Word Magazine March 1958 Page 9/25
CONFESSION IN THE ORTHODOX CHURCH
By Archimandrite Athanasius Saliba
Pastor, St. George’s, Detroit, Michigan
The confession or penance is as old as recorded history. We read in the third chapter of the Old Testament that Adam and Eve confessed to God. (GENESIS 3:9-12). Later, when Moses delivered the Jewish people from their captivity and led them to the Sinai desert, they revolted against him and against the commandments of God, but bringing punishment upon themselves, they repented, prayed and asked Moses to pray for their forgiveness, (NUMBERS 21, 7).
When King David violated the revealed Law, he brought upon himself a severe punishment, and when he listened to the prophet Nathan and repented his sins by prayers and tears, he was forgiven.
John the Baptist asked the people who came to him to confess their sins and to repent, before he baptized them.
In the New Testament we find that Christ gave his Disciples the power of remission of sins when He said to them “Receive the Holy Spirit whose sins you shall forgive, they are forgiven them and whose sins you shall retain, they are retained.” (JOHN 20, 22).
James the Apostle urged the Christians to confess to one another and to pray for one another. (JAMES 5, 16).
The whole history of the Jewish people is a history of a people which grew and prospered by obeying the commandments of God and was disunited and beset by conflict, strife and wars when it sinned in the eyes of God. The only way to salvation was to admit the guilt and to escape more severe punishment by a true change and a return to a righteous life.
In the Christian Church, there is no doubt that confession is, after the Baptism, the only way to cleanse the soul of the faithful and enable him to become once again the healthy part of the holy body, the Church of Christ.
There are many requirements that the penitent must satisfy in order to deserve the absolution of his sins, but before I enter into this question, I would like to mention briefly that Jesus Christ gave the power of remission of sins to his Disciples and the Apostles transmitted this power to the bishops and later the bishops gave some priests a special permission to hear confession and absolve the penitent from his sins. Therefore a priest does not this right by the fact of being a priest but it is granted to him by his bishop.
The main requirements which should be fulfilled by penitent are:
1. The contrition of heart.
2. The verbal confession to the priest.
The priest, on the other hand must:
1. Advise the penitent.
2. Absolve the penitent if he finds that the sins committed by him are not as serious as to impose upon him a penalty and forbid him from taking communion until he complies with the priest’s advice.
The contrition of heart is a very important and essential step that the penitent must take. He must prepare himself by praying and fasting before he comes for confession. The Greek word for contrition is metania which means a change of mind after self-examination and reflection. In this context it means not only a change of mind, but a change of the whole outlook of the penitent with a sincere and honest determination to put an end to the temptations that led him to become a slave of his evil thoughts and actions and to improve his behavior with the help of God and the guidance of the priest.
The oral confession to the priest is an essential requirement. Some of the Orthodox people, being influenced by the protestant teaching about confession, believe that confessing to God in the secret of their heart, without telling the priest anything is sufficient. This is a very dangerous conviction, for it implies a denouncement not only of one sacrament, but of three sacraments. When the penitent refuses to confess verbally to the priest he implies his disbelief in the sacrament of Penance, the sacrament of Priesthood, and the sacrament of the Eucharist.
I believe that these people are influenced by Protestantism, because many of the protestant groups do not believe in the Penance, the Priesthood and the Eucharist as Sacraments.
The priest is, as a human individual, the representative of the parish to whom the penitent used to confess and he is, at the same time, invested with the power of the Holy Spirit to remit the sins of the penitent with the understanding that the latter will do his best to avoid repeating the same errors, and any wrong action that would degrade him in his own eyes and in the eyes of God.
The Priest as a Guide and Advisor:
The priest, after hearing the confession of the penitent, will be able to help him and free him from the grip of his obsessions and his errors. The priest is a human individual like everyone else and being human, he can understand the problems of the penitent and help him find a cure for them. Many people think of the priest as a stereotype, that is, as an individual who wears a special uniform and conducts the religious services, but he is far removed from life, therefore he does not understand their problems nor could he offer a workable solution to personal difficulties. Having this fixed idea, they begin criticizing the priest for seeing him in the theatre or in the restaurant, the park, haflee, picnic, bowling alley, and especially in the bar. However, if they admit that the priest must go to college and study as they do, there is no reason as to why he should not go to the above mentioned places in order to have a better knowledge of their personalities and of their habits and drives.
Every human being is inclined by nature to have a friend and to tell him everything that he does, even without being asked, for the fact of sharing his thoughts and discussing his problems with a trustworthy person, brings a relief to his conscience. How much more should one be at ease in confessing to the priest when he realizes that the priest is not only his friend who is willing to listen to him and share his happy or unhappy experience, but also a man of God who is invested with the power to absolve him from his sins, cleanse his soul and heart from the strains of unhappy remorse and help him to become once again his normal self the child of God.
I cannot offer a more emphatic and important proof of the spiritual power that the priest has than the words of Jesus Christ himself after his Resurrection. (JOHN 20: 22-23).
After hearing the confession of the penitent and giving his advice, the priest is the sole judge whether to absolve the penitent and allow him to receive Communion on the same day, or whether to impose a penance upon him and see that the penitent has complied with his recommendations before giving him Communion.
The most important factor in the Sacrament of Penance is the attitude of the penitent. He must approach the priest with complete faith in the sacrament and with the fear of God in his heart, hoping that he might be worthy, with the Grace of God to unite himself to the fullness of the Church by partaking of the Body and the Blood of the Lord Jesus Christ.