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history of the mystery of confession?


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#1 Geoffrey McKinney

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Posted 01 April 2015 - 12:50 AM

I remember reading many years ago a statement to the effect that regular, private confession to a priest was not the norm in the Christian Roman Empire, even up to the time of its fall in 1453. The statement further went on to say that regular, private confession to a priest first became the norm in the Orthodox Church (starting in Russia) sometime in the last 500 years, under the influence of Roman Catholicism.

 

Unfortunately, I cannot find this statement anywhere. Nor have I been able to either confirm or disconfirm this claim. Certainly Christians have confessed sins to clergy for millennia. That I know. But (for example) were 12th-century Roman Christians expected to regularly "go to confession" as we do today? I would greatly appreciate primary references, if possible.



#2 Kosta

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Posted 01 April 2015 - 04:26 AM

There was both public confession in front of witnesses and private confession to a priest. Originally it was public in front of witness (pre nicene), for a long time wearing sackcloth and putting on ashes was widely practised and persisted for a long time.

 

A book i came across called "Handling Sin:Confession in the Middle Ages" by Peter Biller, He recounts the story recorded by a western monk Ekkehard IV of the St Gall Monastery in Switzerland approx in the years 1030AD.  A couple that confessed sexual intercourse on Holy Saturday. He writes:

 

After having sexual intercourse during easter saturday, the wedded couple lamented their sins in front of their entire household, and subsequently confessed their evil deed in ashes and sackcloth to the parish priest. The priest gave them indulgence, but ordered them to remain standing outside the church for a day and night and banned them from Easter Communion. The couple then turned to the priest of the next village who lived in the odor of sanctity. Still in ashes and cloth they confessed their misdeed to the priest and his flock and asked him if they could recieve communion the next day(which he agreed to)....During mass on Easter Sunday the couple stood outside the church, until the priest showed them in when the Kyrie had been sung. He sealed them at the back of the church. They did not go for communion as they did not find favor with their priest.  After communion however , the priest from the next village to say another Mass on behalf of his parishioners and he gave communion to the penitent couple...(The couple) sent a horseman with alms to the neighboring priest, it turned out that he had never left his flock that day..."(pg 48) (basically a synod later proclaimed that it was an angel that appeared before the couple and offered them communion)

 

The above is an example of both a private and a public confession. The author says the miraculous public confession to the village priest and his flock was not a standard public confession in that public confessions in front of the church was historically only allowed when the bishop presided not a priest,

 

Regardless, a better question is when did public confession go away altogether in the west?  It seems it was still practised and possibly widespread still in the 11th century. As far as the east, private confession to the priest was practised as early as 580 AD as its found in the Nomocanon :

 

""A spiritual father, if he reveals to anyone a sin of one who had confessed receives a penance: he shall be suspended [from serving] for three years, being able to receive Communion only once a month, and must do 100 prostrations every day. (canon 120)

 

 

I notice in your post you wrote "regular" private confession. Confession is indeed emphasized more strongly in the Russian tradition where its expected before Communion. That aspect may have been influence from the Latins.

 After the fall of Byzantium to the Ottomons,  blessings were given to specialized traveling spiritual confessors to go village to village to preach and hear confessions. Village priests at that time were under-educated so these traveling monks played a vital role.  In this case though the 'regular' confession would have become less so after the fall of 1453 not before. 


Edited by Kosta, 01 April 2015 - 04:29 AM.


#3 Geoffrey McKinney

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Posted 01 April 2015 - 05:44 PM

Kosta, thank you for your reply.

 

I am aware that from the earliest centuries believers would at times confess to a clergyman, especially when they committed what one might call "flamboyant" sins (murder, adultery, etc.). But let me posit an example:

 

Suppose a "sweet, little old widow" in Thessaloniki lived from A. D. 1099-1104 after the death of her husband. During those five years she sometimes was cranky when her friends were late, she sometimes ate too big a breakfast, she counted her money too assiduously, she was a trifle too pleased with her new clothing, etc. In other words, her sins were of the less obvious, subtle sort. Lastly, let us suppose that this dear old woman was neither particularly pious nor particularly lax in her faith. In all things she typified the average.

 

How often was our example woman expected to go to confession? Once a month (as at my own parish), once a week (as at some parishes of which I am aware), or something else entirely? Did she regularly stand in line behind other common people, waiting her turn to privately confess to her priest that she felt anger at her friend for not commenting on her new dress, etc.?

 

Do we have any primary sources to get to the bottom of this? Again, I know that private confession existed (as illustrated by your reference to the Nomocanon). What I would like to know is if the expectation for every single Orthodox believer to regularly "go to confession", privately, with a priest is demonstrably pre-modern (i. e., before the fall of New Rome in 1453).



#4 Rdr Daniel (R.)

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Posted 01 April 2015 - 09:35 PM

Dear Geoffrey,

 

I would suggest that it is and was largely a pastoral matter as to how often one should attend confession, each person is different and thus so differs the frequency of the Holy Mystery of Confession.

 

The going to confession each week, as is the practice amongst the Russians, certainly does not come from after the fall of New Rome as during this period confessions became sparse to to persecution by the Ottoman Turks who would torture priests to find out the confessions of people, hence an increase in the importance of fasting to receive Holy Communion; meaning this practice would have to have come to the Russians from the pre-15th century Constantinoplian Church or else developed independently possibly with the influence of the papists.  We must remember that in effect our Confession is a hybrid of the parish confession of major sins before the bishop (originally the apostles) and the church, and later just the bishop or one of his priests, and the confession found amongst the ascetics who would regularly confesses every erring thought to their spiritual elder.

 

In Christ.

Daniel, 



#5 Kosta

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Posted 02 April 2015 - 02:29 AM

I belong to a GOARCH parish, this is why your question threw me for a loop when you implied how its more 'regular' now. The thing is the GOARCH rarely emphasizes confession. Its a once a year thing during Holy Week where the priests sets a schedule for a few hours during that week (rest of the year the person makes an appointment). Obviously there was more confessing before the fall of Constantinople as parish priests and monasteries were in abundance within walking distance.

#6 Geoffrey McKinney

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Posted 02 April 2015 - 04:23 AM

I belong to a GOARCH parish, this is why your question threw me for a loop when you implied how its more 'regular' now. The thing is the GOARCH rarely emphasizes confession. Its a once a year thing during Holy Week where the priests sets a schedule for a few hours during that week (rest of the year the person makes an appointment).

 

Wow. It seems that almost weekly I learn how comparatively little I know about Orthodoxy. Thank you for enlightening me. Do I understand you correctly that in your parish (typical for U. S. parishes in the Greek Archdiocese?) the typical parishioner goes to confession only once each year? And that most peoples' annual confession is done in a block of time scheduled by the priest during Holy Week? Is there a line of people (practically the entire parish) during this block of time? How long does the average confession take for someone in your parish? I would imagine perhaps 5 or so minutes to be able to fit an entire parish into a few hours time. During confession, does your priest give counsel, or does he only listen and recite the prayers?

 

I look forward to hearing anything you have to say about the practice of your parish and jurisdiction with regard to the mystery of confession.  :)

 

(I should mention how sheltered I am. In my entire life, I have attended liturgies only in my local OCA parish, with a single exception: Decades ago I once attended Sunday liturgy in an OCA parish about an hour north of where I live. I am enjoying discovering what is unique to my parish, what is unique to my jurisdiction, and what is common to all Orthodox.)


Edited by Geoffrey McKinney, 02 April 2015 - 04:28 AM.


#7 Olga

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Posted 02 April 2015 - 04:42 AM

Geoffrey, what Kosta describes is by no means absolute or "across the board" in Greek tradition. Many a Greek will confess and commune far more frequently than what Kosta describes. In addition, there are plenty of Russians and other Slavs who commune only once or twice a year.



#8 Kosta

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Posted 02 April 2015 - 06:03 AM

Wow. It seems that almost weekly I learn how comparatively little I know about Orthodoxy. Thank you for enlightening me. Do I understand you correctly that in your parish (typical for U. S. parishes in the Greek Archdiocese?) the typical parishioner goes to confession only once each year? And that most peoples' annual confession is done in a block of time scheduled by the priest during Holy Week? Is there a line of people (practically the entire parish) during this block of time? How long does the average confession take for someone in your parish? I would imagine perhaps 5 or so minutes to be able to fit an entire parish into a few hours time. During confession, does your priest give counsel, or does he only listen and recite the prayers?

 

 

 

How often one goes for confession would depend on the parishioner of course, a parishioner with fervor will have spiritual father etc. But overall with the ethnic greek churches it plays a small role (and yes I would say this is typical). The priest never really brings it up. I have attended regularly two parishes for most of my life (two of the biggest in the country). During  Holy Week both will print on their bulletin that father will be hearing Confessions on lets say Holy Tues & Thursday from like 2-5pm . Usually the days when the priest will be at the church most of the day to begin with.  Its usually a trickle of people. As I said these are large parishes, those receiving Communion on Palm Sunday, Holy Saturday and for the Liturgy after Anastasi are in the thousands. A very small number of them would have confessed. 


Edited by Kosta, 02 April 2015 - 06:04 AM.


#9 Geoffrey McKinney

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Posted 02 April 2015 - 06:26 AM

How often one goes for confession would depend on the parishioner of course, a parishioner with fervor will have spiritual father etc. But overall with the ethnic greek churches it plays a small role (and yes I would say this is typical). The priest never really brings it up. I have attended regularly two parishes for most of my life (two of the biggest in the country). During  Holy Week both will print on their bulletin that father will be hearing Confessions on lets say Holy Tues & Thursday from like 2-5pm . Usually the days when the priest will be at the church most of the day to begin with.  Its usually a trickle of people. As I said these are large parishes, those receiving Communion on Palm Sunday, Holy Saturday and for the Liturgy after Anastasi are in the thousands. A very small number of them would have confessed. 

 

Once again, thank you, Kosta, for your information. On a typical Sunday in your parish, do most of the members attending liturgy take Communion?



#10 Kosta

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Posted 02 April 2015 - 07:22 AM

Frequent communion is not the norm on your average Sunday most will not commune. The majority will commune sometime during holy Week, whether Palm Sunday, or the Vesperal Liturgies of St Basil and the Ressurection DL. We also have DL (St John Chrysostom) scheduled before the St Basil Liturgies which is attended by working people who are looking to commune (6 or 7 am). And they usually do attract a crowd.

 

Keep in mind I'm in NY, so theres alot of cradles that show up during this time of the year (unfortunately the only time).   


Edited by Kosta, 02 April 2015 - 07:23 AM.


#11 Father David Moser

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Posted 02 April 2015 - 05:26 PM

In the Russian Church, the "norm" is that one confesses before every communion.  In the case of person who communes regularly (at least weekly) it is often the case that they are not required to confess more than once a week.  For those who commune less frequently (say once a month) there is often additional prayer and fasting prescribed depending on the interval since their last communion.  During Holy Week, those who have confessed at the Palm Sunday Vigil (on Sat night) usually need not make additional confessions during Holy Week and Pascha in order to receive (there are presanctified liturgies prescribed M, Tu, W - a full liturgy on Thurs for the last supper and a full liturgy on Sat morning as well as the midnight liturgy on Pascha itself).

 

Fr David Moser



#12 Geoffrey McKinney

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Posted 02 April 2015 - 06:00 PM

In the Russian Church, the "norm" is that one confesses before every communion. 

Do we know the historical genesis of this? I'm surprised at the apparent paucity of primary documentation regarding the norm for confession in the Christian Roman Empire, or in medieval Russia, or anywhere else in the Orthodox world. I think such a collection of documents with accompanying analysis would make a fascinating book.



#13 Kosta

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Posted 07 April 2015 - 05:46 AM

I imagine many sources exist but we just dont know where to look.  They are also alot of things passed down or unrecorded when it comes to spiritual confessors and monk-elders on how things are done.

As an example of obscure practises,  it would probably be a surprise to most people that spiritual fathers and confessors played 'matchmakers' many times amongst their spiritual children and still do on occasion.  The whole thing being that their intimate knowledge of the faults and passions and character of their spiritual children make them ideal in pairing them together, etc. So theres alot we dont know and never came across documentation gathering accounts involving confession and how it evolved through the centuries. 



#14 Loucas

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Posted 11 April 2015 - 09:23 PM

I am also in the Greek Orthodox Church and awhare of the ancient methods, of course, confession comes after Christ had told the Apostles, who's sins you forgive are forgiven and those you retain are retained. Thus we confess to a Priest, it is a Holy Sacrament. The frequensy depends on the Father, I am told to make an effort to come every couple of months, and recieve communion every Sunday. The degree, or severity of the sin is irrelavant, it is sin, it distracts us from our Spiritual Journey " Theosis".

Kristos Anesti, Christ is Risen.






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