Priests, Pastors, Confessors and Spiritual Fathers:
Thoughts on Confession and the Pastoral Relationship
From the January 2001 Messenger
Confession is a subject of much confusion in the Orthodox world today. In some places and jurisdictions, it is considered necessary to receive confession each time one is to receive communion. In other places, confession is hardly practiced at all. At seminary, I met the daughter of an Orthodox priest who had not been to Confession once in her entire life.
In addition to the confusion about Confession itself, there are a wide variety of ideas about the role of the priest in confession and the relationship to a “spiritual father.” Although precise distinctions cannot always be made, in this series I hope to be able to offer some basic guidelines that will help laypeople understand this relationship.
Who can hear confessions? We will begin by stating it this way: a priest, that is, a priest or bishop. Deacons may not hear confessions or grant absolution. There is a tradition in the Orthodox Church, however, of lay monks hearing confessions. Where a special gift from God enables a monk to do so, the correct practice is for the monk to hear the confession, but always to refer the penitent to a priest for absolution. Why? A lay monk has does not have the ability to grant absolution, since this grace is only given to those who are ordained by the laying on of hands in the apostolic succession.
Are all priests able to hear confessions? Well, yes and no. By ordination, a priest is given the authority and the potential grace to officiate at all the holy mysteries. But the bishop always grants the actual authority and to do so to each priest. This is called a “faculty.” Some priests, but not necessarily all, are granted the “faculty” of hearing confessions. In our Antiochian jurisdiction, as in others, every priest is invested with the faculty of hearing confessions upon ordination. In the Church of Greece, however, some parish priests do not normally hear confessions at all. Certain other priests who are known as “confessors,” travel from parish to parish to hear confessions. Thus confessors are invested by their bishop with this faculty, while typical parish priests may not be.
In current practice, one generally may confess to any priest. For instance, “Confessions” are usually offered at regional conferences. Or perhaps one visits a monastery and wishes to have his confession heard. In such cases, one simply makes a confession to a priest who is not necessarily one’s pastor, confessor, or spiritual father. Of course, one cannot do so to circumvent the relationship with one’s pastor, confessor, or spiritual father, as we shall see in more detail later.
The usual practice in modern American parishes is for a person to confess to his pastor, that is, the priest of the parish to which he belongs. This is based on the fact that every parishioner is entrusted to the spiritual care of his pastor. One of the ways that care is extended to a parishioner is by means of the sacrament of Confession. A parishioner by membership in a parish is placed under the spiritual authority of his pastor. There is a duty of obedience to him in spiritual matters. All this is clear from Scripture (see Heb. 13:7, 17). So normally speaking, a parishioner makes his confession to his pastor if he has the faculty to hear confessions. If he wishes to confess to another priest, whether on an occasional or ongoing basis, he should request the permission of his pastor to do so. Such permission would always be granted unless there are extenuating circumstances that would rule it out. In such a case, one’s pastor would be required to explain the reasons for his refusal, whereupon the parishioner could appeal to the bishop if he desired.
A different, more formal, and more obliging relationship is entered into when one requests that a certain priest be one’s confessor. A confessor may be one’s pastor or not. When one has a confessor, one commits to confess regularly to that priest and no other. A relationship is established in which the penitent becomes accountable for the progress of his spiritual life on an ongoing basis to the same priest. One enters this relationship by asking a priest to be one’s confessor; if he is other than one’s pastor, then the pastor’s blessing is obtained BEFORE making the request of the potential confessor.
Because of the ongoing relationship, a confessor may give more highly personal directives than would usually occur outside this relationship. This is because the confessor not only hears one’s confession regularly, he functions as one’s spiritual guide. It is important to recognize that when one adopts a confessor, he is bound in a relationship of obedience to him. However, his directives are limited to spiritual and moral matters concerning God’s commandments and canonical guidelines. Confessors may not intrude into personal business or give obediences outside of these parameters. He may advise on such matters if the penitent requests it; however, he does not have the authority to issue directives about such things. The relationship with one’s confessor may only be terminated with the blessing of the confessor. Otherwise, one is bound to it regardless of whether or not he continues to confess to him. From this, it is easy to see why one must be careful about the selection of a confessor. It must be a priest that one is prepared to trust and obey in spiritual and moral matters.
A true “spiritual father” is another matter all together. “Spiritual fathers” are normally priest-monks who have been given the blessing of exercising this ministry by their bishops or abbots. They are men who are quite advanced in spiritual life and wisdom, and capable of extremely fine discernment. When one submits to such as a spiritual father, then one is expressly committing to obey him in all matters. Typically, this kind of relationship takes place in a monastery, although non-monastics do enter it from time to time. A hallmark of this relationship is the daily “disclosure of thoughts” given by a monk to his spiritual father. In such a case, the monk attempts to disclose his every pattern of thought to his spiritual father for discernment and training in spiritual warfare.
As mentioned above, in this relationship, the obedience is total. This is why extreme care is necessary, and one should NEVER enter into such a relationship with anyone who does not have an outstanding reputation for this kind of ministry. Of course, the blessing of one’s pastor is mandatory, and indeed, it may be wise to receive the blessing of one’s bishop as well. False “elders” and spiritual fathers do exist, and the potential for abuse is enormous when one offers total obedience to such a person. It is critical to recognize, however, that not only must the spiritual father be of impeccable reputation, a person must be spiritually prepared to enter such a relationship. For most of us living in the world, it is entirely unnecessary. In fact, the desire for a “spiritual father” may be an indication of “prelest,” (spiritual lust) - that a person imagines himself to be far more “spiritual” than he actually is.
We hear much in the Orthodox world today about the necessity for “spiritual fathers,” confessors, and the like. It is important to have a basic understanding of what these relationships are all about. Whether one confesses simply to a priest, to one’s pastor, has a confessor, or a true spiritual father, one must knowledgeable about the sacrament of confession, the relationship he is entering into, and the person to whom he confesses. Only then will the potential for abuse and misunderstanding be counteracted, and the grace of the sacrament flourish to the spiritual profit of the penitent.