Encyclical Letter of the Holy Synod of Bishops of the Orthodox Church in America on Confession and Communion

Excerpt of the Minutes of the Meeting of the Holy Synod of Bishops of the Orthodox Church in America: February 16-17th, 1972

The Dean of St. Vladimir’s Theological Seminary and professor of liturgical theology, Protopresbyter Alexander Schmemann, presented a report of confession and communion. The report is attached.

Resolved: 1) That the report of Protopresbyter Alexander Schmemann is received with gratitude and approbation. 2) That the idea of a renewal in the Eucharistic life in the Church is not only desirable but indispensable. Therefore, practice of more frequent communion is encouraged in all parishes of our Church. In this connection, and for the purpose of deepening the spirit of repentance among the laity, in addition to individual confession, the practice of General Confession is also blessed based on the following principles:

    (a) As a rule, General Confession takes place in the evening following the evening service. The person wishing to receive Holy Communion should be in Church at least on the eve of communion. The common practice of confession just prior to Liturgy is harmful and should be permitted only in very special cases. (b) General Confession begins with reading of the “Prayers Before Confession” which in current practice are generally omitted but which, nevertheless, form an organic part of the Sacrament of Confession. (c) Following the prayers, the priest invites the penitents to pray for a spirit of repentance in order that they might see their own sins without which the formal confession cannot produce spiritual benefit. (d) Then follows confession proper in which the priest enumerates those sins by which in thought and desire we offend God, our neighbor, and ourselves. Since the priest, as all men standing before God, knows sin, and sees his own sinfulness, his enumeration of sins, therefore, is not formal but sincere coming from a humble and contrite spirit. Rather than being a confession of “you” his enumeration of sins comes from “us,” everyone realizing the sin as his own and all are able to repent. The more the priest is able to examine his own conscience the more full will be the confession and the spirit of repentance for all participants. (e) The priest invites the penitents to direct their spiritual gaze toward the Lord’s banquet which awaits us and which is given to its in spite of our unworthiness. (f) The priest then invites those who find need for further expression of their sins to stand aside while the remainder approach for the prayer of absolution and adoration of the Crucifix. (g) Finally, after the prayer of absolution has been read over each penitent, the prayers in preparation for Holy Communion are read while those wishing to add to their confession approach the confessional. Practice reveals that those who participate in this type of General Confession learn to make better private confession. The General Confession is not a replacement of private confession, but is rather for those who commune frequently and who regularly make their private confessions, who realize the need in our times for a regular examination and cleansing of conscience and repentance. This decision of the Holy Synod is intended as a norm and regulation for the performance of General Confession and not simply as a suggestion, recommendation, or advice. Those clergy who ignore this norm and regulation are subject to canonical sanctions.

Resolved: To remind the clergy of the instructions previously prepared by the Liturgical Commission and confirmed by the Holy Synod that serving the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom during Great Lent with the exception of Saturdays and Palm Sunday and the serving of Requiem Liturgies on Holy Thursday and Saturday are forbidden.

Resolved: That the report prepared by Fr. Schmemann be reproduced in both Russian and English and be distributed.

REPORT TO THE HOLY SYNOD OF THE ORTHODOX CHURCH IN AMERICA

The questions and the controversies about more frequent communion, about the link between the Sacrament of Communion and that of Penance, about the essence and form of confession, are, in our Church today, a sign not of weakness or decay, but of life and awakening. That there is among the Orthodox people, among the members of our Church, a growing interest in that which is essential, that there appears a thirst for that which is spiritually genuine, can no longer be denied and for this alone we ought to render thanks to God. It would be extremely wrong therefore to try to solve these questions and controversies by merely `administrative’ measures, with decrees and interdicts. For what we face is, indeed, a crucial spiritual question which is related literally to all aspects of our Church life.

Only a spiritually blind and insensitive man would deny that in spite of all her relative success, external and material, our Church is threatened with a danger from within: the danger of secularization, of a deep spiritual decay. The tragic symptoms of this decay have appeared long ago. The endless debates - and they have been lasting for decades! - on the parish statutes, the wide-spread concentration of our parishes on the defense of their “interests,” “rights” and “property” from the hierarchy and clergy, the incredible ease with which even old and renowned parishes, for the sake of these famous “rights,” simply leave the Church, the centering of virtually all ecclesiastical agencies and councils, national, diocesan, and parochial, on the external, the material and the “legal” - all this reveals such a deep secularization of the mind and consciousness that one truly becomes apprehensive about the future of our Church, which does not seem to realize the true scope and depth of this crisis.

Yet it is precisely this secularization of the Church herself that forces so many people, especially the young ones, simply to leave the Church, where no one reveals to them what her real essence is, what it means to be her member, where one hardly hears the appeal to deepen the inner life, the spiritual and the religious, and where, in fact, the spiritual is reduced to a minimum to the benefit of banquets, jubilees, financial campaigns and entertainment.

And all this appears at a time when we begin anew life, when the possibility, denied to so many of our brothers in the ancient centers of Orthodoxy, is given to us to grow “from strength to strength,” to be free not in words alone, but in reality, to fill Church life with spiritual content, to achieve all that which cannot be achieved by our brothers living in the dreadful conditions of atheistic and totalitarian states. Is it not tragic, therefore, that so often those who appear as the most active and efficient members of the Church are at the same time the most “unchurched” ones - leaders of all kinds of oppositions and rebellions, that the very structure of our parishes seems to make it virtually impossible to deepen and sustain truly religious life, and that, finally, the clergy themselves, instead of aiming all their efforts at the spiritual growth of their flocks, are condemned, by these very structures, to a dead formalism, to a status quo, proclaimed to be the very norm of the Church?

There exists a tendency to solve all these problems, all burning and difficult issues, including the one we face here, i.e., the question of lay participation in the Divine Mysteries, by simple reference to the past, i.e., to what was done and considered normal in Russia, Greece, Poland, etc. This tendency, however, is not only a wrong one, but, in fact, a dangerous one. For far from everything in that “past,” be it Russian, Greek or Polish, was right, Orthodox and correct. To realize this, it is enough to read, for example, the observations made by the entire Russian episcopate in 1905-1912, at the time of preparation by the Russian Church for her long-overdue national Sobor. Virtually without exception, the Russian Bishops, then the best educated in the whole Orthodox Church, and unquestionably conservative and tradition-minded, declared the Church’s situation, spiritual, liturgical, educational, etc., to be deeply defective and requiring urgent reforms. Beginning with Khomiakov, all that which was truly alive and creative in Russian theology denounced the surrender of that theology to Western scholasticism and legalism. Metropolitan Antony (Khrapovitsky) called for a radical transformation of Russian seminaries and academies. And the saintly Father John of Kronstadt emphatically condemned the lukewarm and formal piety of Russian society which reduced communion to a “once-a-year obligation” and lowered the theandric life of the Church to the level of “customs.” In view of all this, mere references and appeals to the past are not acceptable, for that past itself needs to be re-evaluated in the light of the genuine Orthodox Tradition. The only criterion, always and everywhere, is Tradition itself and the pastoral concern about how to apply it in our own situation which is so radically different from that of the past.

This situation is determined above everything else by a deep spiritual crisis of society, culture and man himself. The essence of this crisis - secularism - is the divorce from God of the whole of human life. And it is this crisis that now begins to affect the Church herself. To think that this process of the Church’s secularization can be stopped by decrees and administrative instructions is nearsighted and dangerous. This applies in the first place to the greatest of all the Church’s treasures, to her “holy of holies”—- the Divine Mysteries.

Secularization and the Sacraments

If I began this report on the sacraments with general considerations concerning the situation in the world as well as in the Church, it is because of my deep conviction that the new interest in sacramental practice and discipline stems from this very crisis and is directly related to it. I am convinced that the question of lay participation in the Divine Mysteries is indeed the key question of our entire Church life; it is upon the solution of this question that the future of our Church, her renewal or her decay, ultimately depend.

I am convinced that where the Eucharist and communion have once more become “the center of Christian life,” the problems of the parish’s relation to the Church and to the hierarchy, to statutes, norms and financial obligations of the Church hardly exist. This, of course, is not accidental. For where the parish life is not founded, above all, on the Lord Jesus Christ -and this means on a living and constant communion with Him and in Him in the sacrament of His presence, the Divine Eucharist - there, sooner or later, but unavoidably, something else will emerge and dominate; “property” and its “defense,” politics, nationalism, material success, collective pride. Not Christ but something else which shall shape -and also disintegrate - the life of the parish.

Until quite recently, it may have been possible not to realize, not to acknowledge, the urgency of this either-or. Indeed, our parishes for a long time had, in addition to their religious function, a natural foundation: ethnic, national, linguistic. Our parishes were the form and the means of uniting the immigrants, i.e., ethnic minorities, in need of corporate identity and survival in American society, which was at first alien and even inimical towards them. Now, however, this “immigrant” period in the history of our Church is rapidly moving towards its end. The “natural,” i.e., ethnic, foundation is quickly falling apart and disappearing. But then the question is: what shall replace it? Is it not painfully clear that if it is not replaced with the very idea and experience of the Church as unity in Christ, then, of necessity, there shall appear an a-religious, if not openly anti-religious, idea of the parish as primarily the owner and manager of its property; then, of necessity, the principle of unity will be the defense of that property and of the owner’s “rights” against the “enemies” from outside: the hierarchy, the clergy, the national or diocesan “centers.” Let us not be mistaken. The leaders who are fomenting all kinds of “oppositions” and rebellions know perfectly well that in reality nothing is threatening their parish “property.” And if, in spite of this knowledge, they continue actively to propagate this myth, it is because of their need for a unifying principle, for a practical basis of their leadership. For it is indeed an old and well-proven fact that if the people are not united for something, they will unite against something. It is here that we find the tragic depth of our present situation.

This is why the question of sacraments has such a key significance. Only in the fullness of sacramental life can we find the positive, and not the negative, principle of unity, not the “against” but the “for” which is obviously lacking in our Church life today. And if this question has acquired a new urgency today, it is because more and more people are consciously and, more often, unconsciously, seeking a renewal, seeking a “basis” that would help the parish to recover its religious and ecclesiastical meaning and stop its rapid and sad “secularization.”

Eucharistic Decay and Renewal

It is impossible, and even unnecessary to present in this short report the questions of lay communion in all its dogmatical and historical aspects. What is essential can be summarized as follows:

It is a well-known and undisputed fact that in the early Church the communion of all the faithful, of the entire ecclesia, at each Liturgy was a self-evident norm. What must be stressed, however, is that this corporate communion was understood not only as an act of personal piety and personal sanctification but, first of all, as an act stemming primarily from one’s very membership in the Church, as the fulfillment and actualization of that membership. The Eucharist was both defined and experienced as the “sacrament of the Church,” the “sacrament of the assembly,” the “sacrament of unity.” “He mixed Himself with us,” writes St. John Chrysostom, “and dissolved His body in us so that we may constitute a wholeness, be a body united to the Head.” The early Church simply knew no other sign or criterion of membership but the participation in the sacrament. The excommunication from the Church was the excommunication from the eucharistic assembly in which the Church fulfilled and manifested herself as the Body of Christ. Communion to the Body and Blood of Christ was a direct consequence of Baptism, the sacrament of entrance into the Church, and there existed no other “condition” for that communion. The member of the Church is the one who is in communion with the Church in and through sacramental communion, and one early liturgical formula dismissed from the gathering, together with the catechumens and the penitents, all those who are not to receive communion. This understanding of communion, as fulfilling membership in the Church, can be termed ecclesiological. However obscured or complicated it became later, it has never been discarded; it remains forever the essential norm of Tradition.

One must ask therefore not about this norm, but about what happened to it. Why did we leave it so far behind us that a mere mention of it appears to some, and especially clergy, an unheard-of novelty, a shaking of the foundations? Why is it that for centuries nine out of ten Liturgies are being celebrated without communicants? - and this provokes no amazement, no frustration, whereas the desire to communicate more frequently, on the contrary, raises a real fear? How could the doctrine of a once-a-year communion develop within the Church, the Body of Christ, as an accepted norm, a departure from which can be but an exception? How, in other words, did the understanding of communion become so deeply individualistic, so detached from the Church, so alien to the eucharistic prayer itself: “and all of us partaking of the same Bread and Chalice unite one to another for the communion of the one Spirit…”? The reason for all this, however complex historically, is spiritually a simple one: it is the fear of profaning the Mystery, the fear of unworthy communion, of the desacralization of holy things. It is a fear which is, of course, spiritually justified, for “the one who eats and drinks unworthily drinks and eats his condemnation.” This fear appeared soon after the victory of the Church over the pagan Empire, a victory which transformed Christianity into a mass religion, a state Church and a popular cult. If during the era of persecution the very belonging to the Church compelled each of her members to follow a “narrow path” and set between the Christian and “this world” a self-evident dividing line, now, with the entrance of the entire “world” into the Church, that line was abolished and there appeared a very real danger of a nominal, superficial, lukewarm and minimalistic understanding of Christian life. If before the very entrance into the Church was difficult, now, with obligatory inclusion of virtually everyone into the Church, it became necessary to establish internal checks and controls; it was around the sacrament that such controls developed.

One must stress, however, that neither the Fathers nor the liturgical texts can supply us with any encouragement for non-partaking of the Mysteries, nor do they even hint at such a practice. Emphasizing the holiness of communion and its “awful” nature, calling to a worthy preparation for it, the Fathers never endorsed nor approved the idea that since the Mystery is holy and awful, one must not approach it too often. To the Fathers, the view of the Eucharist as the sacrament of the Church, of her unity, fulfillment and growth, was still self-evident.

“We must not,” writes St. John Cassian, “avoid communion because we deem ourselves to be sinful. We must approach it more often for the healing of the soul and the purification of the spirit, but with such humility and faith that considering ourselves unworthy… we would desire even more the medicine for our wounds. Otherwise it is impossible to receive communion once a year, as certain people do… considering the sanctification of heavenly Mysteries as available only to saints. It is better to think that by giving us grace, the sacrament makes us pure and holy. Such people manifest more pride than humility… for when they receive, they think of themselves as worthy. It is much better if, in humility of heart, knowing that we are never worthy of the Holy Mysteries we would receive them every Sunday for the healing of our diseases, rather than, blinded by pride, think that after one year we become worthy of receiving them.”

With regard to an equally wide-spread theory, according to which there is a difference between the clergy and laity in approaching communion, so that the former are to receive it at each Liturgy, whereas the latter are discouraged from doing so, it is fitting to quote St. John Chrysostom, who more than anyone else, insisted on worthy preparation for communion: “There are cases,” writes the great pastor, “when a priest does not differ from a layman, notably when one approaches the Holy Mysteries. We are all equally given them, not as in the Old Testament, when one food was for the priests and another for the people and when it was not permitted to the people to partake of that which was for the priest. Now it is not so: but to all is offered the same Body and the same Chalice…”

Let me repeat once more that it is simply impossible to find in Tradition a basis and justification for our present practice of extremely infrequent, if not yearly, communion of laity; all those who seriously and responsibly have studied our Tradition, all the best Russian liturgiologists and theologians, have seen in this practice a decay in Church life, a deviation from Tradition and the genuine foundations of the Church. And the most dreadful aspect of this decay is that it is justified and explained in terms of respect for the holiness of the sacrament, in terms of piety and reverence. For if it were so, the non-communicants would experience at least some sadness during the Liturgy, a frustration, a feeling of lacking fullness. In reality, however, this is simply not true. Generation after generation of Orthodox “attend” the Liturgy totally convinced that nothing more than attendance is required from them, that communion is simply not for them. And then, once a year, they fulfill their “obligation” and receive communion after a two-minute confession to a tired and exhausted priest. To see in all this a triumph of reverence, a protection of holiness, more than that - a norm, and not a downfall and a tragedy, is indeed incredible.

In some of our parishes those who expressed the desire to receive communion more frequently were subjected to a real persecution, were asked not to do it “for the sake of peace,” were accused of deviation from Orthodoxy! I could quote parish bulletins explaining that since communion is for penitents, one ought not to receive it at Easter, for it “obscures” paschal joy. And the most tragic thing is that all this provokes no mystical horror, that apparently the Church herself becomes an obstacle on man’s path to Christ! Truly - “when you shall see the abomination of desolation stand in the holy place…” (Matthew 24:15).

Finally, it would not be difficult to show that whenever and wherever a genuine renewal of the life of the Church has taken place it has always originated with what has been termed “eucharistic hunger,” In the twentieth century there began a great crisis of Orthodoxy. There began an unheard of, unprecedented persecution of the Church and the apostasy of millions of people. And whenever this crisis was understood and perceived, there was a return to communion as the “focus of Christian life.” This happened in communist Russia, as is attested by hundreds of witnesses; this happened in other centers of Orthodoxy and the diaspora. The movements of Orthodox youth in Greece, Lebanon, France have all grown out of a renewal of liturgical life. All that is genuine, living, churchly has been born from a humble and joyful response to the words of the Lord: “He that eats My flesh and drinks My blood, dwells in Me and I in him” (John 6:56).

Now, by a great mercy of God, this eucharistic revival, this thirst for a more frequent, more regular, communion, and thus, the return to a more genuine life within the Church, has made its appearance in America. I am convinced that nothing would give a greater joy to the pastors and especially Bishops than this renewal, pulling us away from the spiritually dead controversies about “properties” and “rights,” from the idea of the Church as a social-ethnic club with picnics and entertainment, from youth organizations in which religious life and interests are kept at a bare minimum. For, as I already said, no other foundation exists for the regeneration of the Church as a whole, and none can exist. The ethnic, national foundation is fading away. All that which is only custom, only form, an addition to life but not life itself, is disappearing. People are seeking the genuine, the true and the living. Therefore, if we are to live and grow, it is obviously only on the basis of the very essence of the Church, and this essence is the Body of Christ, that mystical unity into which we are integrated through partaking “of the one Bread and Chalice in the communion of the same Spirit…”

I am confident, therefore, that our Bishops, to whom God has entrusted above all care for the spiritual essence of the Church, will find the words proper to bless and to encourage this spiritual and sacramental renewal, proper to remind the Church of the immeasurably rich and immeasurably joyful content of her teaching about the Divine Mysteries.

All this, however, raises - with a new acuteness and depth - the question of the preparation for holy communion, and, first of all, of the place in that preparation for the Sacrament of Penance.

Penance and Holy Communion

When the communion of the entire congregation at each Liturgy, as an act expressing their very participation, in the Liturgy, ceased to be a self-evident norm and was replaced by the practice of a very infrequent, usually once-a-year, communion, it became natural for the latter to be preceded by the Sacrament of Penance i.e., confession and reconciliation with the Church through the prayer of absolution.

This practice, natural and self-evident in the case of infrequent, once-a-year, communion, led to the appearance in the Church of a theory according to which the communion of laity, different in this from the communion of clergy, is impossible without the Sacrament of Penance, so that confession is an obligatory condition - always and in all cases - for communion. I dare to affirm that this theory (which spread mainly in the Russian Church) not only has no foundation in Tradition, but openly contradicts the Orthodox doctrine of the Church, of the Sacrament of Communion and of that of Penance.

To be convinced of that, one has to recall, be it very briefly, the essence of the Sacrament of Penance. From the very beginning this sacrament was, in the consciousness and teaching of the Church, the sacrament of reconciliation with the Church of those excommunicated from her and this means of those excluded from the eucharistic assembly. We know that, at first, the very strict ecclesiastical discipline allowed for only one such reconciliation in one’s lifetime, but that later, especially after the entrance into the Church of the entire population, this discipline was somewhat relaxed. In its essence, the Sacrament of Penance, as the sacrament of reconciliation with the Church, was for those only who were excommunicated from the Church for definite sins and acts clearly defined in the canonical tradition of the Church. This is still clearly stated in the prayer of absolution: “reconcile him with Thy Holy Church in Christ Jesus Our Lord…” (This, incidentally, is the prayer of absolution, used universally. As to the second one, unknown to the Eastern Orthodox Churches - “I, unworthy priest, by the power given unto me, absolve. . .” - is of Latin origin and was adopted in our liturgical books at the time of the domination of Orthodox theology by Western theology.)

All this, however, does not mean that the “faithful,” i.e., the “non-excommunicated,” were considered by the Church to be sinless. In the first place, according to the Church’s teaching, no human being is sinless, with the exception of the Most Holy Mother of God, the Theotokos. In the second place, a prayer for forgiveness and remission of sins is an integral part of the Liturgy itself (cf. the Prayer of the Trisagion and the two prayers “of the faithful”). Finally, the Church always considered Holy Communion itself as given “for the remission of sins.” Therefore, the issue here is not sinlessness, which no absolution can achieve, but the distinction always made by the Church between, on the one hand, the sins excommunicating a man from the Church’s life of grace and, on the other hand, the “sinfulness” which is the inescapable fate of every man “living in the world and bearing flesh.” The latter is, so to speak, “dissolved” in the Church’s liturgy, and it is this sinfulness that the Church confesses in the “prayers of the faithful” before the offering of the Holy Gifts. Before the Holy Chalice itself, at the moment of receiving the Mysteries, we ask for forgiveness of “sins voluntary and involuntary, those in word and in deed, committed knowingly or unknowingly,” and we believe that, in the measure of our repentance, we receive this forgiveness.

All this means, of course, and no one really denies it, that the only real condition for partaking of the Divine Mysteries is membership in the Church and, conversely, that membership in the Church is fulfilled in the partaking of the sacrament of the Church. Communion is given “for the remission of sins,” “for the healing of the soul and body,” and it implies, therefore, repentance, the awareness of our total unworthiness, and the understanding of communion as a heavenly gift which never can be “deserved” by an earthly being. The whole meaning of preparation for communion, as established by the Church (“The Rule for Holy Communion”) is not, of course, in making man feel “worthy” but, on the contrary, in revealing to him the abyss of God’s mercy and love (“I am not worthy, Master and Lord… yet since Thou in Thy love… dost wish to dwell in me, in boldness I come. Thou commandest, open the gates… and Thou wilt come in love… and enlighten my darkened reasoning. I believe that Thou wilt do this…”). Before the Lord’s table the only “worthiness” of the communicant is that he has realized his bottomless “unworthiness.” This, indeed, is the beginning of salvation.

It is therefore of paramount importance for us to understand that the transformation of the Sacrament of Penance into an obligatory condition for communion not only contradicts Tradition, but obviously mutilates it. It mutilates, in the first place, the doctrine of the Church by creating in her two categories of members, one of which is, in fact, excommunicated from the Eucharist, as the very content and fulfillment of membership, as its spiritual source. But then it is no longer surprising that those whom the Apostle called “fellow citizens with the saints and of the household of God” (Ephesians 2:19) become again “worldly” (kosmiki, miriane), are “secularized” and their membership in the Church is measured and defined in terms of money (“dues”) and “rights.” But also mutilated is the doctrine of communion, which is understood then as the sacrament for a few “worthy ones” and no longer as the sacrament of the Church: of sinners who, by the infinite mercy of Christ, are always transformed into His Body. And finally, equally mutilated is the doctrine of penance. Transformed into a formal condition for communion, it begins more and more obviously to replace the real preparation for communion, that genuine inner repentance, which inspires all the prayers before communion. After a three-minute confession and absolution a man feels “entitled” to communion, “worthy” and even “sinless,” feels, in other terms, that which is in fact the very opposite of true repentance.

But how then could such a practice have appeared and become a norm, defended today by many as truly Orthodox? To answer this question one must consider three factors. We have already mentioned one of them: that nominal and lukewarm approach to faith and piety of Christian society itself which led, at first, to an infrequent communion and, finally, reduced it to a once-a-year “obligation.” It is clear that a person approaching the Divine Mysteries once a year must be really “reconciled” with the Church by means of an examination of his conscience and life in the Sacrament of Penance. The second factor is the influence on the Church of monasticism, which from the very beginning knew the practice of the “opening of thoughts,” of the spiritual guidance by an experienced monk of a less-experienced one. But, and this is essential, such a spiritual father or “elder” was not necessarily a priest, for this type of spiritual guidance is connected with spiritual experience and not priesthood.

In the Byzantine monastic typika of the 12th-13th centuries, a monk is forbidden both to approach the Chalice and to abstain from it by himself, of his own will, without the permission of his spiritual father, for “to exclude oneself from communion is to follow one’s own will.” In women’s monasteries the same power belongs to the abbess. Thus we have here a confession of a non-sacramental type, confession based upon spiritual experience and permanent guidance. But this type of confession had a strong impact on sacramental confession. At a time of spiritual decadence (which can be seen in its true scope and meaning in the canons of the so-called Council in Trullo, 6th century A.D.) monasteries became centers of spiritual care and guidance for the laity. In Greece, even today, not every priest has the right to hear confessions but only those who are especially authorized by the Bishop. Yet for the laity this spiritual counseling naturally led to sacramental confession. We must stress, however, that not every parish priest is capable of such spiritual counseling, which implies and presupposes a deep spiritual experience, for without that experience “counseling” may lead, and in fact often leads, to genuine spiritual tragedies. What is important here is that the sacramental penance became somehow connected with the idea of spiritual guidance, solution of “difficulties” and “problems,” and that all this in the present conditions of our parish life, of “mass” confessions concentrated during some evening of Great Lent and reduced to a few minutes, is hardly possible and does more harm than good. Spiritual guidance, especially in our time of deep spiritual crisis, is necessary, but to be genuine, deep, useful, it must be disconnected from sacramental confession, although the latter must obviously be its ultimate goal.

The third and decisive factor was, of course, the influence of the Western Scholastic and juridical understanding of penance. Much has been written about the “western captivity” of Orthodox theology but few people realize the depth and the real meaning of the distortions to which Western influence led in the life of the Church and, above all, in the understanding of sacraments. This is especially obvious in the Sacrament of Penance. Here the distortion consisted in that the whole meaning of the sacrament was shifted from repentance and confession to “absolution” understood juridically. Western Scholastic theology transposed into juridical categories the very concept of sin and, accordingly, the concept of absolution, as dependent not so much on the reality of repentance, but on the power of the priest. If in the initial Orthodox understanding of the Sacrament of Penance the priest is the witness of repentance and, therefore the witness of the fulfilled “reconciliation with the Church in Christ Jesus. . .,” the Latin legalism puts the emphasis on the power of the priest to absolve. Hence the practice, totally alien to Orthodox doctrine, yet quite popular today, of “absolutions” without confession. The initial distinction between sins (which because they excommunicate from the Church require a sacramental reconciliation with her) and sinfulness (not leading to excommunication) was rationalized by Western Scholasticism in the distinction between the so-called mortal sins and the so-called venial sins. The first ones, by depriving man of the “state of grace” require sacramental confession and absolution; the others require only an inner repentance and contrition. In the Orthodox East, however, and especially in Russia (under the influence of the Latinizing theology of Peter Moghila and his followers), this theory resulted in a simple, compulsory and juridical connection between confession and communion.

And it is ironic indeed that the most obvious of all Latin “infiltrations” is viewed by so many Orthodox as an Orthodox norm while a mere attempt to re-evaluate it in the light of the genuine Orthodox doctrine of Church and sacraments is denounced as “Roman Catholic.”

Guidelines for Regular Confession and Communion

It remains now to draw some practical conclusions from what has been said. I have tried to explain why the question of sacraments and, first of all, the question of lay participation in the eucharistic life, is, in my opinion, the main question facing our Church, a question on which her spiritual future, her real, and not only eternal, growth truly depends. My conclusions must, therefore, relate to one another faithfulness to genuine Tradition and the pastoral care for its “fulfillment” in our own conditions of life, so radically different from the past.

The question, in my opinion, must be formulated as follows: how can we both encourage a more frequent, more regular participation by the laity in the eucharistic sacrament, the “focus of Christian life,” the sacrament of the Church and her unity, and, at the same time, assure a proper preparation for this sacrament, thus preventing communion from becoming as much a “custom” as was, until now, the practice of “non-communion”? The answer to this question can be reduced to three fundamental principles:

  1. First of all, if the desire for and the practice of a more frequent and, ultimately, regular, communion is to be encouraged, it is nevertheless obvious that it would be spiritually wrong and very harmful to impose it in any way. This practice cannot and must not become either a “fad” or the result of any kind of pressure. Therefore, for those who receive communion seldom (even once a month) - and such will no doubt remain for a long time the majority - one must keep in all its strictness the obligation for confession before communion.
  2. For communion more often than once a month, one needs the permission of the rector of the parish. This permission will be given only to those persons who are well-known to the rector and after a thorough pastoral examination of the seriousness and rectitude of such person’s attitude towards the Church and towards Christian life. In such a case, the relationship between the rhythm of confession and that of communion must be left to the decision of the priest, confession remaining regular, however, and heard not less than once a month.
  3. For a deeper understanding of the Sacrament of Communion as well as that of Penance and for a more fruitful spiritual connection between them, the practice of general confession would be permitted. Inasmuch as this practice raises misunderstandings and questions, I will conclude this report with a few words of explanation about its nature and form.

General Confession

What is General Confession and why should it be recognized as proper and useful in the present conditions of our Church life?

To answer this question, one must acknowledge first of all that today an overwhelming majority of the Church’s members do not know either what is confession or how to approach it. It is reduced, and this at best, to a purely formal and general enumeration of usually secondary “defects,” to laconic answers to questions, or to a conversation about “problems.” We have here the results, on the one hand, of a multi-secular, Western, formal and juridical, understanding of confession, and, on the other hand, the “psychologism” proper to our time, which dissolves almost completely the awareness, not of “difficulties,” “problems” and “questions,” but, of sin. Thus, in a large parish where I confessed a few dozens of people, each one began by presenting to me a receipt from the parish treasurer certifying that the man had paid his “dues.” Then he silently waited for absolution. In other parishes there exists the practice of simply reading, from a book, a short formula of confession translated from Latin. Finally, I witnessed on many occasions a simple denial by the penitents of any sin, and this because by “sin” they meant “crimes” which indeed they have not committed. The opposite extreme is the concentration in confession on some particular “difficulty,” from which it becomes evident that the responsibility lies with conditions of life of which the penitent is an innocent victim. In all these types of confession what one does not find is precisely repentance, the “sadness of God,” the despair from being separated from Him, the desire to change one’s life, to be renewed and regenerated.

How then, in our present condition, is confession itself to be redeemed and restored? How can it be made again an act of genuine repentance and reconciliation with God? To achieve this with our present two-or-three minute confession, with a long line waiting behind the back of the exhausted priest, is simply impossible.

Therefore, the General Confession is, first of all, a certain school of repentance, the revealing of the very essence of confession. To be spiritually profitable it must consist of the following:

1. As a rule, General Confession is to be held after the evening service. Anyone who desires to receive Holy Communion should come to church at least the evening before. Today’s practice of confession taking place a few minutes before Liturgy, in a hurry, is simply harmful and can be justified only as exception. It has, unfortunately, become a norm.

2. General Confession begins with the priest reading aloud the prayers before confession. These prayers are, in today’s practice, omitted, yet they are an integral part of the sacrament.

3. After the prayers, the priest calls the penitents to repentance, to pray that God would grant the spirit of remembrance, the gift “to see one’s own sins,” without which a formal enumeration of sins will produce no spiritual fruit.

4. Following this is the confession proper, i.e., the enumeration by the priest of all acts, thoughts and desires with which we offend the holiness of God, the sanctity of our neighbor, and the sanctity of our own soul. And inasmuch as the priest himself, as any man standing before God, knows all these sins and all that sinfulness to be also present in himself, this enumeration will not be a formal one, but sincere, and will be done in a “broken and humble” heart, will be done on behalf of us, rather than aimed at you, and in this enumeration each one will acknowledge his confession and truly repent. The more deeply the pastor examines his own conscience, the fuller the General Confession, and the spirit of repentance generated by it, will be.

5. Then the priest will call the penitents to direct their inner attention to the Lord’s table awaiting them, to God’s mercy and love; he will call them to desire with their whole being that communion of which we are never worthy, which, however is always a gift to us.

6. Then the priest will ask all those who feel the need to add something, because of a special burden on their conscience, to move aside and to wait. The others will approach him, one by one, and the priest will read the prayer of absolution, covering their heads with the epitrahilion and giving them the Cross to kiss.

7. Finally, while all those who have been reconciled listen to the prayers before communion, the priest will confess individually those who have to complete the general confession and absolve them.

Experience shows, that those who take part in such a General Confession begin to have a much better individual confession. For the whole point here is precisely that the General Confession is not meant simply to replace individual confession, is not and must not be a substitute. It is only for those and those alone who, receiving communion often and regularly confessing their sins, realize the self-evident need for purifying their conscience, for repentance, for that spiritual concentration and attention which is so difficult to achieve in our modern life. I can testify to the fact that where such General Confession is practiced, the personal confession not only has not faded away, but has become deeper, has been filled with meaning and reality. Meanwhile, this General Confession will give the priest the time necessary for a more attentive confession of those who really need personal confession, and will thus become a way to a common growth in the spirit of repentance.

Humbly submitting this report to the judgment of my Hierarchs, I wish to confess once more, that all I write in it has been dictated by an extremely acute awareness of the need for a renewal of the eucharistic life in the Church, for here and only here is the source of her growth in Christ.

Protopresbyter Alexander Schmemann
Dean and Professor of Liturgical Theology
St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary

Sunday of the Prodigal Son - 1972