Remarks on general confession

March 29, 2010

Is “general confession” a sacrament? If so, when did it become one?

For those who may have no notion of what I am talking about, I refer to the practice wherein a congregation approaches a priest for absolution after the priest has read aloud a general statement of sins and the parishioners have replied with a general acknowledgment of their repentance, couched in the first-person singular. I have never encountered this practice in the Greek Church proper, but it is fairly common in parishes of the OCA, that is, the Orthodox Church in America, the former Russian Metropolia, including the parish which I attend in New Jersey.

This past Sunday, knowing that there would be a large crowd of people, I arrived at church about a half hour before liturgy. At a quarter to the hour, the priest came out from behind the altar and began to read the “Examination of Conscience”: Have I stolen anything, have I lied, have I cheated anyone, have I been negligent in my work, etc. Somewhat half-heartedly, I went downstairs from the choir loft and stood amongst the congregation, hearing the litany of sins and thinking to myself which of them did or did not apply in my own case. I read the prayer of repentance along with everyone else, and got into the line for absolution, although feeling a little uneasy about the whole process, partly because the question with which I began this essay was present in the back of my mind. As usually occurs when there is a general confession, many people simply get into the line when they stroll into the church; on this occasion, a woman I know, a Russian woman who I guess is in her late 50’s, came into the church and, seeing the line, asked if it was a line for communion or for confession; she clearly found the whole thing a bit odd, although, like me, she also got onto the line. The feeling persisted that perhaps I should not be standing in this line, since “whatsoever is not of faith is sin”; but I also felt that to step out of the line would be interpreted as insulting to the priest, and perhaps as meaning that I felt I needed no repentance; so I went through the procedure. I later received communion, did not feel particularly joyous, and, by the end of the liturgy, had fallen into a minor altercation with another member of the choir over some completely trivial matter, which left me feeling depressed and which I shall probably bring up at an actual, auricular confession sometime later this week.

I have to say that I have never felt entirely happy about this practice of general confession. I have never found it to deliver much in the way of a healing of the conscience, if there is something particular weighing upon it; and if there is no particular sin that weighs upon the conscience, what is the point of going through this receiving line? If the point of it is a general acknowledgment of our sinfulness, there is certainly enough of that in the liturgy itself. Although all of us in general are sinners, sin is always a particular phenomenon, and its healing depends upon an acknowledgment of what we have done in our particularity. We sin as persons, not as an anonymous crowd; the practice of general confession, as I have mostly experienced it, far from encouraging genuine repentance, seems rather to encourage a kind of herd mentality: we’ll get into this line because a line is forming, and because not to get onto this line would be to go against what everyone else is doing.

Apparently, the practice of general confession originated in the late nineteenth century, in the ministry of St. John of Kronstadt. The introduction to The Spiritual Counsels of Father John of Kronstadt, edited by W. Jardine Grisbrooke (Cambridge, England and Crestwood, NY, 1967), pp. xxiii f., relates the following:

“This insistence on giving the sacraments their proper place was Father John’s greatest legacy to the Orthodox Church, and to the Russian Church in particular, and it was manifest not only in his teaching, but also in his pastoral practice. I have already remarked upon his daily celebration of the liturgy; he himself said that not to celebrate the liturgy was to him as death. Moreover, in sharp contrast with the prevailing custom of very infrequent communion, he insisted that all who worshipped with him should communicate with him also, and since he could not possibly hear the confessions of the thousands who flocked to his church, he substituted for auricular confession a form of public confession, his congregation confessing their sins one to another—a daring innovation which, however, received divine sanction in a vision granted to a layman present one day in the church, of our Lord stretching his hands out over all the people as Father John gave the general absolution.”

Now, I would point out that, however legitimate the practice of a public confession of sins may have been in the pastoral work of St. John of Kronstadt, “general confession,” as commonly practiced in the OCA, bears little resemblance with this picture: the members of the congregation, present at most general confessions, do not confess their sins to one another; they confess their sins silently to God, and go to receive absolution from the priest individually. Moreover, in most cases the practice is not necessitated by “thousands” flocking to the church (although it may indeed be that considerations of practical expediency have weighed heavily in favor of the adoption of the practice). What the above-cited passage does make clear is that, if a mass form of absolution was deemed necessary in the Russian Church and has not been deemed necessary elsewhere, it is because, in the Russian Church, the common assumption was that a Christian layman was required to go to confession before every reception of holy communion. Such an assumption made frequent reception of holy communion by the whole congregation a practical impossibility, unless some such a mode of “mass confession” were adopted. It seems to me self-evident that that is the original premise for this peculiar custom.

I looked on the Orthodox Wiki this morning to see if I could find an article devoted to the subject of general confession. There isn’t one, but there are links to two very interesting papers by the late Archpriest Alexander Schmemann. One of them is a paper titled “Some reflections on Confession” that was published in the St. Vladimir’s Seminary Quarterly in 1961 (vol. 5, no. 3, pp. 38-44); the other is a report by Fr. Schmemann to the Holy Synod of the Orthodox Church in America, titled “Confession and Communion,” which was accepted and approved by the Holy Synod of the Orthodox Church in America on February 17, 1972. The Holy Synod’s formal statement of approval of Fr. Schmemann’s recommendations is worth citing here:

The Dean of St. Vladimir’s Theological Seminary and professor of liturgical theology, Protopresbyter Alexander Schmemann presented a report on Confession and Communion. The report is attached.

Resolved: 1) That the report of Protopresbyter Alexander Schmemann is received with gratitude and approbation. 2) That the idea of a renewal in the Eucharistic life in the Church is not only desirable but indispensable. Therefore, practice of more frequent Communion is encouraged in all parishes of our Church. In this connection, and for the purpose of deepening the spirit of repentance among the laity, in addition to individual Confession, practice of General Confessions is also blessed based on the following principles:

  1. As a rule, General Confession takes place in the evening following the evening service. The person wishing to receive Holy Communion must be in Church at least on the eve of Communion. The common practice of Confession just prior to Liturgy is harmful and should be permitted only in very special cases.
  2. General Confession begins with the reading of the “Prayers Before Confession” which in current practice are generally omitted but which, nevertheless, form an organic part of the Sacrament of Confession.
  3. Following the prayers, the priest invites the penitents to pray for a spirit of repentance in order that they might see their own sins without which the formal Confession cannot produce spiritual benefit.
  4. Then follows Confession proper in which the priest enumerates those sins by which in thought and desire we offend God, our neighbor, and ourselves. Since the priest, as all men standing before God, knows sin, and sees his own sinfulness, his enumeration of sins, therefore, is not formal but sincere coming from a humble and contrite spirit. Rather than being a confession of “you” his enumeration of sins comes from “us,” everyone realizing the sin as his own and all are able to repent. The more the priest is able to examine his own conscience the more full will be the confession and the spirit of repentance for all participants.
  5. The priest invites the penitents to direct their spiritual gaze toward the Lord’s banquet which awaits us and which is given to us in spite of our unworthiness.
  6. The priest then invites those who find need for further expression of their sins to stand aside while the remainder approach for the Prayer of Absolution and adoration of the Crucifix.
  7. Finally, after the Prayer of Absolution has been read over each penitent, the prayers in preparation for Holy Communion are read while those wishing to add to their confession approach the Confessional.

Practice reveals that those who participate in this type of General Confession learn to make better private confession. The General Confession is not a replacement of private confession, but is rather for those who commune frequently and who regularly make their private confessions, who realize the need in our times for a regular examination and cleansing of conscience and repentance. This decision of the Holy Synod is intended as a norm and regulation for the performance of General Confession and not simply as a suggestion, recommendation, or advice. Those clergy who ignore this norm and regulation are subject to Canonical Sanctions.

Resolved: To remind the clergy of the instructions previously prepared by the Liturgical Commission and confirmed by the Holy Synod that serving the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom during Great Lent with the exception of Saturdays and Palm Sunday and the serving of Requiem Liturgies on Holy Thursday and Saturday are forbidden.

Resolved: That the report prepared by Fr. Schmemann be reproduced in both Russian and English and be distributed.

Without wanting to be contentious, I would note that what the Synod describes here as “harmful” and as permissible “only in very special cases” is the standard, routine practice at my own parish, that is to say, the practice of holding a general confession just prior to Sunday liturgy. I would also note that the bishops’ injunction, that, if you want to receive communion in the morning, you must attend the service of preparation on the evening before, is not generally observed or even mentioned, either at my own parish or most other places.

I would also note that Fr. Schmemann rejects the premise on which general confession was based in the first place, the premise, namely, that says that confession and absolution is obligatory before every reception of holy communion. In his 1972 essay “Confession and Communion,” approved by the Holy Synod of the Orthodox Church in America, he wrote the following:

“This practice, and I repeat once more, a natural and self-evident one in the case of infrequent, once-a-year, communion, led to the appearance in the Church of a theory according to which the communion of laity, different in this from the communion of clergy, is impossible without the sacrament of penance, so that confession is an obligatory condition — always and in all cases — for communion. I dare to affirm that this theory (which spread mainly in the Russian Church) not only has no foundation in Tradition, but openly contradicts the Orthodox doctrine of the Church, of the Sacrament of Communion and of that of Penance.”

So, although the view of confession as an obligatory condition for communion is rejected, the practice of general confession, which originally arose in order to allow that obligation to be fulfilled by vast crowds of people, is retained, but with a new justification: the point of general confession is now seen to consist in its serving as a kind of school for the examination of conscience for secularized American Christians who are unaccustomed to thinking of themselves as sinners. Its aim is to improve examination of conscience in the private confession itself. As the memo of the Synod of Bishops of the Orthodox Church in America states:

“Practice reveals that those who participate in this type of General Confession learn to make better private confession. The General Confession is not a replacement of private confession, but is rather for those who commune frequently and who regularly make their private confessions, who realize the need in our times for a regular examination and cleansing of conscience and repentance.”

But this leaves me still with my original question. If general confession is conceived of as a kind of teaching tool, aimed at educating Christian consciences concerning the reality of sin, and if there is a kind of tacit acknowledgment that, if there are any serious moral and spiritual issues burdening a Christian’s conscience, such issues need to be brought up in a private, auricular confession and not be covered over with this general, all-purpose blanket, can the general, all-purpose blanket really be said to be the same sacrament as the sacrament of confession? Is it, indeed, a sacrament at all? I am not questioning the usefulness and value of getting people to examine their consciences—although I am convinced that, in most cases, the ritual of general confession fails miserably at doing that. I am questioning whether such self-examination, lacking an explicit acknowledgment of particular sins, is a sacrament. If it is, what makes it to be such?

24 Responses to “Remarks on general confession”

  1. Mary Lanser Says:

    Dear Bekkos,

    This topic is a haunting one for me. There have been times when I would just simply shrug and walk away from any discussion concerning general confession rejecting such confessions and the discussions in the process. I am an eastern Catholic, so you may have to parse what I say to suit Orthodox sensibilities and truths.

    In the context that you describe here, and given some of the content of Father Alexander’s assessments, I would say that there may well be something positive to be said about general confession, general penance and absolution actually. What would that be?

    It occurred to me that the sacrament is the sacrament of penance in fact. We can actually confess to anyone, but we cannot be absolved by anyone but Christ, acting through the priest.
    So it seems to me that in what you describe the critical aspects of sacramental form and content are indeed satisfied.

    I have some difficulty with thinking that one must confess prior to each time one approaches the Chalice. There are some small sins, more error than sin, or things bordering on sin without being serious or fully willed in knowledge and in forethought that are healed by communing, without engaging the graces of the sacrament of penance. So does this not render a general confession, or private confession unnecessary for many in any event? And are sins of the most grievous nature better not confessed in silence and absolved without personal contact of priest and such a badly damaged soul?

    But then some of those small sins or errors or transgressions that are not of greatest magnitude and consequence, are habitual acts or thoughts or words that in their accumulated bulk may darken the soul every bit as much as some great moment of transgression, and do we not need the guidance and grace of individual confession as we struggle with habits of mind, heart and body?

    I think that what bothers me most is what seems to bother you and that is that we are weak and if we can hide our sins in the silence of general confession then perhaps we can also hide the magnitude of some of them, or the habitual nature of others and in so doing are not sufficiently penitent, not sufficiently goaded to amend our offending acts, thoughts and words.

    I was thinking that it might be wise, if a pastor or bishop is going to encourage general absolution as regular practice, then there ought to be, at the end of the examen, a prayer similar to the great communion prayer of St. John, that would be said aloud by each penitent speaking together from the heart, before presenting individually for absolution.

    I don’t suppose this has been at all helpful that I decided not to shrug and walk away this time. I do understand your concerns. I do wish for the practice not to become universal in either your confession nor in my own.

    Blessing on this great and holy day,

    Mary

    PS: I just started a blog and I was hoping that I could privately send you the addy so that you could decide if you would mind my linking you your own blog here. I would have sent this privately but I cannot find an address for you. Pardon if I missed it.

    Mary

  2. Veritas Says:

    In the Roman Missal, printed on the inside of the front cover, is the “Guidelines For The Reception of Communion”

    An excerpt of it reads as follows:

    “As Catholics, we fully participate in the celebration of the Eucharist when we receive Holy Communion. We are encouraged to receive Communion devoutly and frequently. In order to be properly disposed to receive Communion, participants should not be conscious of grave sin and normally should have fasted for one hour. A person who is conscious of grave sin is not to receive the Body and Blood of the Lord without prior sacramental confession except for a grave reason where there is no opportunity for confession. In this case, the person is to be mindful of the obligation to make an act of perfect contrition, including the intention of confessing as soon as possible (Code of Canon Law, canon 916). A frequent reception of the Sacrament of Penance is encouraged for all.”

    I have not yet read through Fr Schmemann’s “Confession and Communion,” but I wonder what he would have thought of the above.

    Mary,

    I am painfully ignorant of general absolution. I’m going to try and do some research on it; but I specifically remember my pastor stating something to the effect that the church doesn’t “schedule” general absolution, and how he was scandalized about hearing that certain pastors where “scheduling” this. At least, that’s how I understood him; but I could be wrong.

    -Veritas

  3. bekkos Says:

    Dear Mary,

    Many thanks for your thoughtful comments. I suppose that, if the substance of a sacrament is analyzed into form and content in this way — the form, presumably, being supplied by the priestly absolution, or Christ acting through the priest, the matter being supplied by the Christian’s genuine penitence — then a case could be made that “general confession” does actually qualify as a sacrament, a visible sign of an invisible grace (to cite a definition of “sacrament” made somewhere by St. Augustine). In his two essays cited above, as well as in other writings of his, Schmemann makes it fairly clear that he is not happy with this traditional, Aristotelian way of analyzing sacraments into matter and form; in his book The Eucharist, for instance, he speaks at length about how such analyses tend to lead towards a reduction of sacraments to the minimum conditions that make for legal validity, a reductionism which he strives with all his might to counteract. In his 1972 essay “Confession and Communion,” Schmemann sees a problem with a juridical understanding of confession that concentrates excessively on some presumed, inherent power of the priest to absolve sins; he notes that the formula of absolution that goes, “I, unworthy priest, by the power given unto me, absolve . . .” is not traditional; the earlier form read: “reconcile him with Thy Holy Church in Christ Jesus Our Lord . . .” The point seems to be that, in Schmemann’s view, the priest acts not so much in persona Christi as in persona Ecclesiae, he stands in place of the whole Church, as a witness to the sinner’s penitence, and prays to Christ to make effective that reconciliation with the Church which (according to Schmemann) is the essence of the sacrament of Penance.

    I suppose that, in asking if general confession is a sacrament, and, if it is, what makes it to be so, I am implicitly asking what is a sacrament. That is a question to which I do not presume to know the answer. I just mentioned Augustine’s notion, that a sacrament is a visible sign of an invisible grace. Perhaps what I am asking in the essay is how far the invisible grace of reconciliation with the Church is actually communicated, if, in the case of general confession, the particular facts that impede such reconciliation are not dealt with explicitly.

    My complaint is that general confession is, in a very literal sense, short shrift. Most people who use the phrase “short shrift” are unaware that it refers to “shriving,” that is, to the confessing of sinners. When Hamlet’s father’s ghost complains that he left this life “unshriven, unanealed,” he means that his murderer caused him to leave this life with his sins still on his head. By giving sinners short shrift, general confession does a twofold damage to their souls: it fails to heal the wounds they already have, and it causes new ones; it encourages them to think of the sacrament itself in a perfunctory, mechanical way.

    In my own experience of general confession, almost all the conditions that the bishops who allowed for the practice mandated as prerequisites are unobserved. The result is that people generally approach this absolution as though they were waiting on line at a supermarket. If general confession is indeed a sacrament, the conditions under which it is administered lead me to think that the sacrament is routinely profaned. But that this ritual is indeed identical with sacramental penance is something about which I remain highly dubious, given that the personal act of openly confessing personal sin is absent, and is replaced by a communal act of confessing sins-in-general.

    Peter

  4. Fr Paul Says:

    Peter
    it is my understanding that the practice you describe is universal in the Armenian (non-Chalcedonian) Church, where personal auricular confession is practically unknown.
    My own feelings are mixed. The practice of General Absolution in the Catholic Church is unfortunately very widespread in some regions. Where it is, personal confession tends to drop away – even sometimes to the point of disapearing. General Absolution tends to be a one generatoion phenomenon: the children of those who practice it rarely grow up feeling the need even for such a minimalistic expression of penitence. On the other hand, knowledge of the history of the Sacrament makes one wary of assuming that its current, official form in the Latin Church (together with the very juridical understanding which separates sins into “mortal” and “venial” ones on the basis of apparently exhaustive lists of each kind) is the only divinely sanctioned manner of receiving Christ’s mercy.

    Here in Greece, the practice you describe would be progress, in a situation where the practice of confession of any kind seems to be the preserve of a tiny minority of the ulta-devout who frequent monasteries. Most younger Greeks I speak to have never been to confessiion in their lives. They nonetheless communicate once a year, after a few days of abstaining from meat and dairy products (and generally not at the Liturgy on Easter night – almost everybody goes home to eat magiritsa as soon as they have sung “Christos anesti” and kissed the icon, leaving the priest to celebrate the liturgy forlornely with a handful of elderly diehards).

    Greece in without doubt the least secularised nation in Europe, but I fear for the future. The youth probably know more about christianity than they do in other countries, but one senses that often the heart is not in it, and I think the loss of confession is a worrying symptom of this. I wonder when and how the practice of this sacrament has been allowed to atrophy here, without even a Vatican II to blame it on.

  5. bekkos Says:

    Dear Fr. Paul,

    Your remarks on the practice of confession in the Church of Greece agree completely with what I encountered in my experience of growing up in what used to be called the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of North and South America. And, in fairness to the OCA, I should state for the record that, if my home parish these days is an OCA one and not a Greek one, it has a lot to do with the fact that the sacrament of confession is still a regular part of church life in the OCA whereas, in the Greek Archdiocese, requests for this sacrament are viewed by most priests as a somewhat bizarre interruption of the normal order of business, by persons who, by the very fact that they request this sacrament, show themselves abnormally lacking in φιλοτιμία — a quality characteristic of all sane and true Greeks. That is to say, it is thought to be a mark of unGreekness to admit to being wrong in anything, and a mark of stupidity to suppose that one’s parish priest is a man one can trust with the details of one’s personal life.

    No doubt there are historical reasons for the atrophy of the sacrament of confession in Greece. In part these reasons may have to do with the historical development of the sacrament out of two separate sources, exomologesis and exagoreusis, that is to say, the public declaration of sins, on the one hand, and the private recounting of “thoughts” to a spiritual father, on the other. It may be that these two aspects never coalesced in Greece in quite the same way that they did in the West; “confession,” as an act taking place within a parish setting, would therefore have always been a more-or-less extraordinary event. It is also worth noting that there were, for some time, other sources of the sacrament besides the local παπούλι and the γέροντες in the monasteries. I have read that, during the Tourkokratia, when it was almost impossible for Greek clergy to receive any kind of formal education, it was a not uncommon practice for the Greek Orthodox faithful to go to itinerant Jesuit and Cappuchin preachers to receive the sacrament of confession, and that this practice was actually encouraged by hierarchs of the Greek Orthodox Church. In the book Σχέσεις Καθολικῶν καὶ Ὀρθοδόξων [“Catholic-Orthodox Relations”], by P. Gregoriou (Athens 1958), on p. 154, there is cited a letter by a Jesuit father named Isaac d’Aultry († 1659), who reports that members of his order routinely administered the sacrament of confession to Orthodox Christians in Thessalonica. On the same page is cited a letter by the Greek Orthodox Archbishop of Paronaxia, Seraphim, giving permission to “the most learned men, the Jesuit fathers, dwelling in that region,” to preach and hear confessions; presumably the letter is roughly from the same period. And on p. 161 of this book, it is reported that, at this time, monks from Mount Athos, when visiting Thessalonica, maintained friendly relations with the Catholic hieromonks, were often housed by them, and received from them the sacrament of confession. («Οἱ Πατέρες Ἰησουΐται, εἰς τοὺς ὁποίους, ὡς ἐλέχθη ἀνωτέρω, εἶχεν ἀνατεθῆ ὑπὸ τῆς Ἁγίας Ἕδρας ἡ Καθολικὴ ἐνορία Θεσσαλονίκης, εὑρίσκοντο εἰς λίαν ἀγαθὰς σχέσεις μετὰ τῶν μοναχικοῦ πληρώματος τοῦ Ἁγίου Ὄρους. Μοναχοὶ διαφόρων μονῶν τοῦ Ἄθω ἐρχόμενοι εἰς Θεσσαλονίκην δι᾽ ὑποθέσεις των, ἐφιλοξενοῦντο ὑπὸ τῶν Καθολικῶν Ἱερομονάχων. Ἀθωνῖται κατερχόμενοι εἰς Θεσσαλονίκην, προσήρχοντο καὶ ἐξωμολογοῦντο ὑπὸ τῶν Πατέρων Ἰησουϊτῶν, τοὺς ὁποίους μεγάλως ἐσέβοντο καὶ ἐξετίμων.»)

    Too bad things aren’t like that these days.

    Peter

  6. Nicholas Says:

    General confession is unknown in my OCA parish. Our priest will stay as late as he needs to after Vespers on Saturday night, or meet a parishioner at his home or at church during the week, in order to receive a good, personal confession.

    However, I have been to at least one other OCA parish where “general confession” took place immediately after Vespers. It seemed unusual at the time and it still does.

  7. Joe Says:

    General Confession in the OCA is simply a tradition borrowed from the Protestants. It is done, though not uniformly, by Anglican/Episcopalians, Methodists, Presbyterians and assorted Evangelical groups. St. John of Kronstadt is a Saint, blessed with a very unique charisma by the Holy Spirit to “hear” the confessions of his flock en masse. What priest in the present OCA can claim such sanctity, such holiness? None. So why should they attempt to mimic his gift in the name of apeing the Protestants? It’s a disgusting rationalization and a terrible widespread delusion amongst both the clergy and the laity of the OCA.

  8. bekkos Says:

    Joe,

    You are definitely on to something here; I have had a similar thought. In the Anglican Book of Common Prayer, there is a prayer that runs as follows:

    Almighty and most merciful Father, We have erred and strayed from thy ways like lost sheep. We have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts, We have offended against thy holy laws, We have left undone those things which we ought to have done, And we have done those things which we ought not to have done, And there is no health in us: But thou, O Lord, have mercy upon us miserable offenders; Spare thou them, O God, which confess their faults, Restore thou them that are penitent, According to thy promises declared unto mankind in Christ Jesus our Lord: And grant, O most merciful Father, for his sake, That we may hereafter live a godly, righteous, and sober life, To the glory of thy holy Name. Amen.

    After this, the priest pronounces an Absolution or Remission of sins. It is, in fact, very similar to what is done in some parishes of the OCA, except that, there, the absolution is given to the members of the parish individually.

    What has surprised me, in the various replies to this blog post, is to learn that the practice of general confession is actually more widespread than I had imagined. There are Catholic correspondents who report it as practiced in their churches, and Fr. Paul reports that it is the universal practice of the Armenian Church. For this reason, although Protestant influence may indeed have had something to do with its adoption in parishes of the OCA, I doubt that that is the whole explanation.

    Peter

  9. Joe Says:

    Re: “I doubt that that is the whole explanation.”

    The Protestant influence obviously one part of the “whole explanation”. It’s up to the scholars to measure out the proportions of the other parts that make up the whole, namely: sloth, heresy, and shame towards the traditions of the Faith brought to America by backward “ethnics.”

  10. bekkos Says:

    Joe,

    While I’m not a fan of general confession, and am doubtful that it is a sacrament, I’m not quite ready to follow your analysis and call it a heresy. It seems to me rather, as I wrote above, “short shrift.” Perhaps the practice of it, in some parishes, is due to an unwillingness on the part of priests to devote the time to hearing people’s confessions; but it is very possible that there are other causes; for my own part, I do not want to set myself up as a judge of priests or of anyone else, but primarily would like to understand what those who administer this rite think it is that they are administering. It should also be remembered that the ability to hear confessions, to loose and to bind, does not come immediately with ordination to the priesthood; a priest has to be specifically given that authority by the bishop; it may be that, in some parishes, a particular priest has simply not yet been given that authority.

    As for shame for traditions brought to America by backward “ethnics”: it is possible to take a too-rosy view of what the backward ethnics actually brought to America in the first place. As Fr. Paul pointed out above, most Orthodox Christians in Greece have never been to confession, and it was certainly not impressed upon me, when I was growing up in the Greek Orthodox Church, that confession is a normal part of church life. From what most priests will tell you, hearing confessions is the most difficult and unwelcome part of their job, although most priests also recognize that it is a necessary part of their job and a genuine means for making effective the saving work of Christ in people’s lives.

    The variations in the practice of the sacrament of confession, even within the Orthodox world, make me think that, before condemning what one finds in this or that parish, one should try to understand its causes. I am not sure that “Protestant influence” on the one hand and “sloth, heresy, and shame towards the traditions of the Faith” on the other is an altogether just assessment of the causes of this practice of general confession in the Orthodox Church. But, at the same time, it does seem to me to be a practice that needs to be reexamined; and, for my own part, if I am standing in line to receive an absolution, I would like to know whether what I am receiving is the sacramental grace of God or merely something akin to a handshake.

    Peter

  11. Mary Lanser Says:

    “In his two essays cited above, as well as in other writings of his, Schmemann makes it fairly clear that he is not happy with this traditional, Aristotelian way of analyzing sacraments into matter and form; in his book The Eucharist, for instance, he speaks at length about how such analyses tend to lead towards a reduction of sacraments to the minimum conditions that make for legal validity, a reductionism which he strives with all his might to counteract. In his 1972 essay “Confession and Communion,” Schmemann sees a problem with a juridical understanding of confession that concentrates excessively on some presumed, inherent power of the priest to absolve sins; he notes that the formula of absolution that goes, “I, unworthy priest, by the power given unto me, absolve . . .” is not traditional; the earlier form read: “reconcile him with Thy Holy Church in Christ Jesus Our Lord . . .” The point seems to be that, in Schmemann’s view, the priest acts not so much in persona Christi as in persona Ecclesiae, he stands in place of the whole Church, as a witness to the sinner’s penitence, and prays to Christ to make effective that reconciliation with the Church which (according to Schmemann) is the essence of the sacrament of Penance.”

    Dear Peter,

    Sorry to have taken so long to get back to this topic. Before I comment on some of the new material, I’d beg leave to go back and take at least a cursory look at the paragraph above.

    Respectful of the strangeness and estrangement between the Catholic Church and Orthodoxy, I must say that Father Alexander is a tad off the mark here.

    There are several different approaches to Catholic sacraments, of which this systematic way of identifying form and content is but one. And it is a good one in terms of offering a systematic explanation to those who might be confused about what is what or those who would systematically challenge all or part of that which makes a sacrament real and efficacious.

    So systematic doctrinal theology does have its usefulness, but as you say it clearly cannot be and is not the sum and substance of the mysteries. Fortunately for those of us living within her graces, the Catholic Church,along with her saints and doctors and the Fathers who inform with their ancient commentaries do have other things to say about sacraments of a more transcendent, metaphysical and mystical nature. It would be a bare sort of living if all we had were canons.

    Then there is the common misapprehension of the role of the Catholic priest in confession. He is there as confessor, by the grace of his bishop, without whom he could not be a confessor at all in terms of offering absolution. And if we take each Episcopal See, formally, as the Church, then the priest is there acting for the Church, through episcopal/apostolic power and authority to bind and loose.

    And then of course,and most importantly, the priest-as-priest is always acting in alter Christi when he is performing all sacramental actions, so that when he speaks of his humble nothingness, he’s not kidding.

    So we must be careful as we talk to one another that we don’t too terribly distort the actual teachings of one another. It causes rifts where there are none in reality and destroys many opportunities for real understanding and clear apprehension of reality.

    M.

  12. Joe Says:

    I speak as a sojourner from the Russian-originated OCA to the Russian Orthodox Church (ROCOR), so this experienced has shaped my impressions and thoughts expressed about the practice of the mystery of repentance.

    I am only now learning of at least one part of the Greek Orthodox practice, the way it is done in her monasteries in the U.S. and on Mount Athos, so my experience with the Greek practice of confession is limited.

  13. Joe Says:

    In Schmemann’s report to the Holy Synod that you cited, he wrote:

    “Experience shows, that those who take part in such a general confession begin to have a much better individual confession. For the whole point here is precisely that the general confession is under no circumstances meant simply to replace individual confession, is not and must not be a substitute.”

    But experience has shown, that in the OCA parishes that practice general confession, that this borrowed-rite has indeed replaced individual confession!

    In another part of the report Schmemann wrote:

    “For communion more often than once a month, one needs the permission of the rector of the parish. This permission will be given only to those persons who are well-known to the rector and after a thorough pastoral examination of the seriousness and rectitude of such person’s attitude towards the Church and towards Christian life. In such a case, the relationship between the rhythm of confession and that of communion must be left to the decision of the priest, confession remaining regular, however, and heard not less than once a month.”

    General Confession, offered once a month in those OCA parishes that practice it, has become the substitute for the individual confession that Fr. Alexander and the Holy Synod approved to be heard “not less than once a month.”

    “Heresy” comes from the Greek hairetikos “able to choose.” Those who would cite the support for the practice of General Confession would use Fr. Alexander’s guidelines, yet choose to ignore his most basic guideline that individual confession should be heard “not less than once a month.” Maybe we can call this a little “h” heresy.

    Back to the original question, is General Confession an Orthodox mystery? The answer is clear. It is a mixing of an Orthodox mystery with a Protestant tradition, meantt to be a supplement-only to the Orthodox mystery. If a priest has wilfully allowed General Confession to supplant individual confession, a genuine Orthodox mystery, then it is not an Orthodox mystery but something other.

  14. bekkos Says:

    Dear Mary,

    I hope I do not too terribly distort the actual teachings of anybody. In bringing up Schmemann, I sought to reply to your comment that, in general confession, “the critical aspects of sacramental form and content are indeed satisfied.” Although I am not a keen and avid student of Schmemann’s, as many Orthodox in this country tend to be, it did seem to me to be worth pointing out that he had a problem with discussions of the sacraments that focus on the conditions of their validity; he thought that such discussions, to which he sometimes applies the all-purpose derogatory label “scholasticism,” tend to encourage sacramental reductionism. Does this mean that Fr. Schmemann was opposed, in principle, to clear thinking on what does and does not constitute a sacrament? My guess would be that it does not, given that Schmemann is a liturgical theologian and sets the sacraments at the center of his understanding of the Church and of Christian life.

    Since, as I say, I am not a great student of Schmemann’s, it would probably be better to let him speak for himself. In his essay “The Eucharist,” in For the Life of the World: Sacraments and Orthodoxy (Crestwood, NY, 1973), p. 42, Fr. Schmemann writes:

    “‘This is my body, this is my blood. Take, eat, drink….’ And generations upon generations of theologians ask the same questions. How is this possible? How does this happen? And what exactly does happen in this transformation? And when exactly? And what is the cause? No answer seems to be satisfactory. Symbol? But what is a symbol? Substance, accidents? Yet one immediately feels that something is lacking in all these theories, in which the Sacrament is reduced to the categories of time, substance, and causality, the very categories of ‘this world.’

    “Something is lacking because the theologian thinks of the sacrament and forgets the liturgy. As a good scientist he first isolates the object of his study, reduces it to one moment, to one ‘phenomenon’—and then, proceeding from the general to the particular, from the known to the unknown, he gives a definition, which in fact raises more questions than it answers. But throughout our study the main point has been that the whole liturgy is sacramental, that is, one transforming act and one ascending movement. And the very goal of this movement of ascension is to take us out of ‘this world’ and to make us partakers of the world to come. In this world—the one that condemned Christ and by doing so has condemned itself—no bread, no wine can become the body and blood of Christ. Nothing which is a part of it can be ‘sacralized.’ But the liturgy of the Church is always an anaphora, a lifting up, an ascension. The Church fulfills itself in heaven in that new eon which Christ has inaugurated in His death, resurrection and ascension, and which was given to the Church on the day of Pentecost as its life, as the ‘end’ toward which it moves. In this world Christ is crucified, His body broken, and His blood shed. And we must go out of this world, we must ascend to heaven in Christ in order to become partakers of the world to come.”

    This ascension out of this world into the world to come, he goes on to say, does not mean literally leaving the present world; it means seeing the present world as filled with Christ’s eschatological presence, with the light of the world to come. Schmemann thinks that the Christian liturgy is all about that ascension into God’s presence. And, in various places, he criticizes what he sees as a falling away from that ancient understanding of Christian liturgy into a more rationalized one. One notable place is found in his essay titled “Worship in a Secular Age” (op. cit., pp. 128 f.):

    “At the end of the twelfth century a Latin theologian, Berengarius of Tours, was condemned for his teaching on the Eucharist. He maintained that because the presence of Christ in the eucharistic elements is ‘mystical’ or ‘symbolic,’ it is not real. The Lateran Council which condemned him—and here is for me the crux of the matter—simply reversed the formula. It proclaimed that since Christ’s presence in the Eucharist is real, it is not ‘mystical.’ What is truly decisive here is precisely the disconnection and the opposition of the two terms verum and mystice, the acceptance, on both sides, that they are mutually exclusive. Western theology thus declared that that which is ‘mystical’ or ‘symbolic’ is not real, whereas that which is ‘real’ is not symbolic. This was, in fact, the collapse of the fundamental Christian mysterion, the antinomical ‘holding together’ of the reality of the symbol, and of the symbolism of reality. It was the collapse of the fundamental Christian understanding of creation in terms of its ontological sacramentality…. Here is the real cause of secularism, which is ultimately nothing else but the affirmation of the world’s autonomy, of its self-sufficiency in terms of reason, knowledge, and action. The downfall of Christian symbolism led to the dichotomy of the ‘natural’ and the ‘supernatural’ as the only framework of Christian thought and experience. And whether the ‘natural’ and the ‘supernatural’ are somehow related to one another by analogia entis, as in Latin theology, or whether this analogy is totally rejected, as in Barthianism, ultimately makes no difference. In both views the world ceases to be the ‘natural’ sacrament of God, and the supernatural sacrament to have any ‘continuity’ with the world.”

    These are long citations, and it is not my purpose here to defend Fr. Schmemann’s interpretation of the historical significance of the condemnation of Berengar of Tours, but it seemed to me necessary to give some such a sampling if I am not “too terribly to distort” Fr. Schmemann himself. He clearly thought that some of the deepest problems in the contemporary world, problems of a loss of a sense of God, which he associates with the phenomenon of “secularism,” are tied up with a loss of a sense of the Christian sacraments. He thought that that loss of a sacramental sense has become deeply rooted in all the Christian churches, including the Orthodox one: “It is indeed ironic,” he wrote (op. cit., pp. 129 f.), “but not at all accidental, that psychologically the most ‘Western’ among the Orthodox today are precisely the ultra-conservative ‘Super-Orthodox,’ whose whole frame of mind is legalistic and syllogistic on the one hand, and is made up, on the other hand, of those very ‘dichotomies’ whose introduction into Christian thought is the ‘original sin’ of the West.” I do not hold Fr. Schmemann above all criticism; in particular, Fr. Alvin Kimel has written some very penetrating things, questioning whether Schmemann had an adequate grasp of the sacraments as symbols, not of nature, but of history, the unrepeatable historical acts in which the incarnate God wrought our salvation.

    I do think, however, that Schmemann was not completely blind or mad, and that, in understanding secular, utilitarian man as the end product of a long eclipse of the sense of God, he was essentially right on target. He thought that a renewal of liturgical life was essential to allowing the light of God, Jesus Christ, to break through that eclipse. My guess is that he would have found general confession, as practiced in many parishes of the OCA, to be unacceptable: as a kind of relapse into the worst kind of utilitarianism. I do not think that these remarks are a terrible distortion of anyone’s actual teachings: most of Schmemann’s criticisms are criticisms about practices within the Orthodox Church, and my guess is that he must have been conscious of how deeply, in his thinking on liturgical theology, he was indebted to Catholic thinkers of his day, who were similarly critical of practices within their own communion. I don’t think he was essentially anti-ecumenical. I think he was committed to preserving what is true and beautiful in the worship of the Orthodox Church, whatever the cost, because he saw that as crucial to the saving of lost souls, and a prerequisite for any genuine dialogue between Orthodox and other Christians. If, in the process, he said some things that offended and still offend some people, he doubtless thought that that price was worth the pearl he was purchasing.

    Peter

  15. Mary Lanser Says:

    Dear Peter,

    Let me open by saying two things.

    One: I apologize for using the phrase “terribly distort” because what can appear as a terrible distortion in one person’s eyes may look precisely like ordinary reality in another person’s eyes. So it was ill advised of me to say that without considering your reception of the phrase and other’s reception of it.

    I do see the immediate characterization of a systematic definition of sacraments as the only perspective available to Catholics as a distortion. Is it a terrible distortion? Most likely not but taken to its logical conclusion it does dampen the ability to share realities.

    Two: I am not easily offended in any way. Even when people intend to offend, I tend not to allow myself to take offense. True offense requires both the giver and the receiver in order to be complete. I don’t find these discussions at all offensive. I hope to shed light and not heat. So I am not at all in danger of having to work hard not to be offended here.

    I have a question, hoping not to short circuit your long reply, but it will help me to grasp what you are thinking at a deeper level if I ask first and then respond to more of your note above in a later post:

    Do you believe that the absolution given during a general confession is a true and graced and full absolution of your sins?…in the same sense as absolution in personal confession washes whiter than snow. Do we have evidence of what Father Alexander believed concerning absolution given in context of general confession?

    Remember that I am not at all a supporter of general confession and neither is my Church, so these are not leading questions. It would help me to know what you think.

    M.

  16. bekkos Says:

    Dear Mary,

    First, let me apologize for taking some days to write you a reply. Part of the reason for the delay is the approaching deadline set by the Internal Revenue Service, which has engrossed most of my attentions for some days now; part of it is the fact that I don’t use the computer on Sundays. That latter custom, I know, has already offended some contributors to this blog, who took a lack of a reply, or the non-appearance of a comment, as a sign of malice, when all it really was was my peculiar habit of observing Sunday as a day of rest.

    The specific question you ask is: “Do you believe that the absolution given during a general confession is a true and graced and full absolution of your sins?…in the same sense as absolution in personal confession washes whiter than snow.” There is a subordinate question: “Do we have evidence of what Father Alexander believed concerning absolution given in context of general confession?”

    As for the first of these questions, I should have thought that my remarks in the present blog post and the subsequent discussion supply a sufficient answer. Among the things I have stated above are the following:

    “I have to say that I have never felt entirely happy about this practice of general confession. I have never found it to deliver much in the way of a healing of the conscience, if there is something particular weighing upon it; and if there is no particular sin that weighs upon the conscience, what is the point of going through this receiving line?”

    “My complaint is that general confession is, in a very literal sense, short shrift…. By giving sinners short shrift, general confession does a twofold damage to their souls: it fails to heal the wounds they already have, and it causes new ones; it encourages them to think of the sacrament itself in a perfunctory, mechanical way.”

    So, in reply to the first of your questions, my answer would clearly be, No, I do not have a positive and clear conviction that the absolution given during a general confession is a full absolution of sins, identical with the kind of absolution (which literally means a releasing, a freeing from bonds) given through the sacrament of auricular confession. I am willing to hear arguments in favor of this sacramental identity, but so far, not many arguments have been presented here in its favor, and I am essentially left with the question with which I started: Is general confession a sacrament, or is it not?

    Now, before I attempt to reply to the second of your questions, I must note that I find your own position on this subject a little obscure. In the first of your own comments above, you wrote:

    “It occurred to me that the sacrament [viz., of general confession] is the sacrament of penance in fact. We can actually confess to anyone, but we cannot be absolved by anyone but Christ, acting through the priest. So it seems to me that in what you describe the critical aspects of sacramental form and content are indeed satisfied.”

    I took that as a defense of the sacramentality of general confession; indeed, as an assertion of its identity with the sacrament of penance as such. And the subsequent note by Veritas, in which he states that his own pastor was “scandalized” upon hearing that certain pastors were “scheduling” general confession (a curious observation, since it implies that the priest sees the sacramentality of the rite as depending upon whether or not it is scheduled) led me to think, perhaps wrongly, that general confession is in fact not only practiced in certain parishes of the OCA, but also in certain Catholic parishes.

    In your most recent comment, however, you write:

    “Remember that I am not at all a supporter of general confession and neither is my Church.”

    This leads me to think (a) that I may be wrong about having interpreted what you said earlier as an argument for the identity of general confession with the sacrament of penance, and (b) that I may have be wrong in inferring, from your own previous comments and those of Veritas, that the practice is not unknown in the Church of Rome — whether Latin-rite Catholicism or Eastern Catholicism, or both, I cannot tell. When you say that your Church does not support general confession, my initial response is to think that you are making a fine distinction between supporting something and practicing it.

    As for your second question, about Fr. Schmemann’s understanding of the absolution given in the context of general confession, all I can point to is what I have read in his paper “Confession and Communion,” to which I supplied a link above. In that paper, he does not directly raise the question of the sacramentality of general confession; he rather asks “why should it be recognized as proper and useful in the present conditions of our Church life?” (That very question might be thought to reveal a kind of utilitarian criterion.) The function of general confession, in Fr. Schmemann’s analysis, is to serve as a school of repentance. Secularized American people, on Schmemann’s view, do not have an awareness of themselves as sinners; they psychologize everything, which is to say, rationalize and justify their own “life-style.” They need to be taught how and what to confess; general confession, for him, is a means towards fulfilling that needed educational function. He goes on to list seven instructions, necessary in his view for general confession to be “spiritually profitable”; I will not list them here, but, as I mentioned earlier, most of these instructions are not observed in the practice of my own parish in New Jersey. It is worth noting that at no point in his discussion of general confession in his article does Fr. Schmemann ever refer to it as a “sacrament.” At the end of the article, Fr. Schmemann supplies another reason why the rite should be “recognized as proper and useful”:

    “I can testify to the fact that where such general confession is practiced, the personal confession not only has not faded away, but has become deeper, has been filled with meaning and reality. Meanwhile this general confession will give the priest the time necessary for a more attentive confession of those who really need personal confession, and will thus become a way to a common growth in the spirit of repentance.”

    That is to say, the rite is proper and useful because, given the general (and false) assumption that confession is necessary before each reception of communion, many people either refrain from receiving communion entirely, or else go to personal confession when they do not really need it; this wastes the priest’s time, and makes harder his task of hearing those who, as Fr. Schmemann puts it, have “a special burden on their conscience” and who thus, presumably, really do need to speak to the priest. In his seven instructions, he makes it clear that those who have “a special burden on their conscience” should be told to stand aside and make a private confession at the end of the ceremony.

    None of this would lead me to think that Fr. Schmemann saw the absolution given in general confession as washing penitents “whiter than snow.” If there is a blot on the conscience, it needs to be washed off using the ancient, more time-consuming method of private, auricular confession before the priest (which itself, it should be remembered, and as Schmemann notes in his article, came to replace the once-and-for-all public confession that was practiced in the early days of the Church).

    In his article, Fr. Schmemann notes that the Church has always made a distinction “between, on the one hand, the sins excommunicating a man from the Church’s life of grace and, on the other hand, the ‘sinfulness’ which is the inescapable fate of every man ‘living in the world and wearing flesh.’” I would take that to be essentially the distinction between mortal and venial sins, even if Fr. Schmemann does not use this language (perhaps because of its “scholastic” provenance and tone). Fr. Schmemann stresses that the latter kind of sin is dissolved, absolved, in the Church’s liturgy itself, and that, “in the measure of our repentance, we receive this forgiveness.”

    I cannot escape the conclusion that the purposes of “general confession” are the following:

    (a) to give an absolution for venial sins which, given a proper state of repentance, would be dissolved by reception of the eucharist anyway;

    (b) to relieve overburdened priests, who face unrealistic demands from parishioners wanting them to hear their confessions before every communion;

    (c) to satisfy the emotional demands of those who feel that confession before communion is a religious obligation;

    (d) to teach people how to examine their conscience.

    None of this would lead me to think that general confession and private confession are, in terms of sacramental grace, one and the same thing, or that Fr. Schmemann thought that they were.

    Peter

  17. Mary Lanser Says:

    Dear Peter,

    Mary: Your present remarks leave me with many few doubts and even deeper clarity of insight to your thinking which is what I was seeking, so I thank you for the time spent which then offers me the opportunity to make my original, partially articulated responses more clear as well…I hope. Never worry about lagging response with me. As you can see I too must prioritize and make time for prayer and work around the house here. There are so many demands in the good weather. Hard manual work is an alternative to going over abundantly wild with nature’s abhorrence of vacuums here in this little country town next to a vigorous mountain stream and the mountain to go with it. My cats also abhor vacuums but that is another story….

    I’ll try to keep this as brief and succinct as possible so if I miss an aspect, we may make it up in a later post.

    Peter: So, in reply to the first of your questions, my answer would clearly be, No, I do not have a positive and clear conviction that the absolution given during a general confession is a full absolution of sins, identical with the kind of absolution (which literally means a releasing, a freeing from bonds) given through the sacrament of auricular confession. I am willing to hear arguments in favor of this sacramental identity, but so far, not many arguments have been presented here in its favor, and I am essentially left with the question with which I started: Is general confession a sacrament, or is it not?

    Now, before I attempt to reply to the second of your questions, I must note that I find your own position on this subject a little obscure. In the first of your own comments above, you wrote:
    “It occurred to me that the sacrament [viz., of general confession] is the sacrament of penance in fact. We can actually confess to anyone, but we cannot be absolved by anyone but Christ, acting through the priest. So it seems to me that in what you describe the critical aspects of sacramental form and content are indeed satisfied.”
    I took that as a defense of the sacramentality of general confession; indeed, as an assertion of its identity with the sacrament of penance as such.

    Mary: I think that I would say directly that I believe, because my Church instructs in this manner, that general confession is just that, a non-personal, essentially silent confession of sins that occurs in a gathering of faithful.

    That act in itself would not be sacramental at all, any more than my confession to my spiritual father over the phone is a sacramental confession or the mystery of penitential confession and absolution. Confession alone is a part of a greater mystery, but is not the greater mystery itself without deep contrition, the expressed and strong intention to sin no more, and absolution.

    I would then qualify by saying that when absolution is also general, then there is no sacrament of penance as the Church through the centuries has intended it. But if absolution is specific and personal then perhaps we are closer to doing what the Church has intended, and as Father Alexander says there is at least the opportunity with a personal absolution for the individual to request a personal confession.

    In either one of those general moments, IF it is to be conceived as a sacramental confession with full graced efficacy, then it is the intention of the Church, the economy of the Church that adds what is missing. And so I would say that in extreme cases, even the most egregious sins might be cleansed fully, if the disposition of the penitent is truly and powerfully contrite, and if the confessor intends what the Church intends, which would open the door for an act under economia.

    So I can say that, with extreme reservation, I will accept a general confession with particular absolution as conferring the sacramental graces of the penitential mystery, as long as it is not the common practice and is approved by the local bishop and the Church at large as one means of confessing when individual confessions are not practical or perhaps even possible, as when groups of people are under extreme duress. Clearly that does not happen often and so neither should such general confessions happen often either!!!

    The Catholic Church will not accept general absolution as sacramental absolution except, and this is a life and death exception, that an extreme case be presented…but I cannot think of any time that has happened, and there are many times when bishops and pastors have been sternly warned away from general confession and absolution, with the explanations and provisos that I offered above…only in better language, I expect.

    Let me stop here and get a response from you before saying anything more.

    Mary

  18. Mary Lanser Says:

    Edit in first sentence: …many fewer doubts…I must have read and re-read that three times and still missed it.

    M.

  19. bekkos Says:

    Mary,

    Thanks for your clarification. I again apologize for taking quite some time to reply; as you know, I’ve been preoccupied answering questions on another post.

    If I understand correctly what you say, your position is:

    1) general confession with general absolution is not a sacrament;

    2) general confession with particular absolution is a sacrament, provided that

    — (a) the local bishop gives his approval,
    — (b) it is not the common practice, and is done under conditions of real necessity when individual confessions are impracticable, and
    — (c) the penitent approaches with genuine contrition, and the confessor intends what the Church intends.

    Expressed in such terms, I suppose I would agree; if people are, for instance, in the midst of a war, the city in which they dwell is about to be bombed, and many people want to make their peace with God quickly before who knows what may happen, I would not want to stipulate that, unless they each individually make a private confession before the priest, the burdens they bear upon their consciences cannot be absolved, and they should not receive the Body and Blood of Christ. But most of us do not live under such conditions most of the time; and it seems to be a fact of fallen human nature, that the particular exception is often made into a general rule.

    I also have to say: I now suspect that my original view, that the custom of general confession in the Orthodox Church in America (OCA) derives from the practice of St. John of Kronstadt, is probably erroneous. Given that, according to your account, the practice is an Eastern Catholic one, it seems more likely that its prevalence in some OCA parishes arises from the peculiar history of the OCA. Although the OCA likes to trace its foundation to the mission of St. Herman to Alaska in the late eighteenth century, it is common knowledge that the largest influx of Christians into what was then called the Russian Metropolia came in the late nineteenth century when Fr. Alexis Toth had his famous squabble with Archbishop John Ireland of St. Paul, Minnesota, who forbade married priests from serving in this country; Fr. Toth (who was canonized by the OCA a couple of decades ago) responded by leaving the Catholic Church, and bringing scores of Eastern Catholic parishes with him into the Russian Orthodox Church. My guess is that general confession was already a practice in these parishes, that it continued in them as a traditional custom, that, when Schmemann and the Holy Synod of the Orthodox Church in America gave it their qualified seal of approval in 1970, they were acknowledging an existing state of things that they could not change, but which they hoped to reform by stipulating conditions under which the rite would be allowed (conditions which are still routinely ignored), and, finally, that when they cite the example of St. John of Kronstadt, they are giving a justification, not an aetiology: that is to say, they justify the practice by appealing to the example of this Orthodox saint, although the practice is actually an Eastern Catholic one.

    This seems to me the most likely explanation of how this practice of general confession in the OCA came about. The result would be that it is neither due to the influence of Protestantism, as Joe maintains, nor is it the result of “shame towards the traditions of the Faith brought to America by backward ‘ethnics.'” If anything, the backward ethnics brought this custom, and the American bishops sought to reform it into something more closely resembling what they conceived of as traditional Orthodoxy.

    Peter

  20. Mary Lanser Says:

    Oh Peter,

    I’ve encouraged you into an error, I fear and I am so sorry to all reading this thread. Yes. I am an eastern Catholic but I was raised in the Latin rite and re-entered the Church in the Latin rite, and later moved east, and so my reference to the practice and the Church’s warnings against general absolution is strictly with reference to the Latin or Roman rite.

    I have actually never encountered the practice in any eastern Catholic Church. In fact it would be unthinkably alien to any eastern Catholic that I know personally.

    And even with that the practice is a post-Vatican II practice within the Latin rite though it is not entirely unheard of in earlier times under duress, as I described it hypothetically. But it became a regular practice after Vatican II as part of a new evangelization move to bring estranged Catholics back into the Church and general confession and absolution were seen as painless routes. That error was rather quickly suppressed, or at least formally suppressed and warded against. I really don’t know what the present habit is though I do believe general absolution does not occur with any noteworthy frequency.

    Forgive me for allowing that mis-perception to flower here. I am so used to thinking between two worlds that I don’t always distinguish for all of you out there.

    I am chastened.

    M.

  21. bekkos Says:

    Dear Mary,

    Goodness me, don’t be chastened! I make stupid mistakes all the time. Like anyone else, I make inferences from the things I know, or that I think I know; sometimes those inferences are wrong, and when I find out that they are wrong, I change my mind. That is how people learn; it is an embarrassing, humiliating process, but it is better than not thinking, or not learning.

    Christ is Risen!

    Peter

  22. Mary Lanser Says:

    laff…I think I am recovering nicely,Peter. But I surely did feel awful yesterday.

    At any rate I think we are of similar minds concerning what we think and believe about any act of general confession with or without general absolution, and the etceteras.

    It is such a peaceful thing to have someone to talk to who actually does think in similar ways. Sometimes I get so weary of “dialogue”…plug in li’l wan smilie face here.

    M.

  23. Seraphim Says:

    If general confession is employed to bring parishioners back to the concept of confessing sins, would it not be useful for a priest to incorporate such confessions but follow with a blessing rather than absolution?

    It’s possible that this was brought up in the many postings, but my eyes are too tired and I’m too old to read all the print.

    Should a priest not favor such confessions or feel that they’re downright non-sacramental, then at the very least congregants are able to discern their failings/sins and better frame them in a sacramental individual confession.

    But for those who view these general confessions as a convenient way to avoid private confession–or firmly believe that general confession is valid sacramentally–it is not likely that they’d be willing to go through both versions.

    Someone mentioned that general confession was not known before the 19th century (St. John of Kronstadt who insisted during this general confession that each person shout out their individual sins, very much unlike what is now done in his name) but my understanding is that the early Church used such general confessions where they told each other their individual sins.

    As a convert to Eastern Orthodoxy, I would love for all of us to try to do the right thing without regard to what our pious ethnic grandparents did. But that requires a lot of painful stripping away of
    identity for the sake of Truth.

    But as one who came from a background almost the polar opposite of Orthodoxy–not even Christian–I was willing to go through much emotional turmoil and broken family ties, so I don’t so much view evaluating and perhaps discarding some national/ethnic customs as great trauma if the individual wishes to follow the true ways of The Church as it was given to us prior to all the hyphenate designations.

  24. bekkos Says:

    Seraphim,

    I agree that a blessing would be more appropriate; I would add that most people who take part in such a ceremony, in most parishes where it is done, probably do not distinguish clearly between receiving a blessing and receiving an absolution.

    Another possible interpretation of this sacrament (if it is a sacrament) might be the following: general confession is (tacitly) taken to be for the forgiveness of venial sins, auricular confession is reserved for the forgiveness of mortal sins. Such a distinction, I recognize, is foreign to the Orthodox mentality. Yet some such an idea might be running through the heads of those who go to receive the absolution, and of those priests who give it. If, for instance, I have recently committed adultery, or stolen a car, or performed an abortion, or destroyed a village with a drone, I might feel that a mere general confession of my sins, made alongside other members of the congregation, is insufficient to assure my soul of its good standing before the eternal Judge. But if I had merely become annoyed at a coworker, or had told a “white lie,” or had entertained a passing lascivious thought upon which I hadn’t otherwise acted, I might think that such sins, too minor to pester the priest with by bringing to confession, might be sufficiently addressed by an interior acknowledgment during a “general confession.” Granted, I don’t think such a distinction is all that helpful or spiritually valid. But it may well be that the whole concept of a “general confession” depends upon it.


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