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Communal Confession: Look, It Is Just Like Sunday
By Father Andrew Harrison

On Saturday, December 1st, we had record attendance at our Communal Confession. Deacon Danial said, "Look, it is just like Sunday."

Communal Confession is becoming a very popular activity at St. Luke. It was developed by Fr. Paul Harrilchak, Rector of Holy Trinity Church in Reston, Virginia. Fr. Paul visited St. Luke about four years ago and lectured on the Sacrament of Confession. His thesis was that the sacrament of Confession needed to undergo the same transformation that occurred with Holy Communion.

Thirty years ago, most Orthodox Christians received Holy Communion once or twice a year. To receive Holy Communion, private confession was required. In some jurisdictions, Confession was replaced with the sacrament of Holy Unction as a requirement to receive.

I was attending St. Vladimir's Seminary when Fr. Alexander Schmemann began a movement to restore the practice of frequent reception of Holy Communion. He wrote books, sent letters to the hierarchs, and instructed clergy and seminarians on the biblical imperative "For as often as you eat this bread and drink this cup you proclaim the Lord's death until he comes" (I Cor. 11: 26).

A document was produced by the Holy Synod of Bishops of the Orthodox Church in America emphasizing frequent Holy Communion and separating it from private confession. It was even suggested that an ancient practice of general confession be reestablished.

There has been great success with the frequent reception of Holy Communion by the faithful. Now in most parishes people receive weekly.

Along with this success, many abuses have occurred. A number of parishioners are receiving with little or no preparation. There is an abysmal understanding of the meaning of Holy Communion. Some Orthodox Christians think nothing about receiving Communion with other faith groups and complain about why we don't do the same.

The practice of General Confession which was established to prepare for reception of Communion has deteriorated to a mass absolution without prayer, personal reflection or repentance.

Fr. Paul said that Fr. Schmemann was not able to complete his work because of his untimely death. The Sacrament of Confession must be restored just like frequent Holy Communion. Fr. Paul wrote a well documented book, Common Confession, tracing the practice of Confession through the centuries. From his research he was able to discern a tradition of both personal confession and communal confession which historically has occurred in Orthodox tradition.

At St. Luke we have been following Fr. Paul's guidance with wonderful success. Every member of St. Luke receives a personal confession at least once a year, usually during Great Lent. Communal Confession is held five times a year, usually during fasting periods. The attendance has been consistently growing. It could be said that Communal Confession is a growing trend, very much like frequent Holy Communion.

For those who have never attended a Communal Confession, a description is necessary to understand why it is effective. On a scheduled Saturday following Vespers, the Communal Confession begins with the reading of the Trisagion prayers. The congregation then recites Psalm 51 and the choir leads the congregation in singing the penitential troparions. After the singing has ended, the officiating priest then invites everyone to listen attentively and reflect on his or her behavior in relation to what will be read. The priest reads a long collection of passages from scripture referring to sin and the expectations required for Christian moral behavior. He reads slowly with long pauses for reflection and examination. Every sin and temptation is covered, from the Ten Commandments, to paying taxes, to loving one's neighbor. When this is finished, the priest calls for everyone to kneel. At that point he chants a long litany enumerating sins and our participation in them. The following is one verse from the litany:

Priest: There were times when we wronged our neighbor, when we did not treat others the way we would have them treat us. We knew the right thing to do and did not do it. We have sinned against You, Lord. We pray, hear us and have mercy.

People: Lord have mercy (3x).

Upon completion of the litany the priest invites each person to stand before the Gospel and cross and verbalize the sins, which are on his/her conscience. He than asks if the person is contrite and reads the absolution prayer.

Personally, I have been pleased with the spiritual progress of our parish. We certainly have a long way to go and we still have a number of people who have not adopted the practice of frequent Communal Confession. I believe that those who are attending are beginning to understand what Christ said about repentance. One person said, "You really begin to understand how far you are from living a true Christian life and the need for repentance and forgiveness."

The next communal Confession will be held on Saturday, Jan. 30th at 5:30 PM, in preparation for Great Lent.

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