People Publicly Confessing Sins in Church, with St. John of Kronstadt

The enormous cathedral was filled with lamentations, shouts, and wails; it seemed as though the whole church was trembling from the unceasing cries of the people! What an astounding scene! It was a majestic and at the same time compunctionate sight, which clearly demonstrated how strong faith in God can be and how great is the spirit of the Russian people, moved to the good struggle of repentance by the inspired instructions of a wise pastor!

The number of those who desired to go see Father John for confession became so great that it was physically impossible to fulfill this desire. It must be noted that when Father John served, Saint Andrew’s Cathedral in Kronstadt was so filled there was “no place for even an apple to fall,” even though the cathedral could hold from five to seven thousand people.

Whether it was for this reason, or for the greater strength of the Mystery of Repentance, Father John held general confession for all present in Saint Andrew’s Cathedral, as was done in the first centuries of Christianity.

I have heard from persons who took part in the general confession that it was astounding. Here is how it was described to me by my friend Constantine Semyonovich Zvyagin, now departed, the former director of the Tiflis Office of the Government Bank. In his youth he had been an officer of the Mountain Cavalry and was stationed at the Pamirs. Then, in the rank of second captain of the cavalry, he twice took part in embassies sent by the Emperor Alexander III to the Emperor Menelik II, the Negus of Abyssinia (Ethiopia), and he lived for some time in Ethiopia. He spent his youth and years of maturity wildly. Having decided at the age of forty to marry a certain young woman from a good and pious family, he went off to Father John in Kronstadt and took part in the general confession.

All who were in the cathedral, not embarrassed by the great number of people, openly shouted their sins, including even the most horrible ones, and they even shouted very loudly, as if to make it possible for Father John to hear them. Zvyagin also cried out. In the cathedral there was a great lament; sweat was streaming down, not from the heat, but from the awesome experience. They were all, without exception, literally wailing, and in the midst of these cries and laments the souls of the people were wondrously cleansed, like gold when it is purified in a furnace of fire.

One woman writes: “My attention was turned, in spite of me, to two gentlemen who were beyond the screen in front of me. One was gray, the other young, and both were dressed elegantly and exquisitely. At first the old one listened to Father John with a condescending aspect, and the young one with only a smile; but as Father John’s talk continued the expression on their faces became serious and concentrated. And they ended up no longer standing, but had fallen right down on their knees and were sobbing, covering their faces with their hands.”

Father John was standing in the ambo in front of the icon of the Saviour and was praying very fervently and ardently, beseeching the Lord for merciful remission for the whole mass of people that was loudly repenting and wailing. He looked at us with his deep gaze and suddenly... big tears streamed down his face.

He was weeping for us... With his pure tears he was washing away the stain of our sins... Where else can there be better proof of holy evangelical love for one’s neighbor? Was this not a deep love embracing all, sorrowing, suffering, his pure tears washing away the sins of his neighbor?

Yes, Father John was weeping, uniting his tears with ours, and like a truly good shepherd of the flock of Christ, he was grieving in soul on behalf of his sheep! And it was at this moment that the turbulence of the wailing people reached its highest point!

The enormous cathedral was filled with lamentations, shouts, and wails; it seemed as though the whole church was trembling from the unceasing cries of the people! What an astounding scene! It was a majestic and at the same time compunctionate sight, which clearly demonstrated how strong faith in God can be and how great is the spirit of the Russian people, moved to the good struggle of repentance by the inspired instructions of a wise pastor!

But then, amidst the cries, Father John’s voice rang out, asking the people to quiet down. Hearkening to his voice, we quieted down and with joyous hope looked upon his countenance.

“Have you repented? Do you wish to correct yourselves?” Father John asked the trembling crowd.

“We have repented, Batiushka! We want to correct ourselves! Pray for us!” exclaimed the crowd in answer with one soul, sincerely; and humbly bowing their heads, they awaited the forgiveness and remission of their sins through their spiritual father, who had the authority from the Lord to bind and loose the sins of the people.

A tomb-like silence reigned when Father John, standing on the ambo, raised up his epitrachelion and extended it in front of himself as though covering the heads of those present, and read the prayer of forgiveness.

The people, joyous, delivered from a heavy burden, sighed freely, and with tears of joy looked on their good shepherd, who was shining with spiritual solemnity. He had been able to pierce the souls of the repentant with a saving remorse, and to wash away their soiled souls with their tears.

The administration of Holy Communion to the great number of people lasted for more than two hours.

Having received Communion from the hand of the Saint, Zvyagin, and to be sure, all the rest as well, returned home completely renewed, purified from their stain of sin of many years which darkened their souls. Zvyagin got married and began leading a righteous life. One rarely meets such friendly and happy couples.

On page 347 of a book published in 1905 by the Society for the Propagation of Religious and Moral Enlightenment in the Spirit of the Orthodox Church, which contains Father John’s teachings, there is the following note by Father John himself:

“Remarkable is the vision of a certain layman in the Church of the Holy Apostle Andrew the First-called, namely, the vision of the Saviour stretching His divine hands out over all those present during the general confession and the loosing of sins through me, and His hands were embracing everyone. I thank the Lord for this vision, for this mercy, informing me that the practice of general confession is pleasing to Him and that it is in conformity with His divine will.”

Vladimir Yulievich Orlovsky, a Lutheran, was in the Cathedral of Saint Andrew during Father John’s general confession of the people. He related that Father John read the prayer before confession, then raised up his hands towards heaven and exclaimed, “Repent!” Then those who were standing next to Orlovsky, thieves and others who had committed transgressions, and in general all those in church, not embarrassed in the least, loudly shouted out their sins, as though they wanted Father John to bear them. The impression was so startling that a chill ran down his spine.

Saint John of Kronstadt, by I.K. Sursky

Translated by Holy Transfiguration Monastery [Ch. 8, pp. 99-103]

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