by Protopresbyter Alexander Schmemann
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
Protopresbyter Alexander Schmemann
Dean and Professor of Liturgical Theology
St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary
Sunday of the Prodigal Son - 1972