Confessing in the Presence of a Priest
If we can make confession to God without the priest, then why do we have confession with a priest present?
In the early Church, confession was public; that is, one confessed one’s sins in the presence of the entire faith community. When this became impractical, it was the priest who “stood in” for the community, as its presiding officer and as its witness to the penitent’s repentance.
Further, while we can indeed confess directly to God—even a casual reading of the daily prayers reveals that we should do this—we often find that we need help and advice in overcoming the very things we have confessed.
We do not confess “to” the priest; rather, we confess to God “in the presence of” the priest who, as the prayer before Confession clearly states, is God’s “witness” and who, having witnessed our confession of sins offers pastoral advice on how we can better our lives and overcome the very things we can confess. Just as one would not attempt to diagnose, much less cure, one’s own physical ailments, so too one should not attempt to diagnose, much less cure, one’s own spiritual ailments.
It is often the case that those who object to revealing their sins in the presence of a priest or to seek his advice have no qualms about revealing their sins to their neighbors, friends, psychiatrists, and so on, usually with the intention of obtaining advice—advice that is not necessarily godly or spiritually profitable, or even just plain “good,” for that matter.
Many years ago, a woman cornered my wife at coffee hour and told her that she was having an affair. She asked my wife’s advice.
My wife advised her that perhaps she should speak to me about this. The women replied, “But he’s a priest—I couldn’t tell him that!” This is somewhat akin to the person who finds a huge lump on his or her body, goes to the doctor, and then asks the receptionist to diagnose it. No doubt the receptionist would suggest that he or she have a seat and allow the doctor to look at it, only to find that the person with the huge lump replies, “But the lump’s much, much to big for me to show to the doctor!”
So, we confess in the presence of the priest to acknowledge that our sins, whether we wish to accept it or not, affect the entire faith community on the one hand, and that we cannot “heal ourselves” on the other. The priest is there to help us overcome those things for which we seek forgiveness, to give advice that a friend or neighbor might not be in a position to give, and to bear witness on behalf of the faith community, of which he is the spiritual father, that we have indeed repented and been forgiven by God.
Column by Fr. John Matusiak, reprinted from the web page of the Orthodox Church in America
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