There is a tradition among some Orthodox bishops not give a blessing for newly ordained priests to hear confessions. Presumably this is in recognition of the tremendous harm even well-meaning but ill-formed confessors can do (and have done, as with the “mladostartsi” or “young elders” in the post-Soviet Russian enlightenment). The potential for damage is especially great in those traditions and among those individuals (both confessors and penitents) who have artificial expectations of the sacrament. They have taken descriptions of clairvoyant and radiant elders and assumed those to be the norm. Not in a statistical sense, but in the sense that such experiences are an achievable goal that should be worked towards and that experiences of confession that fall short of this are lesser and more mundane. This isn’t healthy for anyone, even when the expectations are dialed down to the expectation of special insights and obediences/epitimia.
Confession is a Holy Mystery; we are drawn closer to God through it. What is necessary for a good and effective confession?
- Enough preparation to bring the believer to genuine tears of sorrow/regret (remembering that God, in His mercy, will credit us with this for even a “portion of a tear”) and a commitment to repent (i.e. to begin again).
- An acceptance (i.e. belief) on the part of the penitent that God has endowed the Church to absolve sins through His bishops and priests.
- A priest who can witness the sorrow, repentance, and belief of the penitent and who is capable of holding a stole over the penitent’s head while offering the prayers of absolution.
Through these things, the miracle of the second baptism occurs; the redemption of a sinner – made possible through Christ’s sacrifice – happens in the very midst of our fallen world. As both a frequent participant in the sacrament (as penitent and confessor), I am constantly awed by God’s willingness to work through this ritual (and broken priests) to bring His healing to bear. It is a beautiful thing.
In a sense, expecting more from the sacrament than this is like expecting the Eucharist to fill our belly with tasty bread and wine.
Unfortunately, it seems that too many priests feel the need (either through poor training or pride) to gild the lily of confession with wise advice. That is not to say that encouragement (either positive or negative, depending on the needs of the penitent) are not sometimes useful; it is to say that the use of fewer words and silence will allow the Holy Spirit to work through their consciences in a way that our foolish attempts at wisdom cannot. As for the Holy Spirit prompting the tongue of the confessor, I know that happens; but I trust it in confession about as much as I do in spontaneous preaching. There’s just too much bad preaching out there for me to accept it as a reliable approach to either preaching or confession.
What I would like to see is a conservative, risk-averse (and humble!) approach to the sacrament.
What does this mean? A priest can do very little to add to the power of the sacrament with his words, but he can do serious harm to the penitent with his words. Keep words to a minimum. This can change after a few years as the relationship with the penitent grows, but even then less is more. Remember, confession is iterated and takes place within the salvific context of Church life. We have to recognize our limitations (and sinfulness) and trust the power of the Mystery as itself.
So here is some advice for confessors:
- Preach and teach about the need for preparation. The penitent needs to be convinced of his own need for Christ’s mercy. Give your parish simple, short things to read that will help them prepare (most prayer books have good instructions on preparing for Confession). Some parishes have found the service of repentance to be useful in this (no, I’m not talking about “General Confession”). I can get you a copy, if you’d like to see it.
- Start the Confession well. Greet the penitent in the traditional fashion. Such rituals are important and allow him to transition into the Mystery. If you aren’t sure of his name, ask it (then repeat it a couple of times so that it is available in the prayer of absolution). Use the words that are common in your tradition. I like to remind the penitent (and myself!) of my role in the Mystery (i.e. that they are confessing to God and I am just a witness).
- The Confession itself. I begin the conversation by asking what the penitent has been struggling most with. Gentle questions, comments, and pauses will allow you to guide them through the process. Remember that we are neither interrogators nor psychologists; we don’t need to elicit exact details or to provide therapy. When the response to “is there anything else…?” is “no”, then it is time to offer absolution.
- Absolution. In some traditions, the penitent will offer memorized words that demonstrate his contrition, his desire to live a pure life with the help of God, and his desire for absolution. If these or their equivalents are not offered by the penitent, the priest should ask whether the penitent is sorry for his sins; whether he promises, with God’s help, to live a virtuous life; and whether he desires God’s forgiveness. Once these have been affirmed, the priest offers the words of absolution in accordance with his tradition.
- End the Confession well. Share the ritual farewell blessing and any words of encouragement that may be useful (e.g. “Go in peace”).
- Thank God for His goodness… and go on to the next thing (meaning especially, not to ruminate over another’s sins). I am thankful that this has never been a temptation and I pray that this mercy of forgetfulness continues. Most especially, keep the confession completely private. This includes not allowing it to affect how you treat the penitent or how you preach. It is never okay to break the seal of confession. Serious sins may require action (to include legal action), but these must be handled outside of confession.
This doesn’t work in every tradition, but I like to invite gifted confessors (these are humble men who know they value of both silence and gentleness) to hear confessions during Great Lent (in the UOC-USA, these events are called “missions” and are often conducted in the context of a retreat; these are the Orthodox versions of big tent revivals). The parish priest is the spiritual father of his parish, but that does not mean that he needs to be their only confessor (at least in my tradition). Also, be careful when parishioners go to people for spiritual advice and confession that you or your bishop have not vetted. There are men whose long beards, worn cassocks, and patristic quotes are the equivalent of the white-washed sepulchers Christ railed against. All it takes is a Facebook account or a website for priests to set up a shingle as a “Genuine (TM) Spiritual Elder”. Caveat emptor.
I look forward to your thoughts on this.
Yours in Christ,