During the worship services at our churches, we may notice a line of people waiting to confess. A priest is standing patiently at the lectern. On one side of the lectern are the people, their vastly different lives, rivers of tears and the dark abyss of human sin. On the other is Christ Himself, who sheds on us His infinite love, mercy, and forgiveness.
People ask many questions about confession. Some are theoretical, historical or theological, others are more practical. In this primer, you will find answers to some basic and several advanced questions. If you do not find an answer to any of your questions, be sure to ask your priest!
Why are there confession booths in Catholic churches, but not in Orthodox ones? Why do we need a priest in a confession in the first place – will not God hear a repentant sinner without an intermediary?
Confession booths are a purely Western tradition that is also relatively recent. In an Orthodox church, we confess in the direct presence of a priest. The priest stands at the lectern on which there is a Cross and a Gospel. If God had not instituted the Sacrament of Repentance (Matthew 18:18) no penitent would ever know if God had forgiven him until final judgment. Our soul, the bride of Christ, is cleansed and healed by our repentance.
Do we have to confess before the same priest?
The sacrament of confession is often likened to the practice of medicine, and it is not by chance. Can we go for treatment to different doctors? In principle, yes. However, it is always best to have a regular doctor, so that you would not need to go over your medical history at every appointment. In some cases, your doctor may refer you to a specialist or a more experienced colleague. Sadly, some penitents may go to different priests and confess their gravest sins to some but not to others. This practice is nothing other than a travesty of spirituality and ultimate hypocrisy. By doing so, a penitent deceives their confessor by making themselves seem more pious than they are. Imagine coming to your doctor with a common cold and hiding from him a recent stroke. Even if another priest has granted you the remission of some grave sin, it would still be fair to let your present confessor know about it.
But what if your sins are the same that you repented in your last confession? Should we confess to the sins that we always repeat?
Repentance is essential in all cases. Just like we put ointment on our old wounds, we need to confess to our habitual sins all the time.
When is it best to confess as we prepare for communion – at the Vespers or during the morning liturgy? It is best to follow the established practice of your church.
Which sins should we confess first?
Start from those that trouble you the most. Repent of the sins that have been around for years and have continued to dog you despite all your efforts. Our confession is our weapon in our spiritual struggle. Some are troubled by lust, others by idleness or despair, still others by wrath and short temper.
Saint Ignatius (Bryanchaninov) wrote: “Someone who cannot recognize his sinfulness cannot have faith in Christ." How can we recognize our sinfulness?
To admit our sinfulness and hence our need for Christ the Saviour, we must not let ourselves languish in our sin, but instead, we must exercise ourselves in righteousness. Such work will open our eyes to our inner corruption.
Why may our ability to repent become diminished? More generally, what determines our success at repentance?
To repent, we need to have the grace of the Holy Spirit. We call it the grace of repentance. No one can effect positive change in themselves without such grace. We must go looking and asking for it, by partaking in the Sacraments of the Church and communal prayer.
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