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Spiritual Father vs. Confessor vs. Regular Old Priest

OrthoNoob

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I've seen these terms used in several different ways, and I'm all confused. Can someone give me the straight dope on what the difference is (if any) between a spiritual father, a confessor, and your ordinary parish priest who hears your confessions? If/when I convert, I presumably will confess to one of my parish priests. Does that make him my confessor/spiritual father, or is that something else that only some people need? Please help this very confused recovering evangelical.
 

Melodist

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"Spiritual Father"
[quote author=http://orthodoxinfo.com/praxis/spiritualfather.aspx]One who climbs a mountain for the first time needs to follow a known route; and he needs to have with him, as companion and guide, someone who has been up before and is familiar with the way. To serve as such a companion and guide is precisely the role of the “Abba” or spiritual father[/quote]

A "confessor" is the one who hears your sacramental confessions.

Your "parish priest" is just that, the priest entrusted by the local bishop to oversee a particular parish.

A person can fill any one of these roles without necessarily filling either of the other two. Being new to the faith, I would personally recommend having your parish priest as your confessor and spiritual father, unless you have a reason for him to not fill those roles for you. If you have a monastery that you can travel to and have established a relationship with one of the monks there that you trust for guidance, then you can seek guidance from him on various matters.
 

Orthodox11

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Regular Old Priest - Anyone ordained to the holy priesthood

Confessor - The person you go to for confession. In the Greek tradition, a priest needs a special blessing to hear confessions, and so a priest with such a blessing is a 'confessor'. In the Russian tradition all priests can hear confessions from the moment of ordination, so the term is not as significant in that context.

Spiritual Father - someone experienced in the spiritual life (usually a priest, but often a simple monk/nun) to whom you go for spiritual guidance.
 

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OrthoNoob said:
I've seen these terms used in several different ways, and I'm all confused. Can someone give me the straight dope on what the difference is (if any) between a spiritual father, a confessor, and your ordinary parish priest who hears your confessions? If/when I convert, I presumably will confess to one of my parish priests. Does that make him my confessor/spiritual father, or is that something else that only some people need? Please help this very confused recovering evangelical.
For most people, if their parish priest hears their confession, he is their spiritual father.

Some people confess to a priest who is not their parish priest--most often a monastic priest. He would then be their spiritual father.

In rare cases, one may confess to a parish priest and another priest, with some arrangement between the two. The non-parish priest may be your spiritual father, but maybe you can't visit him often for confession, so he gives you a blessing to confess to your parish priest.

In even rarer cases, your spiritual father may be a monk or lay elder or abbot who is not a priest, so you have to go to a priest for absolution, but the spiritual father may hear your confession. This is extremely rare, and may not even exist in the United States.
 

Shanghaiski

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I should clarify, you may have a confessor, but not a spiritual father, per se. Your confessor may be your de facto spiritual father, but, things can be complicated here. IMHO, real spiritual fathers are rare and not everyone has one.

"For although you have many tutors in Christ, you have not many fathers," said St. Paul.
 

OrthoNoob

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Shanghaiski said:
In even rarer cases, your spiritual father may be a monk or lay elder or abbot who is not a priest, so you have to go to a priest for absolution, but the spiritual father may hear your confession. This is extremely rare, and may not even exist in the United States.
That is very interesting. I'd heard of this, but it always seemed odd to me. So the priest granting absolution doesn't know the penitent's sins? Does the monk have to talk to him and give him the OK to absolve the penitent, sort of a "yes, he's repentant" note or conversation?
 

Shanghaiski

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OrthoNoob said:
Shanghaiski said:
In even rarer cases, your spiritual father may be a monk or lay elder or abbot who is not a priest, so you have to go to a priest for absolution, but the spiritual father may hear your confession. This is extremely rare, and may not even exist in the United States.
That is very interesting. I'd heard of this, but it always seemed odd to me. So the priest granting absolution doesn't know the penitent's sins? Does the monk have to talk to him and give him the OK to absolve the penitent, sort of a "yes, he's repentant" note or conversation?
In these cases I would think there is communication, yes.
 

Benjamin the Red

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I like Orthodox11's basic run-down, while noting the points made by Shanghaiski. I tend to separate the terms "confessor" and "spiritual father." I tend to think of the latter as an elder-type figure who is also a confessor, but is more than just the priest who hears your confessions. I tend to think that, in parish life, one has a confessor, but that confessor may not be a true "spiritual father." I feel like that phrase belongs more in the monastic world than in a parish. The monks who are struggling on the spiritual "front lines" need to advanced counsel of such an elder (geronda in Greek, or staretz in Slavonic), whereas for us run-of-the-mill laity do just fine with a parish priest as our confessor.

OrthoNoob said:
Shanghaiski said:
In even rarer cases, your spiritual father may be a monk or lay elder or abbot who is not a priest, so you have to go to a priest for absolution, but the spiritual father may hear your confession. This is extremely rare, and may not even exist in the United States.
That is very interesting. I'd heard of this, but it always seemed odd to me. So the priest granting absolution doesn't know the penitent's sins? Does the monk have to talk to him and give him the OK to absolve the penitent, sort of a "yes, he's repentant" note or conversation?
Essentially, yes. The lay monk will hear the confession and give penance. When the penitent has satisfied his lay confessor, he will communicate to the priest that he requires absolution and will send the penitent to him, and then priest will do so. In a monastery, I'd assume face-to-face communication with all parties occurs regularly. Though, I know someone who's still in the world (though planning on becoming a monk in the future) who has a spiritual father in the monastery. He and the parish priest regularly email each other in order to coordinate!
 

OrthoNoob

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Thanks for the information, folks! I really appreciate it. I have one other question, though. What does one do if one's confessor is unavailable on a particular Sunday or if one is out of town or otherwise cannot confess to one's normal confessor? Is it acceptable to confess to any priest with the power to hear confessions? Does one have to get one's own confessor's blessing in advance? Does one have to "re-confess" one's sins to his normal confessor when the two get back together, to keep him "up to speed," so to speak?
 

Benjamin the Red

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OrthoNoob said:
Thanks for the information, folks! I really appreciate it. I have one other question, though. What does one do if one's confessor is unavailable on a particular Sunday or if one is out of town or otherwise cannot confess to one's normal confessor? Is it acceptable to confess to any priest with the power to hear confessions? Does one have to get one's own confessor's blessing in advance? Does one have to "re-confess" one's sins to his normal confessor when the two get back together, to keep him "up to speed," so to speak?
Generally, yes, you may confess to any priest. Usually, if our parish priest is to be out of town (like he is the next few weeks) he'll give a "blanket blessing" (usually stated from the ambo after Liturgy) for folks to give confessions to the visiting priests he's arranged to fill in. You may also confess to another priest if you're the one traveling. When I've done this, I do ask my own confessor's blessing, but he never objects and I get the feeling that's pretty standard. Though, keep in mind you also have to abide by the penance another priest gives you, which may be different from how your own confessor would handle it. That said, I've never confessed with a priest that actually gave penance to me if he wasn't my confessor. One even asked me, when I mentioned a particular sin was perennial for me,  "do you know what your confessor would assign to you as penance?" "Yes." I said. "Good," he answered, "Do that. I don't step on other priest's toes."

And also, yes, I will inform my own confessor next time I see him sacramentally about any confessions I made with another priest just so he's aware, but obviously he doesn't assign a penance or usually even do more than acknowledge it...I've already made that confession and it's forgiven, so my telling him is just an "FYI."
 

JamesRottnek

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Shanghaiski said:
In even rarer cases, your spiritual father may be a monk or lay elder or abbot who is not a priest, so you have to go to a priest for absolution, but the spiritual father may hear your confession. This is extremely rare, and may not even exist in the United States.
If I remember correctly, I know one person for whom this is the situation.
 

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I believe "Spiritual Father" has traditionally been something that monastics, or lay people with a close relationship to a monastery, have. People who submit to a spiritual father have to get approval from that person on everything; from who you will marry to what job you will take. And if they say no, you're bound to follow the command.

Your average believer has a Father-Confessor, a priest who hears confession and gives advice. In America these are often called "spiritual fathers" as well, especially in convert parishes.
 

Shanghaiski

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NicholasMyra said:
People who submit to a spiritual father have to get approval from that person on everything; from who you will marry to what job you will take. And if they say no, you're bound to follow the command.
I guess I don't see it as a command/approval relationship, but as an advising relationship. I think if one's spiritual father is giving commands or wants to approve everything, he has crossed a line and the relationship may be headed to spiritual abuse. Spiritual abuse is a major problem, particularly with some priests assuming the air of an elder, without actually having either the grace or the experience of one. Real elders do not control your life. Obedience to a spiritual father is not like obedience in the army or even the monastery.
 

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NicholasMyra said:
People who submit to a spiritual father have to get approval from that person on everything; from who you will marry to what job you will take. And if they say no, you're bound to follow the command.
I think that level of obedience is only applicable in a monastic setting. As Shanghaiski said, "commanding" should perhaps be a warning that this person isn't the real deal.
 

Carefree T

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Is it particularly common or expected that someone have a single confessor? At my parish, whatever priest is standing by the big bible where confession is heard that particular Sunday is the priest I confess to. Three out of our four priests have received my confessions.
 

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Greetings in that Divine and Most Precious Name of Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ!

Shanghaiski said:
I should clarify, you may have a confessor, but not a spiritual father, per se. Your confessor may be your de facto spiritual father, but, things can be complicated here. IMHO, real spiritual fathers are rare and not everyone has one.

"For although you have many tutors in Christ, you have not many fathers," said St. Paul.
This is very true. All the priests are our spiritual fathers, and the parish priest is who put in charge of our local parishes is all of our priest in the singular sense, but individuals to have a deeply involved spiritual father in the individual sense is indeed very rare.  I don't know what I would do without mine, he is so much more a father to me than any other man could be, and it has entirely been by the grace of God, because initially I didn't even really like him very much!

To the OP:

(1) Spiritual Father in the plural sense is a title applied collectively to all priests for all Christians, because they are our spiritual fathers, not necessarily our literal fathers (though sometimes both :) in fact I asked my confessor, "Abba, did you ever think that you would call your sons Father?" to which he laughed and said not at all), but they serve as paternal figures in our spiritual lives of prayer and growth in our relationship with God and with the Church.

(2) Confessors are priests who receive a special blessing by the Bishops to hear confessions and give absolution.  Not every priest is a confessor, in the Ethiopian tradition generally confessors are limited to monk-priests. The Latin Catholics actually have special university level training in psychology for their confessors. 

(3) Regular priests are the everyday priests in the Church, who may be monks, priests, bishops or all three combined :)  In the Oriental Orthodox priests can be married, but not monks, and Bishops must have been monks first. 

All priests are spiritual fathers, but only rarely to folks have an intimate and involved relationship with a priest they call them my spiritual father in the singular-possessive sense, and all confessors are priests but not all priests or spiritual fathers are confessors.  In other words, if A then C, if B then A and C, and all C are A but not all C are B.


stay blessed,
habte selassie
 

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HabteSelassie said:
Greetings in that Divine and Most Precious Name of Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ!

Shanghaiski said:
I should clarify, you may have a confessor, but not a spiritual father, per se. Your confessor may be your de facto spiritual father, but, things can be complicated here. IMHO, real spiritual fathers are rare and not everyone has one.

"For although you have many tutors in Christ, you have not many fathers," said St. Paul.
This is very true. All the priests are our spiritual fathers, and the parish priest is who put in charge of our local parishes is all of our priest in the singular sense, but individuals to have a deeply involved spiritual father in the individual sense is indeed very rare.  I don't know what I would do without mine, he is so much more a father to me than any other man could be, and it has entirely been by the grace of God, because initially I didn't even really like him very much!

To the OP:

(1) Spiritual Father in the plural sense is a title applied collectively to all priests for all Christians, because they are our spiritual fathers, not necessarily our literal fathers (though sometimes both :) in fact I asked my confessor, "Abba, did you ever think that you would call your sons Father?" to which he laughed and said not at all), but they serve as paternal figures in our spiritual lives of prayer and growth in our relationship with God and with the Church.

(2) Confessors are priests who receive a special blessing by the Bishops to hear confessions and give absolution.  Not every priest is a confessor, in the Ethiopian tradition generally confessors are limited to monk-priests. The Latin Catholics actually have special university level training in psychology for their confessors. 

(3) Regular priests are the everyday priests in the Church, who may be monks, priests, bishops or all three combined :)  In the Oriental Orthodox priests can be married, but not monks, and Bishops must have been monks first. 

All priests are spiritual fathers, but only rarely to folks have an intimate and involved relationship with a priest they call them my spiritual father in the singular-possessive sense, and all confessors are priests but not all priests or spiritual fathers are confessors.  In other words, if A then C, if B then A and C, and all C are A but not all C are B.


stay blessed,
habte selassie
Habte, in the Ethiopian Tradition ALL priests can hear confession. no special disposition from a bishop is required, a priest can hear confession from day one of his ordination.however Father Confessors are picked by the penitent and its a special relationship and the person confesses to only one father confessor as long as each are alive and available to each other geographically and etc. if there is a need to change father confessor a blessing is typically requested by the person and  given by the previous father confessor and the transition is made.

Spiritual fathers can also be father confessors and they usually are, however they can also be lay monastics that one seeks spiritual advise and discloses their spiritual life to, without  receiving absolution from.

Priests are all that are ordained into the priesthood. they all can hear confession, they can be spiritual fathers, however chose wisely for a spiritual father as the spiritual life requires experience as much if not more than  theoretical knowledge. :)
 

NicholasMyra

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Shanghaiski said:
NicholasMyra said:
People who submit to a spiritual father have to get approval from that person on everything; from who you will marry to what job you will take. And if they say no, you're bound to follow the command.
I guess I don't see it as a command/approval relationship, but as an advising relationship. I think if one's spiritual father is giving commands or wants to approve everything, he has crossed a line and the relationship may be headed to spiritual abuse. Spiritual abuse is a major problem, particularly with some priests assuming the air of an elder, without actually having either the grace or the experience of one. Real elders do not control your life. Obedience to a spiritual father is not like obedience in the army or even the monastery.
Orthodox11 said:
NicholasMyra said:
People who submit to a spiritual father have to get approval from that person on everything; from who you will marry to what job you will take. And if they say no, you're bound to follow the command.
I think that level of obedience is only applicable in a monastic setting.
Which is why I said:
NicholasMyra said:
monastics, or lay people with a close relationship to a monastery
 

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Carefree T said:
Is it particularly common or expected that someone have a single confessor? At my parish, whatever priest is standing by the big bible where confession is heard that particular Sunday is the priest I confess to. Three out of our four priests have received my confessions.
It is certainly more beneficial. A person who only hears 1/3 of your confessions will not be in a position to advise you in the same way as one who hears all your confessions. Different priests will also give you different advice, and were you to confess the same sin to two or more, you would probably end up with as many different suggestions for how to deal with it. Confession should not simply be something mechanical, whereby you just go and say your sins out loud, then have the slate wiped clean by a magical incantation, but is an opportunity for real and meaningful spiritual growth.

The exception might be where you are only able to see your spiritual father infrequently. In that case you might go to whomever's at hand and confess regularly to receive absolution, but then make a general confession to your spiritual father at a later date when you get a chance to meet him, at which point he will advise you.

However, since this is not the case for the majority of people, confessing consistently to one priest whenever possible will be far more beneficial.
 

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Orthodox11 said:
Carefree T said:
Is it particularly common or expected that someone have a single confessor? At my parish, whatever priest is standing by the big bible where confession is heard that particular Sunday is the priest I confess to. Three out of our four priests have received my confessions.
It is certainly more beneficial. A person who only hears 1/3 of your confessions will not be in a position to advise you in the same way as one who hears all your confessions. Different priests will also give you different advice, and were you to confess the same sin to two or more, you would probably end up with as many different suggestions for how to deal with it. Confession should not simply be something mechanical, whereby you just go and say your sins out loud, then have the slate wiped clean by a magical incantation, but is an opportunity for real and meaningful spiritual growth.

The exception might be where you are only able to see your spiritual father infrequently. In that case you might go to whomever's at hand and confess regularly to receive absolution, but then make a general confession to your spiritual father at a later date when you get a chance to meet him, at which point he will advise you.

However, since this is not the case for the majority of people, confessing consistently to one priest whenever possible will be far more beneficial.
Thank you for the thought-out response. At my church one priest stands where confessions are taken and it often changes who that is week by week, so there's no option if you need to confess. That's why I wondered if it was common to have just one confessor, because my parish never has more than one of the priests available for confession and I try to confess every week (my Roman Catholic baggage).
 

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Carefree T said:
Orthodox11 said:
Carefree T said:
Is it particularly common or expected that someone have a single confessor? At my parish, whatever priest is standing by the big bible where confession is heard that particular Sunday is the priest I confess to. Three out of our four priests have received my confessions.
It is certainly more beneficial. A person who only hears 1/3 of your confessions will not be in a position to advise you in the same way as one who hears all your confessions. Different priests will also give you different advice, and were you to confess the same sin to two or more, you would probably end up with as many different suggestions for how to deal with it. Confession should not simply be something mechanical, whereby you just go and say your sins out loud, then have the slate wiped clean by a magical incantation, but is an opportunity for real and meaningful spiritual growth.

The exception might be where you are only able to see your spiritual father infrequently. In that case you might go to whomever's at hand and confess regularly to receive absolution, but then make a general confession to your spiritual father at a later date when you get a chance to meet him, at which point he will advise you.

However, since this is not the case for the majority of people, confessing consistently to one priest whenever possible will be far more beneficial.
Thank you for the thought-out response. At my church one priest stands where confessions are taken and it often changes who that is week by week, so there's no option if you need to confess. That's why I wondered if it was common to have just one confessor, because my parish never has more than one of the priests available for confession and I try to confess every week (my Roman Catholic baggage).
I wouldn't consider weekly confession to be something negative, Roman Catholic baggage. Many Orthodox people confess weekly. Many others do not.
 

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Shanghaiski said:
Carefree T said:
Orthodox11 said:
Carefree T said:
Is it particularly common or expected that someone have a single confessor? At my parish, whatever priest is standing by the big bible where confession is heard that particular Sunday is the priest I confess to. Three out of our four priests have received my confessions.
It is certainly more beneficial. A person who only hears 1/3 of your confessions will not be in a position to advise you in the same way as one who hears all your confessions. Different priests will also give you different advice, and were you to confess the same sin to two or more, you would probably end up with as many different suggestions for how to deal with it. Confession should not simply be something mechanical, whereby you just go and say your sins out loud, then have the slate wiped clean by a magical incantation, but is an opportunity for real and meaningful spiritual growth.

The exception might be where you are only able to see your spiritual father infrequently. In that case you might go to whomever's at hand and confess regularly to receive absolution, but then make a general confession to your spiritual father at a later date when you get a chance to meet him, at which point he will advise you.

However, since this is not the case for the majority of people, confessing consistently to one priest whenever possible will be far more beneficial.
Thank you for the thought-out response. At my church one priest stands where confessions are taken and it often changes who that is week by week, so there's no option if you need to confess. That's why I wondered if it was common to have just one confessor, because my parish never has more than one of the priests available for confession and I try to confess every week (my Roman Catholic baggage).
I wouldn't consider weekly confession to be something negative, Roman Catholic baggage. Many Orthodox people confess weekly. Many others do not.
I didn't mean to imply it was negative baggage :) Just that Catholics are told that weekly confession is needed while the Orthodox seem to leave "confessed recently" up to the interpretation of the individual. At my particular parish me and a couple (maybe three) others are the ones who go weekly. Some approach the chalice because they confessed "this year."
 

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Just a couple of points - I first took exception to the comment about a 'regular old priest', but I realize that was simply a poor choice of words - not a negative comment about parish priests. They are at the front line and in the Slavic tradition, for most faithful, they serve the three roles. The concept of a pastor not being 'blessed' to grant absolution is foreign to the Slavs, although I understand that it was common in  others. I will stand by what I always say - establish a personal/professional relationship with your pastor and go from there. (By personal I don't mean 'familiar' as in 'buddies.)
 

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Carefree T said:
Shanghaiski said:
Carefree T said:
Orthodox11 said:
Carefree T said:
Is it particularly common or expected that someone have a single confessor? At my parish, whatever priest is standing by the big bible where confession is heard that particular Sunday is the priest I confess to. Three out of our four priests have received my confessions.
It is certainly more beneficial. A person who only hears 1/3 of your confessions will not be in a position to advise you in the same way as one who hears all your confessions. Different priests will also give you different advice, and were you to confess the same sin to two or more, you would probably end up with as many different suggestions for how to deal with it. Confession should not simply be something mechanical, whereby you just go and say your sins out loud, then have the slate wiped clean by a magical incantation, but is an opportunity for real and meaningful spiritual growth.

The exception might be where you are only able to see your spiritual father infrequently. In that case you might go to whomever's at hand and confess regularly to receive absolution, but then make a general confession to your spiritual father at a later date when you get a chance to meet him, at which point he will advise you.

However, since this is not the case for the majority of people, confessing consistently to one priest whenever possible will be far more beneficial.
Thank you for the thought-out response. At my church one priest stands where confessions are taken and it often changes who that is week by week, so there's no option if you need to confess. That's why I wondered if it was common to have just one confessor, because my parish never has more than one of the priests available for confession and I try to confess every week (my Roman Catholic baggage).
I wouldn't consider weekly confession to be something negative, Roman Catholic baggage. Many Orthodox people confess weekly. Many others do not.
I didn't mean to imply it was negative baggage :) Just that Catholics are told that weekly confession is needed while the Orthodox seem to leave "confessed recently" up to the interpretation of the individual. At my particular parish me and a couple (maybe three) others are the ones who go weekly. Some approach the chalice because they confessed "this year."
That's odd. I'm used to people confessing infrequently (much to the frustration of many Romanian priests, the laiety often seem to believe that it's Tradition to only commune during fast periods) but if they don't confess they don't (and can't) approach the chalice. Of course this often means that Romanians other than children receive the Eucharist at most maybe 3 or 4 times a year, hence the frustration of the priests. I've always taken this as read (not the infrequency of communion, though, that's something I still find bizarre) - I wouldn't dream of approaching the chalice without confessing first. I'm surprised to hear then that any Orthodox do.

James
 
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