The Rites – Introduction

“… neither to his father nor mother, nor wife, nor friend, nor king will a Christian reveal those secrets of his soul which he now reveals to God and to you.  And if a surgeon wields his knife with great care and fear, in order to perform his necessary but dangerous incisions into the human body, then, of course, you must tremble and pray many times more that you will heal, and not kill, the immortal soul.” (Confession, p. 14)

The celebration of the sacrament takes various forms, depending upon which church you attend.  Individual rites often vary according to the degree of assimilation of Roman practices.  For example, the Maronite church– which never separated from Rome– uses the “Tridentine” rite.

The Byzantine churches– those that have been re-united with Rome– often incorporate traditionally Roman elements in their prayers and customs, but not always.  For example, some use the Roman form of absolution, others do not; some use confessionals, many do not.  Unfortunately, many Eastern Catholic Churches have been so decimated by wars and exile that many rites are not easily found except through attendance at the particular church or through ancient texts which may no longer be used in daily practice.

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The Rites – The Byzantine Churches

Here, we provide two examples of the individual rite of confession as seen in the Byzantine churches.  The first example is more Eastern whereas the second is more Roman.

The Administration of Confession (from “The Offices of the Oriental Church” ed by Nicholas Bjerring; Ams Press, New York, 1969; pp. 104-108)

The priest leads each penitent alone, not two or more at once, with uncovered head before the image of our Lord Jesus Christ, and begins: Blessed be our God always, now and ever, and to age of ages Amen.  Glory be to Thee, O our God, Glory be to Thee.

Heavenly King, Comforter, etc. Then the Trisagion: O Holy God, etc. After: Our Father, etc., Lord have mercy.  Glory be to the Father, etc. 

Then: Come, let us worship before the King, our God. Come, let us worship and fall down before Christ, the King, our God. Come, let us worship and fall down before Christ Himself, our King and God.

Psalm 50(51): Have mercy upon me, God,…

Troparion: Have mercy upon us, O Lord, have mercy upon us; we sinners, who have no excuse, bring to Thee, as our Master, this prayer: Have mercy upon us.

Glory be to the Father, etc.

Then: Lord, have mercy upon us, and thing not of our misdeeds; but look down as the Gracious One also now, and deliver us from our enemies; for Thou art our god, and we are They people; we all are the work of Thy hands, and we call upon Thy Name.  Now and ever, etc.

Open to us the gates of mercy, thou blessed Mother of God, so that we, who hope in thee, may not perish, but may be freed by thee from every misery; for thou art the salvation of the Christian race.

Lord, have mercy.

First Prayer: Let us pray to the Lord.  O God, our Saviour, who, by Thy prophet, Nathan, didst grant forgiveness to David, when he repented of his sins, and didst accept the prayer of penitence from Manasseh, receive also this They servant (handmaids), N., repenting of his (her) sins, according to Thy wonted kindness, and overlook all that he (she) hath done, forgiving his (her) fault, and passing over his (her) transgressions.  for Thou hast said, O Lord, I have no pleasure in the death of the sinner, but that he should turn and live; also Thou has said that we should forgive offenses seventy times seven.  For as They greatness is without equal, so also boundless is Thy grace.  If Thou should be extreme to mark iniquities, who shall stand?  Thou art a God of the penitents, and to Thee, the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Ghost, we offer up praise and glory, now and ever, and to ages of ages. Amen.

Second Prayer: Let us pray to the Lord.  O Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the living God, shepherd and Lamb, Who hast born the sins of the world, Who didst remit the debt to the two debtors , and Who didst bestow the forgiveness of her sins on the sinful woman: do Thou, O Master, remit, forgive, and pardon the sins, misdeeds, and errors, both voluntary and involuntary, known and unknown, which have been done in commission and omission by these Thy servants.  And if they, as men who walk in the flesh and dwell in the world, have been led astray by the devil, whether they have sinned in knowledge or ignorance, or have despised the priestly word, or have fallen under the priestly ban, or a curse of their own, or have bound themselves by an oath: vouchsafe Thyself, as the good Master, in Whom is no evil, to loose these They servants by the Word, and to forgive them their own curse and oath according to Thy great mercy.  Yea, gracious Lord and Master, hearken unto us, who implore for these They servants Thy grace, and forgive them as the gracious One all their errors, and remove them from the eternal torments; for Thou, O Master, hast said: Whatsoever ye shall bind on earth, shall be bound in Heaven; and whatsoever ye shall loose on earth, shall be loosed in Heaven.  For Thou only art without sin, and to Thee, the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Ghost, we offer up praise and glory; no and ever, and to ages of ages.  Amen.

The Exhortation to the Penitent: Behold, my child, here stands Christ invisible, and He receives thy prayer of penitence: so be not ashamed and fear not, conceal also nothing from me; be not afraid, but tell me all that thou hast done, so that thou mayest obtain forgiveness from our Lord Jesus Christ.  Behold, before us is also His holy image, and I am only a witness, so that I can testify all that thou wilt say to me; therefore, if thou concealest anything thy sin shall be double.  Consider wherefore thou hast entered this place of healing, so that thou mayest not go hence unhealed.

After this the Priest proposes to the penitent the questions, one after another, pausing a little after each, until the answer follows.  After he has proposed the questions, which concern faith and morals, according to the difference of rank and sex and age of the penitent, and received the answers, he says: From all these sins must thou henceforth abstain, since thou hast received a second baptism according to this Christian mystery.  so make now, with God’s help, a good beginning, and do not imprudently return to thy former sins, so as to become a derision to men, for this is not becoming to a Christian; but he should live honorably, and righteously, and godly, and to this God help thee with his grace.

When the confessor has said all this, and again examined the penitent, and the latter has disclosed all that is within him without concealment, he says to him: Bow thyself.

The penitent bows his head, and the confessor prays:

The Final Prayer:

Let us pray to the Lord. O Lord and god of the salvation of Thy servants, gracious, and merciful, and long-suffering, Who art grieved at our misdeeds, Who desirest not the death of the sinner, but rather that he should be converted and live, have mercy now upon Thy servant (handmaid) N.; grant him (her) true penitence, and the pardon and forgiveness of sins; remit to him (her) all transgressions, both voluntary and involuntary; reconcile and unite him (her) with Thy Holy Church through Jesus Christ Our Lord, with Whom be power and glory ascribed unto Thee, now and ever, and to ages of ages.  Amen.

At the conclusion of the holy sacrament of confession, the Priest pronounces over the kneeling penitent the absolution:

Our Lord and God, Jesus Christ, forgive thee, my child, N., by the grace and mercy of His kindness, all thy transgressions; and through the power granted unto me, I also, unworthy priest, forgive thee and absolve thee from all thy sins, in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.  Amen.

At the close the Priest signs with his right hand the penitent with the sign of the cross.  Then he says: It is indeed right to call thee blessed, etc.

After this the benediction, etc.

Historically, it has occurred that, sometimes the order of the prayers (namely, the First, Second, and Final) are reversed. (Chapungco, p. 106)


EXAMPLE #2:

An example of a particularly Roman use in the Byzantine church (According to the Byzantine Daily Worship book  (pp. 931-932))

An examination of conscience and act of contrition precedes reception of the sacrament.

The penitent kneels in the proper place, blesses himself, and says: “Bless me, my spiritual Father, for I have sinned.”

It is customary for the priest to answer with the following blessing: “May the grace of the Holy Spirit be in your heart and on your lips, so that you may sincerely confess your sins before God, in the name of  the Father + and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.”

The penitent continues: “It has been (how long) since my last confession. – These are my sins: “

Having briefly exposed his sins, the penitent adds: “For these and for all the sins of which I have ever been guilt I humbly ask pardon of God and absolution of you, my spiritual Father.”

He then listens attentively to whatever the confessor has to say, taking particular note of the penance imposed upon him.  Then the priest places his right hand upon the head of the penitent and pronounces the absolution of sins:

“The Lord God through Nathan the Prophet forgave David his sin, and the adulteress weeping at his feet, and Peter shedding bitter tears for his betrayal, and the Publican and the Prodigal Son.  May this same Lord and God through me a sinner, forgive you, N., all the sins of your life in this world and in the world to come.  And may He make you stand uncondemned at his awesome tribunal for He is blessed for ever and ever. Amen.

And the priest may add the following: [notice the double absolution, this second one being very Roman]

“May our Lord and God Jesus Christ who gave his holy apostles the command to retain or forgive the sins of mankind forgive you, N., from on high all your sins.  I, his unworthy servant, who have received from these apostles the mandate to do the same, absolve you from all the sins of your life in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

And the priest may add: “Go in peace and do not be disturbed by the evil you have done.”

You will note that the two forms differ dramatically in length and in content.  In fact, in the first form, the prayers which the second form uses for the absolution actually come prior to the absolution used.

It appears that many Eastern churches use variations of the first form, and most of those quite shorter than the full text provided here.  For example, in one Greek church, the following directions are given to a preparing penitent:

At the appointed time you will meet the priest at the place of confession – in front of an icon, in a special room, wherever it is appropriate. The priest will begin the Service of Holy Confession with some petitions and prayers for the blessing and healing of your soul. You will then share your confession. This may also involve some spiritual counseling with the priest.

When you are finished, the priest will typically ask you to kneel. He will then place the Epetrahelion (the long sash around his neck) over your head and read the prayers of absolution. … Once these prayers are completed the Service of Holy Confession is concluded and you are free to go.

When there are many penitents, the prayers of the first form provided above are said by the priest only once and before all the people– then confessions are heard individually.  There seems to be no evidence of the existence of a rite of general absolution as would be found in the Roman church.

There is, however, a “general confession” which is often said in some Eastern churches.  Instead of listing sins by quality and number, individually, the following prayer– which begins much like the Roman church’s “Act of Contrition– is said.  Interesting, the option for listing sins individually is provided, but not required.

“I confess to the Lord my God and before you my Spiritual Father, all my innumerable sins which I have, until today, committed in word, deed and thought. Every day and every hour I sin ungratefully towards the Lord Who gives me, the sinner, His great and infinite blessings through His providence.

My sins are the following: Vain words, criticism of others, disobedience, pride, unmercifulness, envy, spite, jealousy, anger, slander, inattention, neglect for my salvation, carelessness, inconsiderateness, impertinence, irritability, hopelessness, revenge, hard heartedness, contradiction. I complain too much, I am self-righteous, I harm my neighbor, I speak with contempt, I lie, I make fun of my neighbor, I am scandalous, I am egotistical, ambitious, gluttonous, vain, idle. I have evil thoughts, I am greedy, I look at or read immoral photographs, periodicals and books, I am negligent during Church services, I lack concentration during prayer at Church and home.

Generally, I have sinned through words, deeds, thoughts, sight, hearing, smell, taste, touch, and with all these feelings, bodily and of the soul.

I repent of all my sins and I ask for forgiveness from my Lord and my God.

(Here the penitent can state other sins that exist in his soul.)

Also, I repent and ask forgiveness for sins which I possibly forgot and did not mention during my confession.

I ask you, please, my spiritual Father, to forgive and release me of all my sins and give me your blessings to partake in Christ’s Holy and Life-giving Mysteries, to the renunciation of sin and the receiving of life-everlasting.”

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The Rites – The Syriac Church

AN EXAMPLE OF THE SYRIAC TRADITION (from the 12th century)

“… confession [should] be heard while seated at the door of the church.  The penitent should present himself with head uncovered, hands joined, eyes downcast, and kneel at the priest’s right for the confession.  After having heard the confession, the priest says: ‘Keep yourself from repeating these deeds.  I pardon you here as does God in heaven, and the deed that you have revealed will not be made manifest again on the day of Judgment, nor will you be condemned on its account.’

“Then the priest recites psalms and the Gloria, a number of ancient prayers, readings, and hymns, adding to them prayers relative to each sin, and lays on hands.  When the confession has to do with the sins of the flesh or lies, there is found at this point a reminder of the promise of Christ to the apostles: ‘What you bind on earth… ‘  Finally, he imposes the canonical penance.  After the penitent has completed the penance that had been imposed, he must once again present himself to the confessor.  The confessor places his hands on the penitent’s head, breathes three times into his face, and says: ‘May this sin be wiped away from your soul and body, in the name of the Father.  May you be purified and made holy in the name of the Son.  May you be pardoned and reconciled in the name of the Holy Spirit'” (Chapungco, 108).

But for most of the Syrian Eastern Catholics– for example, the Chaldeans, the Malabarese, the Maronites– they “have been inspired by the Roman Ritual” and use an indicative formula (eg: “I absolve you…”)

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The Rites – The Armenian Church

For many Aremenians, the rite is based off of the formulations of Patriarch Maschdotz from the 9th century.  There are many variations and some use the indicative absolution while others use a deprecative: “God forgives your sins.”  The rite is as follows:

“The penitent, kneeling at the side of the confessor, who places his hands on him, first makes a general confession with the aid of the priest.  ‘He then confesses each sin…. After he has accepted the penance imposed by the priest, he asks the priest: ‘Holy Father, you are the mediator of  my reconciliation and my intercessor with God’s only Son.  I ask you therefore to absolve me of my sins by the power which has been given to you.’

“The priest then says a prayer in which he recalls that, by the power and express command of the Lord: ‘All which you will bind on earth… I absolve you [some rituals say, ‘I have absolved you…’] of all of the bonds of sin, thoughts, words and deeds, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, and I admit you once again to the sacrament of the Holy Church.  May all the good which you have done increase your merit and future glory.  Amen.”   (Chapungco, 109).

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The Rites – The Coptic Church

According to Chapungco, “there is no rite of penance in Coptic [books of] rituals” (Chapungco 112).  This makes it very difficult to provide an outline of the rite.  Chapungco provides a partial one, drawing from manuscripts used by Orthodox Copts:

“At the end of confession the priest recites a prayer in which he asks God for forgiveness and remission of sins.  … [T]his prayer, addressed to the Son, reminds one of the Latin Confiteor.

“The confessor adds a second prayer, also called a blessing, which calls to mind the one in the ancient Latin penitential rite that the priest made after the absolution.  Before departure, the penitent says, “I have sinned, my father, give me absolution.”  the confessor says, “You have been absolved of all of your sins.”  This prayer… begins with the words “I bless you”…

Chupungco also provides two lengthy prayers.  The first would appear to be a prayer before the confession of sins (which would have been done according to species and number, says Chupungco [110-111]):

“Master, Lord Jesus Christ, only Son and Word of God the Father, who by your saving and life-giving sufferings have broken all the bonds of our sins; you who breathed into the faces of your holy disciples and said: ‘Receive the holy Spirit; whose sins you will remit, they are remitted, whose sins you will retain, they are retained.’  Now, our Master, you have deigned, by the holy apostles, to give to their successors in the priestly ministry, in the bosom of your Holy Church, the faculty of remitting sins on earth, of binding and loosing all the bonds of iniquity: we now pray and beg your goodness, you who love humanity, on behalf of your servant whose head [or: your servants, my fathers, brothers and sisters who bow their heads] is bowed in the presence of your holy glory, that he (we) may obtain your mercy and that you break all the bonds of his/our sins, which he/we has/have committed against you, whether consciously or unconsciously or by fear, in word, deed or by weakness.  You, the Master, who know the weakness of human beings, in the good God who loves humanity, give him/us the remission of his/our sins.”

The second is, what Chupungco calls the “blessing.”  It is certainly a prayer of absolution.  And it is very interesting in its use of “consubstantial,” as well as in its invocation of certain saints and the numbering of bishops at past councils:

“Fill us once more with fear of you and guide us in your holy and good will, because you are our God, and may glory, honor and power be given you along with our Father and the life-giving Holy Spirit, consubstantial with you…. May the infirmities of your servants and me who officiate today be absolved.  May they be absolved by the mouth of the Most Holy Trinity, Father and Son and Holy Spirit, and by the mouth of the twelve apostles, of the divine interpreter Mark, apostle, evangelist and martyr, of the apostolic St. Athanasius, St. John Chrysostom, St. Cyril, St. Gregory and St. Basil, of the three hundred eighteen Fathers of Nicea, and the one hundred fifty of Constantinople, the two hundred of Ephesus, the six hundred thirty of Chalcedon and by the mouth of our honored Father, the Archbishop Abba… and his auxiliary Bishop Abba… and by he mouth of my most humble self, because blessed and glorious is your name, Father, son and holy spirit, now and forever.  Amen.

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Regulation of the Sacrament

As we have seen, there is not a uniform practice of the sacrament among the Eastern Churches.  There is, however, the Code of Canons of the Oriental Churches (also known as the Eastern Code of Canon Law).  This was promulgated in 1990.  See canons 718 -736.

A few highlights of The Code include:

719: reception of the sacrament frequently, especially during periods of fasts and penance, and as soon as possible when in a state of serious sin.

720: general absolution is forbidden except in cases of grave necessity.

721: the faithful must be catechized on the right dispositions required to receive the sacrament.

722-726: the canons regulating the minister of the sacrament are the same here as in the Roman Catholic Church.

727-731: the canons regulating the reservation of absolution are the same here as in the Roman Catholic Church.

732: 1. The confessor is to offer a fitting cure for the illness by imposing appropriate works of penance in keeping with the quality, seriousness and number of the sins, and considering the condition of the penitent as well as his or her disposition for conversion. 2. The priest is to remember that he is placed by God as a minister of divine justice and mercy; as a spiritual father he should also offer appropriate counsel so that the penitent might progress in his or her vocation to sanctity.

In 1959, The Ukrainian (Ruthenian) Archeparchy of Philadelphia developed statutes of its own.  Here are a few highlights:

311. Priests: be prompt and zealous in hearing confessions.

312. Have regular times that are convenient.  Do not refuse to hear confessions.

313. Have times available each day before Divine Liturgy.

314-315. Allow for other priests to hear confessions in the parish, especially (316) when you are not there.

*318. Attire: cassock and epitrachelion when hearing confession in church.

*319. Confessionals: constructed so as to isolate confessor from penitent and also to safeguard the seal.

320. Do not hear confessions in the sacristy or the sanctuary.

321. Keep record of parishioners who have kept obligation of annual confession.  Christian burial denied to parishioners who do not keep this.

323. The Sacrament of Penance shall never be introduced in any joke or criticism, however innocuous.

331. May hear confessions everywhere (if granted faculties) except those of religious women.

335. Only Metropolitans can absolve censures (latae sententiae excommunication), premeditated murder.

336. Others in the Church hierarchy (eg, Judicial Vicar) may also forgive those sins—priests may do so during Advent and Easter.

* Statutes 318 and 319 are particularly interesting, because they evidence a “Romanization” of the sacrament in this Byzantine Church.

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Books of the Eastern Churches

The question may arise: Where can I find the sacraments and rituals of the Eastern Churches?  What books might be helpful?  It is true that a couple Churches do not have some rites written in liturgical books of their own– or any book at all.  For example, ….

Here is a good outline of the liturgical books of the Eastern Churches.  (Following this list, you will also find the books wherein I found much of the material for the prayers that I mentioned previously).

SERVICE BOOKS of the Orthodox Churches [from The Festal Menaion, pp. 535-543]

1)     The Book of the Gospels

2)     The Book of the Epistles

3)     The Psalter

4)     The Euchologion

  1. aka: the ‘book of prayers’ – This is a book for the use of the priest—and to a lesser degree, of the deacon—containing the sacraments and other services, together with numerous special prayers and blessings.  Its contents and arrangement vary widely.
    1. There is in the first place a comprehensive volume known as the Great Euchologion.  In it are found the fixed portions of Vespers, Matins, and the Liturgy; the other six sacraments; other liturgies and blessings; office of the dead, etc
    2. There are short books as well
      1. The Ieratikon or ‘service book’ which is an altar book containing the priest’s parts for Vespers, Matins, the Litrugy
      2. The Small Euchologion or ‘book of needs’ containing five sacraments, omitting Eucharist and Ordination, and various other services
  2. There is also the Archieratikon or Pontifical which is to be used by the bishop.

5)     The Horologion or Book of Hours

6)     The Octoechos or Book of Eight Tones, aka Parakletike

7)     The Tiodion – book for Lent

8)     Pentekostarion – book for the Easter Season

9)     The Menaion – a kind of “proper of saints”

10)  The Irmologion

  1. a book that gives the text of the irmoi sung at the beginning of the various canticles of the canon.  The larger services books (eg: Menaia, Triodion) often given only the opening words of the irmos: and so a cantor who does not know the irmoi by heart will need to have this book ready in hand.

11)  The Typikon – a book of liturgical rules and rubrics

OTHER SOURCES:

The Greek Great Euchologion (found at http://www.anastasis.org.uk/canon_for_confession.htm)

The Offices of the Oriental Church.  Edited by Nicholas Bjerring.  Ams Press, New York, 1969,  See pages 104-108.

The Byzantine Daily Worship.  Allendale, N.J., Alleluia Press, 1969.  See pages 931-932.

Confession.  A series of lectures on the mystery of repentance by Metropolitan Anthony Khrapovitsky. p. 106.

“The Festal Menaion” translated by Mother mary and Archimandrite Kallistos Ware; Faber and Faber, London, 1969.

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.

Handbook for Liturgical Studies, Volume IV: Sacraments & Sacramentals.  Edited by Anscar J. Chupungco.  The Liturgical Press: Collegeville, MN, 2000

Pope John Paul II.  Orientale Lumen.

NCCB, Eastern Catholics in the United States of America (ECUSA).

The New Latin code of Canon Law and Eastern Catholics (CCEC).

Second Vatican Council.  On the Catholic Churches of the Eastern Rite (Orientalium Ecclesiarum)

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