 230.
[92] 1 Thessalonians 4:16; 1 Corinthians 15:19-25; Philippians 1:6,10, 3:20-21.
[93] John 5:28-30.
[94] 1 Corinthians 3:13-16.
[95] Ibid., 3:15.
[96] Ibid.
[97] Idem, Summa Theologiae, Supplement, Appendix II, Purgatory, Q. 1, a. 1.
[98] 1 Corinthians 15:43.
[99] 2 Corinthians 3:17-18.
[100] 1 Corinthians 15:45-49.
[101] Idem, Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1033-1035.
[102] Idem, Summa Theologiae, IIIa, Q. 87, a. 2.
[103] Galatians 5:10; 1 Timothy 5:11-12.
[104] 1 Corinthians 6:9-10.
[105] Romans 2:5-10.
[106] Idem, Summa Theologiae, IIIa, Q. 99, a. 2.
[107] Idem, a. 3.
[108] John 5:29.
[109] Life Everlasting, Chapter XIII, Pg. 97.
[110] Matthew 25:41.
[111] Matthew 25:46.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you so much for taking the time to write about this subject in depth. I try to explain this to my husband who is a convert but, he doesn't want to believe that we have to do penance. He feels that if he asks God, himself for forgiveness, God forgives and forgets. I would like him to read this but, I know that he won't. I have books about purgatory. When I discuss what I have read, he doesn't believe and gets mad at me for reading about it. I pray for his soul as well as all of the souls in my family. God bless you Father!


Dear friend, after reading an article @ Preach My Psalter, please consider offering your thoughts, difficulties, questions or objections. I welcome them. They will help to begin a discussion about the subject. Thanks for visiting Preach My Psalter. May the Crucified and Risen Christ be with you. Friar Mariano D. Veliz, O.P.