What Happens In Confession
From the May 2001 Messenger
Last month the article in this space focused on preparing for Confession by the examination of one’s conscience. Now let’s take a look at what takes place as a penitent arrives at the church and receives the sacrament. Let me make it clear, however, that the following reflects my personal practice regarding confession. There are many variations, and it is probably true that every priest conducts this sacrament somewhat differently.
If the confession is to be heard at the regularly scheduled period (most Saturdays 5:00-5:45pm), a person is to take his place in a pew at the front of the south side of the Cathedral (front right when facing the altar). There he stands and says the Trisagion Prayers and Psalm 50 to himself. (Psalm 50 can be found on page 66 of the hardbound “Service Book” in the pew, and on page 27 of the little red “Pocket Prayer Book).” He may also say the “Prayer of Repentance” (p. 17 in the Pocket Prayer Book and 23 in the Service Book). The penitent prays these by himself in the pew so the priest does not have to say them for each penitent. If, however, one schedules an appointment for confession during weekday office hours, the confession will be heard in the chapel, and the priest will pray the Trisagion Prayers and Psalm 50 with the penitent (since only one confession will be heard).
After finishing his prayers, one sits in the pew and meditates on the content of his confession. If one has a written list, he can look that over. If one just has a mental list, then it is good to review it in one’s mind so not to forget anything in the confession. Then, when it is clear that it is his turn, the penitent approaches the kneeler and kneels down. The priest places his epitrachelion over his head, and the rite begins. If a penitent has the Pocket Prayer Book with him, he will be asked to say the prayer “O Father, Lord of heaven and earth” on the bottom of page 43. Then the priest gives the invitation to confess, “My brother, inasmuch as you have come to God and to me . . .” on page 44, and then asks what there is he has to confess.
(At this point, let me say that I discourage the use of the confession service found in the Service Book with its associated prayers because this service comes from Slavic texts that are heavily influenced by Western theology. The confession rite given in the Pocket Prayer Book better reflects the Greek practice followed in our Antiochian Patriarchate. I encourage everyone to bring the Pocket Prayer Book to confession, NOT the Service Book found in the pew!)
Then the pentient makes his confession in accord with how he has prepared. He should name what the sin is and give an indication as to whether it was a one-time event, or how frequently it has occurred. Giving the priest a general idea is good enough; one need not worry about being exact. Only as much detail as the priest needs to have a general understanding is needed. If the priest is not clear concerning something, he will ask the penitent questions to help clarify matters. A penitent should not volunteer, nor a priest request, an inordinate amount of detail – especially regarding sexual matters. Again, a priest will ask questions if it is necessary to establish a proper diagnosis.
Penitents must remember that they are there to confess their own sins, not the sins of others. If for instance, one is harboring unforgiveness due to an offense caused by another, the focus should be on the unforgiveness in one’s own heart, not on the nature of the offense that occasioned it. Oftentimes penitents will spend much more time talking about how they have been wronged than the nature of their own sin!
It is also critical to recognize that the purpose of confession is to confess one’s sins, and not the place to discuss one’s problems, worries about other people, theological questions, or concerns about parish life. It is a common mistake for people to approach confession to seek “answers” for their problems or questions. Yet this is not the purpose of confession! If one has such concerns, then it is appropriate to call the church office and make an appointment to talk to the priest. It is not that such issues are unimportant, it is simply that confession is not designed to address them.
The critical element in confession is the simple confession of one’s sins. This is what we do there. We openly acknowledge the specific ways we have failed God.
As one’s specific sins are being confessed, the priest may offer some brief words of counsel, ask some questions, or assign a penance. After all is finished, the priest will pray the prayer of absolution. Absolution is the assurance that the sins one has confessed are indeed forgiven by God.
The absolution ends with the words “Now, having no further care for the sins you have confessed, you may go in peace.” The penitent departs in the faith that his sins are indeed forgiven. Then he may return to the pew and pray the “Prayers following Confession” found on page 45 of the Pocket Prayer Book.