Just practically speaking, how do the Orthodox do confession?
Taking into account that every priest conducts this sacrament a little differently, what follows is an example of how the Sacrament of Repentance is conducted at my mission church Saint Ignatius of Antioch in Mesa. AZ. Confessions are heard 30 minutes prior to every service or by appointment. The best time is 4:30 p.m. every Saturday.
A person enters church and stands up and says the Trisagion Prayers and Psalm 50. The penitent may also want to pray the Prayer of Repentance. After finishing their prayers, the penitent is welcome to sit and meditate on the content of the confession. If they have a written list, they may want to take a few minutes to look that over. When it is their turn, the penitent approaches the priest and kneels down. The priest places his epitrachelion (Greek for “around the neck” or “stole” as it’s called in the West) over your head, and the rite begins. Then the priest gives the invitation to confess, “My brother, inasmuch as you have come to God and to me be not ashamed for you speak to God before whom you stand.”
We should take care to confess all the secret and hidden things as well as sin that has gone before us or trails after us. We prepare looking at the things we have said, done or thought that we should not have. The one confessing should name what the sin is and frequency. The priest only needs a general idea. Only as much detail as the priest needs to have a general understanding is required. If the priest is not clear concerning something, he will ask questions. A penitent should not volunteer, nor a priest request, an inordinate amount of detail – especially regarding sexual matters. Again, a priest will ask questions if it is necessary to establish a proper diagnosis.
Penitents must remember that they are there to confess their own sins, not the sins of others. If for instance, one is harboring unforgiveness due to an offense caused by another, the focus should be on the unforgiveness in one’s own heart, not on the nature of the offense that occasioned it. Oftentimes penitents will spend much more time talking about how they have been wronged than the nature of their own sin!
It is also critical to recognize that the purpose of confession is to confess one’s sins, and not the place to discuss one’s problems, worries about other people, theological questions, or concerns about parish life. It is a common mistake for people to approach confession to seek “answers” for their problems or questions. Yet this is not the purpose of confession. If one has such concerns, then it is appropriate to call to talk to the priest. It is not that such issues are unimportant, it is simply that confession is not designed to address them. The critical element in confession is the simple confession of one’s sins. This is what we do there. We openly acknowledge the specific ways we have failed God.
As one’s specific sins are being confessed, the priest may offer some brief words of counsel, ask some questions, or assign a penance. After all is finished, the priest will pray the prayer of absolution. Absolution is the assurance that the sins one has confessed are indeed forgiven by God.
The absolution ends with the words “Now, having no further care for the sins you have confessed, you may go in peace.” The penitent departs in the faith that his sins are indeed forgiven. Then he may return to the pew and pray the “Prayers following Confession.”
(With special thanks to the Very Rev. Paul O’Callaghan, Protopresbyter)