The Practice of Communal Confession
By Father Andrew Harrison
I was questioned about our practice of Communal Confession at St. Luke.
The person wanted to know if it was like general confession. Was general confession
considered an Orthodox practice?
In order to answer the question, I must begin with a definition of
confession as practiced for centuries in the Orthodox Church. The biblical source for
confession is James 5:16 "Confess your sins to one another..." In the bible, confession to
God always requires another person to witness the confession. Many of the psalms in the
Old Testament are confessional. When we read the psalms we are hearing King David’s
public confession of his sins. All forms of confession in the scripture are public,
not a secret act between the person and God. The church continues this practice by
placing the priest as a representative of the community to witness the confession,
grant absolution and give spiritual direction. This is the norm. The Church Fathers
recommend this type of confession four times a year, but annual confession is the
minimum. You cannot call yourself an Orthodox Christian unless you have confession at
least once a year.
In my home parish in Philadelphia everyone was required to have a
confession with a priest before they could partake of Holy Communion. Most people went to
confession and Holy Communion just once a year during Great Lent. It was
called "Your Easter Duty."
In the 1960s through the efforts of Fr. Alexander Schmemann, there was
a re-evaluation of the practice of receiving the Eucharist. Fr. Alexander emphasized
that frequent Holy Communion was required by the Christ himself - "Do this often in
remembrance of me."(1 Cor. 11: 24) Frequent communion in the Orthodox Church was a
traditional practice in the past. In order to facilitate a return to the past practice of
frequent communion, re-evaluation of Confession was required. The Holy Synod of Bishops
agreed with Fr. Alexander and published an encyclical on frequent reception of Holy
Communion. In the encyclical, the rules about Holy Communion which required confession
directly before, were relaxed. It was recommended that confession to a priest was still
the norm, but a form of confession called General Confession would be acceptable if the
communicant did not have any grave or deadly sins to confess and continued to practice
the normal confession regularly.
General confession can be described as an examination of conscience
guided by a priest reciting prayers and preaching a brief sermon. A general prayer of
absolution would be given and each person would receive a blessing from the priest. As
rector of St. Herman’s Parish in Colorado, General Confession once a month was required
for those who frequently received Holy Communion.
The practice of Communal Confession was developed and introduced by Fr.
Paul Harrilchak, Rector of Holy Trinity Church in Reston Virginia. Fr. Paul was a student
of Fr. Alexander Schmemann. According to Fr. Paul, Fr. Alexander was not able to complete
his reforms because of his premature death. Fr. Paul took upon himself the task to study
and write on the history of the practice of confession quoting many sources from scripture
and the church fathers. He privately published a book entitled Confession. This book can
be obtained from our online bookstore. Fr. Paul concluded his work by describing a form
of confession that brings together the normal confession with the general confession.
This practice is supported by the teachings of the Church Fathers. Fr. Paul recommends
that everyone who receives Holy Communion regularly participate in Communal Confession
at least four times a year during the four fasts of the church. He also does not deny
the need for frequent normal confession for spiritual guidance, especially for anyone
who is interested in spiritual growth or is having a problem with bad habits: called
by the Fathers - The Passions.
Communal Confession begins with the Trisagion prayers, (Holy God...
through Our Father...) read by a reader. All present recite the Psalm 51 and sing
a hymn. "Have mercy on me O God, have mercy on me..." Then the priest reads a long
mediation on how a Christian should live. This is a compilation of verses taken from
various books of Holy Scripture. For Example:
If a man does not control his tongue imagines that he is devout, he is
self-deceived; his worship is pointless. (James 1:26) The tongue is a restless evil, full
of deadly poison. We use it to bless the Lord and Father; then we use it to curse men,
though they are made in the likeness of God. Blessing and cursing come out of the same
mouth. This ought not to be...(James 3:8-10)
Then all kneel while the priest chants a litany which attests to our
guilt in not living as we should. We ascribe to each fault by saying, Lord have mercy!
One Petition from the Litany: - On Bended knees let us pray to the Lord.
There were times when we said things we regret, when we told lies,
when we did not control our tongues. Blessing and cursing came out of the same mouth. And
there were times when we broke promises, when we failed to honor our word. We have sinned
against You, Lord. We pray hear us and have mercy. Lord have mercy.
At the end of the litany the Priest reads a prayer of forgiveness. This
does not end Communal Confession. Each person attending, one at a time, approaches the
stand where the Holy Gospel and Cross are displayed. They then kiss them and the priest
puts his stole over their head and asks the person if there is any sin to add to what has
been expressed in the prayers and meditation. They then have an opportunity to confess
any additional sin on their conscience, even deadly sins. The only words of direction
given by the priest are "Are you sorry for your sins" Spiritual direction can take place
at another time. The priest then reads the prayer of absolution and makes the sign of
the cross over the head of each person. Those who prefer a normal confession wait at the
end of the line.
For members of St. Luke, attending communal confession four times a
year is required for those who receive Communion regularly. For those who come to church
sporadically, it is the norm to see the priest for confession. This becomes difficult to
enforce since many of our members come from some Orthodox Churches in America where the
practice of normal confession has been forgotten. It is called the forgotten
It distresses me as the rector who is responsible for the sanctity of
the Holy Eucharist to see it cheapened by those who do not properly prepare. St. Paul
said "Therefore whoever eats this bread and drinks this cup of the Lord in an unworthy
manner will be guilty of the body and blood of the Lord. But let a man examine himself,
and so let him eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For he who eats and drinks in an
unworthy manner eats and drinks judgment to himself, not discerning the Lord’s body.
For this reason many are weak and sick among you, and many sleep. "1 Corinthians
11:27 - 32.
The next Communal Confession will be on Saturday August 12th at 5:30
PM in preparation for the Feast of the Dormition of the Theotokos. I exhort all of you to
attend, in order to relieve the burden of your sins and protect yourself from judgment,
sickness and even death.