Greetings and peace in our Lord Jesus Christ!  This page is a presentation of the Eastern Catholic practice of what the Roman Catholic Church calls “The Sacrament of Reconciliation.”

As we begin, let us remember that we are in the presence of God.

Let us pray: O Lord of Powers, be with us, for in the time of trouble we have no other help but You.  O Lord, God of Powers, have mercy on us.  Amen.

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The Importance of Studying the Eastern Practice of This Sacrament

Why is it important for Roman Catholics to study the Eastern Catholic Church’s practice of this Sacrament?  (And for the primary readership of this blog– seminarians in St. Louis, Missouri– why must future Roman Catholic priests understand better the East?)

1)     they are our Catholic brothers and sisters.  We should know about our family.

2)     There are three Eastern Catholic Churches in St. Louis (not to mention the other dioceses represented in this seminary).  In St. Louis, these three are the Maronites, the Ukrainians, and the Byzantines.

3)     So many of the Eastern Catholics, many of whose church is not in St. Louis, find themselves going to a Roman Catholic Church.  We must be aware of this and become more sensitive to their needs (some grew up in the Eastern tradition, while some are Eastern in name only).

“… Vatican II said that ‘Provision must be made therefore everywhere in the world to protect and advance all these individual churches’” (OE §4, cit in (NCCB, p. 29, Eastern Catholics in the United States of America [ECUSA])

“Because of religious persecution, war and civil disorders, the twentieth century has witnessed an unprecedented emigration of Eastern Catholics from the lands of their origins.  the resulting situation is that the Eastern Churches have become everywhere a minority group, struggling to maintain their apostolic faith and traditions. … In the land of the ‘diaspora’ they are cultural and ecclesial minorities, stuggling to maintain their identity”(The New Latin code of Canon Law and Eastern Catholics (CCEC); cit in ECUSA p. 7)

“In his apostolic letter Orientale Lumen [OL] of May 2, 1995, Pope John Paul II said that a “conversion is … required of the Latin Church, that she may respect and fully appreciate the dignity of Eastern Christians, and accept gratefully the spiritual treasures of which the Eastern Catholic Churches are the bearers, to the benefit of the entire catholic Communion” (§21).  The pope called upon the Latin Church to “show concretely , far more than in the past, how much she esteems and admires the Christian East and how essential she considers its contribution to the full realization of the Church’s universality” (ibid)” (ECUSA, p. 5).

“Hence it is not merely a question of the preservation of the Eastern Churches just for their own sake.  The traditions and spiritual riches are not the exclusive possession of the Eastern Churches, for they form part of the patrimony of the entire Church of Christ.  The sharing of the riches of the faith and traditions of the East nurtures and strengthens the unity in diversity of the Church.” (ECUSA, pp.5-6).

“These elements are capable of giving a more complete Christian response to the expectations of the men and women of today.  Indeed, the comparison to any other culture, the Christian East has a unique and privileged role as the original setting where the Church was born” (OL §5).

“Where in the West there are no Eastern priests to look after the faithful of the Eastern Catholic Churches, Latin Ordinaries and their co-workers [that’s us] should see that those faithful grow in the awareness and knowledge of their own tradition, and they should be invited to co-operate actively in the growth of the Christian community by making their own particular contribution” (JPII, OL; quoted on p. 23 in ECUSA).

“Catholics may receive absolution from any priest belonging to either the Latin or the Eastern Churches provided he has the faculty to administer the Holy Mystery of Penance.  However, priests of the Latin Church hearing the confession of members of Eastern Churches should exercise particular care, as the perception of failing towards God and one’s neighbor is deeply formed, and expressed, in terms drawn from one’s own liturgical and religious experience.” (NCCB, ECUSA, p. 29)

Priests of the Latin Church need to be aware that the automatic penalties in the law of the Latin Church are not found in that of the Eastern Churches.  On the other hand, the practice of “reserved sins” is still retained in the Eastern Churches.

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The Geneology of the Eastern Catholic Church

The history of the Eastern Catholic Church is very beautiful, but it is also complex.  For the purposes of this project, it is helpful to know the origins and the names of the churches.  This graph will be of great help.  (click image for larger size)

(taken from Light of the East: A Guide to Eastern Catholicism for Western Catholics.  George Appleyard.  p. 55)

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Theology of the Sacrament

The sacraments in the East are understood in ways that differ from the Roman Catholic Church.

“These sacraments are understood less as isolated acts through which a ‘particular’ grace is bestowed upon individuals by properly appointed ministers acting with proper intention, and more as the aspects of a unique mystery of the Church, in which God shares his divine life with humanity.”[1]

Particularly, in the Sacrament of Reconciliation, emphasis is placed upon the healing power of Christ.  The prayers of absolution, as we have seen, highlight the power of Christ through the priest– the emphasis is on Christ who absolves: “We go to the priest as to a physician who has received the power of healing in the name of the Lord, as pointed out by the Council of Intrullo (692): ‘Those who have received the power to bind sins or retain them should behave like careful physicians who find the healing remedy for each individual penitent and his particular sins.’”  Thus, the absolution formulas in the East are often called “deprecative,” that is, “formulas which beg the Lord to give pardon, but which make no express mention of the ministerial action of the priest” (Chapungco, p. 106).  Nevertheless, these formulas do absolve the penitent from sins and have always been considered to do so (Chapungco, p. 107).

This is a departure from the Roman Catholic understanding which highlights the importance of the priest in the act of absolution: “I absolve you…”  Interestingly, as many Eastern Churches entered into communion with Rome, they often incorporated this Roman understanding, thus using two prayers of absolution in the sacrament.

(Perhaps this element of Eastern sacramental theology can shed light on the Roman’s current Book of Blessings).

But, to add not one more bit of clarity to the matter, in the Syriac tradition, Christians “do not particularly distinguish between the formulas of absolution and the prayers that accompany them” (Chapungco, 107).

It is also important to note that “In Byzantine theology, there is no actual listing of “mortal” and “venial” sins.  The prayers of the Sacrament of Penance seek a general forgiveness of sin “deliberate and indeliberate, committed by word and deed, by day or night….”

“Confession is regarded as an extension of the holy waters of baptism.  Hence it is sometimes called the “second baptism.” (Byzantine Daily Worship, p. 927).

[1] George Appleyard.  Light of the East. Co-published by Ukrainian Catholic Diocese of St. Josaphat in Parm and the National Conference for Catechetical Leadership, 2000.  p. 20.  Citing Father john Meyendorff

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The History of the Sacrament

In order to understand better the theology behind the sacrament, we should look also at the history of the sacrament.

“During the first five centuries of the Christian era, Syriac and Byzantine Christianity would have come to possess the apostolic canons and constitutions, as well as the canons of the Councils of Nicea and Constantinople, and of the Synods of Neocaesarea, Gangre, Laodicea, and Antioch…  Later the discipline of penance would become quite varied, eventually declining and even falling prey to abuses among the Jacobites and Nestorians.” (Chapungco, p. 105)

“East and West began to diverge as the West began to include more and more acts in its catalogue of offenses that required the intervention of the Church’s authorities.  For its part, the East left it more and more to spiritual directors and holy people to help to heal the sinfulness of those who had recourse to them.  The great theologian and bishop Saint Symeon of Thessalonica (died 1022) went so far as to remove the hearing of confessions from the work of the clergy and entrusted it exclusively to the ministry of the monastics—lay monastics at that!  This divergence points to two very different attitudes between the two Churches. …

“The east tends to use a medical model for the sacrament.  That is, a spiritual guide discerns spirits, the way a physician would examine symptoms, and prescribes remedies for the spiritual illness if needed.  Generally in the East the ministry of reconciliation is entrusted to those who prove themselves skilled at it.  Priestly ordination alone does not necessarily qualify one to perform this ministry in some Easter Churches. [comment: the same is true in the West]

… “When penance was no longer a lengthy public matter, the Western Church took the concept [of indulgences] and applied it to the residual punishment due to sin that an individual might face after death.  The Byzantine Church simply discarded references to indulgences in its penitential practices.” (Appleyard, pp. 22-23)

It is interesting to point out that, in Russia:

“At diocesan conferences after the first [Russian] revolution of 1905, in several places the clergy resolved ‘to abolish private confession and replace it with general confession…. This amounts to abolishing the Orthodox Faith, since without confession the attitude toward religions life as a constant inner struggle is lost, and it is precisely this which distinguishes our faith from the Lutheran and Stundist heresies [Stundists were the forerunners of the Russian Baptists].” (Confession, p. 13)

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Names of the Sacrament

In the Roman Catholic Church, there are many names for this sacrament: the Sacrament of Penance, the Sacrament of Reconciliation, the Sacrament of Confession, etc.

In the Eastern Catholic Church, there are many names for this sacrament as well.  The Greeks, Russians, Bulgarians, Ukrainians, and Melkites– to name a few– call the sacrament “The Mystery of Forgiveness.”  (You will also note that each of these churches are Byzantine).  Other titles for this sacrament include: The Order of Penance, The Ceremony of Forgiveness, The Sacrament of Confession, and Second Baptism.

These names are not regulated and, in many cases, are the result of historical development (for example, you may note that some of the names match those used in the Roman Catholic Church) or theological emphasis (as in the case of the name “Second Baptism”).

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Where Does the Sacrament Take Place?

As mentioned in the Code of Canons of the Oriental Churches (1990), the place of the sacrament is ordinarily to take place within in the church and according to the law of the particular church.

For most of the Byzantine churches, the sacrament takes place before the iconostasis.  What is an iconostasis?  (click on the image below for a larger size)

The Iconostasis is what sets apart the sanctuary from the rest of the parish church.  During the sacrament, you would stand before the Icon of Jesus Christ, facing (with the priest) the icon itself.

In other Eastern churches– for example, in the Maronite rite — the sacrament does not take place before the iconostasis, but rather it takes place in a confessional.  This is very Roman and is the result of that Eastern church’s assimilation of Roman practice.  (Chupungco says that none of the Eastern Churches use the Roman confessional, but the experience of persons who attend a local Maronite church disprove that).

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