Confession and Repentance in Ancient Times and Today

05 June 2014
Spiritual director of the Transfiguration brotherhood, Fr. Georgy Kochetkov, on the meaning of repentance and informal preparation for confession

Q: Can we say that in the early church a lifetime confession was the only sacrament of repentance?

Fr. Georgy Kochetkov: A lifetime confession would hardly have been so called in the ancient church. There was repentance before baptism, which more often than not wasn’t exactly a confession, by which I mean a listing and acknowledging of particular sins. Sometimes those who were baptized confessed their major sins. Do you remember what is said about this in the Acts of the Apostles: “Many of them also which used curious arts brought their books together, and burned them before all men”. (Acts 19:19)? This means, of course, that they repented – but this is still a repentance before baptism, rather than a confession, as such.

Q: Did confession for believers – that is those who were already baptized – appear with time?

Fr. Georgy Kochetkov: In the beginning, there was only the initial repentance in church, by which a person repents of his or her sinfulness before baptism. This initial repentance is obligatory before baptism and cannot be repeated, because it can occur only once in the person's life, if this person is an adult, of course, baptized consciously.

Over time, there appeared a second sacrament of repentance – an opportunity to repent of mortal sins committed after baptism, and to return to the church. The II century was the century of disputes on this subject. Whether it should be possible to readmit to church those who had sinned mortally after being baptized and excommunicated was a very serious question. Nevertheless, the church decided to accept sinners in the manner shown by the Apostle Paul, who at first “handed over to Satan” the Corinthian sinner (1 Cor 5:5), but then, having seen the sincerity of repentance shown both by the man and his community, he returned the man to church and praised the zeal of the community. A second repentance (of mortal sins) must necessarily happen before a representative of the church. It is associated with mortal sins and, by the way, is not applicable in the case of little children. This is a repentance of mortal sins that constitute ethical violation – of a serious violation of the commandments – in fact, of the primary commandments.

Mortal sins that constitute ascetic violations do not lead to excommunication. If you repent, for example, of the mortal sins of pride, gluttony or wrath, no one will excommunicate you from church or communion. The third sacrament of repentance includes repentance of mortal sins that constitute ascetic violations and of venial (non-mortal) sins where the violation is of either an ethical or ascetic character. This third type of repentance appeared even later, out of the idea of improving oneself according to the principle “be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” in light of the experience of monastic, spiritual advice. These combined in one to become the third sort of sacrament – of personal improvement – which we now call the sacrament of repentance, often confusing it with the second. This third repentance does not require any special sacramental signs or special prayer of absolution. This was explained well by Simeon the New Theologian. The third repentance is a confession – a disclosure of thoughts – and can be made in front of a spiritual father, who need not be ordained, a spiritual mother, or any other spiritually experienced person: a spirit-bearer.

Here I should mention that this third sort of repentance is not exactly a sacrament in the formal sense, because it is not necessarily required of everybody, nor does it require the presence of the whole church. The church may understand it as a sacrament, as is usual nowadays, but it may also not understand it as a sacrament; as has been true historically, it may be understood as a sort of  soul-saving process – spiritual guidance or direction, so to speak, and not more. Orthodox ascetic literature on this topic includes a lot of depth psychology: all this is related to the third type of sacrament of repentance.

So that is how three sacraments of repentance – each very distinct in sense and meaning – appeared in the history of the church. This is described in my Mystagogy (Sacramental Theology) lectures. In fact, the crucial initial repentance in church has nearly been forgotten.

Q: And yet how do people understand confession today? And do the faithful understand confession differently from non-churched people?

Fr. Georgy Kochetkov: Today confession is generally understood in psychotherapeutic terms. Someone might come to confession simply to take a weight off his conscience - as he understands this, of course. Everyone judges in his own way: some understand confession in psychotherapeutic terms, others egotistically or individualistically. Rarely does anyone understand this sacrament of repentance as ecclesial.

Many people do not see any difference between the second and the third sacraments of repentance, especially as our modern rite is organized in such a way that its greater, most ancient and important part relates to the second sacrament of repentance, whereas some individual elements relate to the third sacrament of repentance. For example, our current “prayer of absolution” is not actually a sacramental prayer. Rather, it is just an announcement about what is happening in church and a prayer to the Lord for forgiveness. Not more. This prayer appeared in our tradition only after Metropolitan Peter (Mogila). The Greeks do not have it in their liturgical practice. It can be completely omitted, in which case the prayer of absolution will be that which incorporates the words: “Reconcile him with Thy Holy Church and join him to it”. But being joined to the church is only possible after excommunication; excommunication, in turn, can only be the result of a mortal sin, which means this prayer is an element of the second sacrament of repentance.

So, as you can see, everything is so messed up, so confused that it is not surprising that sometimes neither priests nor lay people understand which sacrament of repentance is being discussed. Sometimes they don’t even care. The main thing is that a person has repented, has opened his soul, named his sin, whether of thought, word or deed. And whether commandments relating to mortal or venial sins have been broken, whether ethical, ascetic or mystical sins committed - it is all the same! Just come out with everything that burdens your soul. This state of affairs bears witness to the degradation and loss of communality and the resulting lack of spiritual sensitivity among priests.

Many people believe that the sacrament of repentance is nearly the most important sacrament, as, for example, some people were saying at today’s conference. But then we have to ask ourselves: which sacrament of repentance is it - the first, the second or the third? That's the point. It is necessary to understand the sacrament of repentance. Our church must understand and adjust its teaching on the sacrament of repentance taking into consideration materials that have been accumulated over the course of its history. These materials have accumulated gradually and were not all just there in the beginning, as I have already said: originally, the church had only the initial sacrament of repentance, and only this was understood to be repentance.

A priest who hears a confession should understand what the person is talking about. If he is confessing people, then he needs to know at once what rite is the most appropriate to use, and this depends on what a person is repenting of. Different prayer rites may be used, and the implications and consequences for the confessing individual should correspond to the rite which is used.

Q: At the pastoral roundtable at today’s conference we discussed the fact that people do not have enough trust in priests or in the church. What do you think people need to know to acquire at least some trust?

Fr. Georgy Kochetkov: They should understand that the priest is a real representative of the church, that he is a believer, an honest man, and that he will keep the secrecy of the confessional. They should also understand that he is senior to them in a spiritual sense, and that when hearing confessions, he makes his recommendations out of love and faith, and in the hope that by God’s help there will be healing in the life of the confessing individual. One needs simply to know that the priest isn’t acting out of his own will; rather, he is specifically representing the church.

And of course, you have the right to choose your own confessor. I really like the old Russian proverb, which judges those who consider every priest to be a spiritual father. Do you remember this proverb? («Что ни поп, то батька») After all, not every priest can be a true father to you – a real “dad” or “papa”. It is no coincidence that in the Greek Church even nowadays not every priest can hear a confession – to hear confessions a priest must have a special document certifying that he has the special blessing of the bishop. True, the faithful are not required to make their confessions before each communion in the Greek Church, meaning that their confessors are not under so much pressure.

Q: In our times not everyone has the opportunity to make a lifetime confession following a long period of catechesis. In other words, not everyone has the opportunity to participate in the sacrament of the first repentance. Often people come to confession with some utilitarian purpose rather than in search of Christ. What do you think people need to know about confession and how should they prepare in order to achieve real depth and get results?

Fr. Georgy Kochetkov: Confession is a purifying and unburdening of the conscience; it is, generally speaking, an opportunity to reconcile one's life with the will of God. But repentance begins with different levels – from different floors, if you will – of the spiritual life, and a person has to understand what kind of repentance they are making: is it the first sacrament of repentance, the second or the third?

One needs simply to purify his conscience, to be perfectly honest, to know the commandments, to know where a sin begins and where it ends; we must know where it is possible to say that a sin is a sin, as opposed to simple human weakness. We have to be able to distinguish between weaknesses and sins, and so on – there are a lot of things to know and understand.

In preparation for the sacrament of repentance, you need to imagine that you are standing before God and showing your conscience to Him; your repentance will depend on your own “norm” – the touchstone around which you understand and adjust yourself. The reference point can be very different for different people: perhaps you have been a non-believer who did not follow God at all; or perhaps you have been following Him, but have fallen so badly that you have slidden into deadly sins and now you cannot stand up and move on; or perhaps you are just imperfect and have many sins every day and hour in word, deed or thought and now wish to rid yourself of the most disturbing of these and purify your conscience by the grace of God. Whatever the case, you have come to repent to God and you do it in church. The church, in its turn, is trying to help you and raise you up.

Interview by Daria Makeyeva and Anastasia Nakonechnaya
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