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The Many Priestly Roles, and Confession

by His Grace Bishop John, The Word, October 2015

Bishop Thomas, Fr. Fred Pfeil, Fr. Joshua Makoul and I spent almost four days at the end of August with all of our seminarians at the Antiochian Village before the seminarians went back to school. This annual program of the Antiochian House of Studies brings together seminarians from three seminaries for fellowship, community-building and a better understanding of Antiochian traditions and practice. The seminarians meet three times during their seminary training to discuss priestly identity, missions and education, and, this year, confession and pastoral counseling. This group of seminarians is bright, dedicated, stable and cooperative.

The bishops and priests leading the retreat reflected on their parish experiences as they shared stories. After some brief priority-setting exercises and discussion, the seminarians used "role-play" to understand better the practice of counseling and confession from the perspectives of the priest and penitent. I will share some of what we discussed to offer some insights into confession, this sometimes underutilized gift of God. We looked at our sacrament from the perspective of "boundaries" or relationships, and discussed how the many roles of the priest affect the praxis, or practice, of this sacrament.

"Boundaries" in the social sciences refers to the general, unwritten, social rules of interaction in any relationship. Boundaries govern how we respond to each other when we interact within a particular role, as well. Parents and children have different roles, as do teachers and students, or barbers and customers. Sometimes we have more than one kind of relationship with a particular person, so we need to adjust our behaviors based on the presenting circumstances or needs. A parent is also a daughter, sister and friend. Sometimes a friend may also be a service-provider. Boundaries help us navigate what is reasonable within our relationships.

The priest assumes many roles in the parish. Sometimes he interacts with his parishioner as confessor, parish administrator, social coordinator, life coach, advisor, spiritual guide, teacher or friend. The rules of interaction in each of these roles may be a bit different, so our interactions need to be thought through, so that the varied roles don't compromise the eectiveness of those roles most essential. The concept of boundaries offers us a helpful way of talking about confession and our multiple roles. I believe the role of confessor (and in this article, by "confessor," I mean one who hears our confession) is the most essential.

"Behold, I stand at the door and knock: If any man hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to him, and I will sup with him, and he with me" (Revelation 3:20). In this image, Christ stands at the door, at the border of the home, making his voice known but waiting for an invitation. He does not impose Himself on the dwellers of the home, yet as the good Shepherd, His voice is known because He has already shown his love and guided the sheep. "The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep listen to his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out" (John 10:3). Likewise the confessor needs to know the penitent, and must have already shown God's love and won his trust in order to be effective. Knowing implies an intimate relationship. When accepted and invited in, the Lord will then sup with him. Having supper together again implies the sharing of life within an intimate and trusting relationship. This is the model of the pastor-penitent relationship. It is also a model of our royal priesthood, sharing God with our family and neighbor, always aware of how God works and dwells in us.

The nature of priesthood is two-fold: sacricial and prophetic. Like Aaron, the parish priest stands with the penitent, offering up sacrices to cover sin. The Old Testament image of the priesthood was of one receiving sacrices from the people and offering them at the altar of God. The blood of animals sacriced was to cover the sins of the penitent. Christ completed this priesthood by being the Offerer and the Offered, as He sacrificed Himself for us. Today the priest stands with the penitent at God's altar and, instead of offering up material sacrices, brings the penitent to Christ by helping the penitent understand the nature of sin in general and the roots and ramications of a particular sin confessed. This allows the penitent to take responsibility for the sin, as well as to understand enough about his sin to be more successful in avoiding the repetition of it.

Secrets have a kind of power of their own. When a penitent allows his confessor to know his sin, he then has a witness to help him be more accountable, to get a more accurate perspective on the sin, to recognize the consequences and dangers of the sin, and to lessen its power. When we suppress our feelings and sins, they take on a kind of power and are experienced in an exaggerated way. When we confess our sins to another person, we can see them more realistically. Secrets also have a tendency to haunt us. Once confessed, they lose some of their power over us.

The prophetic dimension of the priesthood allows the priest to share what the Scriptures, Fathers and Church wisdom offer about sin generally, and about particular sins. The prophet speaks God's truth, or, in other words, reveals reality. The priest not only has an opportunity to teach what God reveals to mankind, but is called to demonstrate God's ability and desire to forgive. To be an honest steward, the parish priest does not speak from his own opinions; rather, he shares what he has learned from his life in the Church, readings of the Scriptures and Fathers, and acts within the guidelines given him by his bishop. In confession, the priest is charged with the responsibility of showing God's forgiveness when a sin is repented of, or calling the penitent to an action that brings him out of sin.

Christ calls us to gather together in His name and share in fellowship with Him. The Church or ecclesia is God's people called out of sinfulness to a holy relationship with God and with each other. When a priest and penitent come together for this sacrament, within the Church they beseech the Lord for forgiveness, revelation, and reconciliation. Mystically connected through the Eucharist to God and each other, sins that separate the penitent from God and the Church are overcome. Those sins which separated us from God are forgiven and separated from the penitent as far as "the East is from the West." By way of confession and reconciliation, God, through the Church, gives the penitent a new start. In other words, the parish priest's function is to be faithful; faithful to God and to the penitent. The "real priest" is Christ who stands between God and man, Himself both man and God. The parish priest makes Christ present or incarnate (eneshed, so to speak). In Christ, the priest reveals God's forgiveness, nature and desire. God desires the salvation of his handiwork.

The parish priest further calls the penitent to recognize the penitent's own priestly vocation and in like manner to call others to Christ. From wherever the penitent finds himself in relationships in his family and workplace, he too was baptized into Christ's own priesthood with all of the responsibilities of that vocation as a Christian who has put on Christ. Once forgiven of his own sins, every repentant Christian is called to share God's love with his neighbors and to be an example. Although it is not the role of the parishioner to preside at the sacraments, each Christian has a role in the life of the community that together parallels the parish priest's or bishop's function for forgiveness and reconciliation. Every Christian forgives the other for relationship conflicts and offenses, and reconciles himself to others and to God.

The parish priest expresses the priesthood of Christ most clearly when he hears confessions. Studying how and where this sacrament takes place helps us to understand better how we can most eectively relate to God and each other. The bishop or parish priest stands as if on the border of the meeting between penitent and icon or gospel, looking in. He is not positioned between man and his God, but on the side — pun intended — of both. Although one could make the observation here that it is Christ Himself who stands between God the Father and each of us, the bishop or parish priest's function is to help the penitent understand what he is confessing, to understand the wisdom of the Church in dealing with sin and painful experiences, to witness to what God says about such sins, and to reveal God's power and desire to forgive sins.

Without the recognition that Christ is the priest in the sacrament of Confession, the priest will take on the responsibility of changing the penitent. Such a burden will exhaust the priest and will compromise his effectiveness. In addition, by confusing himself with God, the minister could fall victim to the sin of pride. This leads to judgmental behavior, loftiness, immature acting and general narcissism. It will also inescapably sabotage the repentance process.

Social psychologists have identied a process they call reactance, which simply means that, when his autonomy is challenged, the penitent will need to prove his autonomy, even at the expense of following his own will. So, even if the priest tells the penitent to do what the penitent says he wants to do, the need of the penitent to prove that he does not have to obey the minister (authority figure) will prevent the penitent from complying with the godly advice.

The alternative is to accept humbly that the repentance is between the penitent and God, while the priest's responsibility is to be faithful to each. This is done by the priest pointing out that the ultimate choice and responsibility is a matter between the penitent and God, and appealing to what God has revealed in the Scriptures and Fathers as authoritative. is is the most eective, honest and efficient way to guide. Likewise, it is our common vocation to share truth and support each other, without taking on God's or our fellow Christian's responsibilities. is principle applies to all of us.

The parish priest's function is to represent the bishop, who is the visible source of the authority or oneness of the Church. The bishop presides at the assemblies of the diocese and connects the church to all of the other churches. He has the task of rightly maintaining and teaching the faith, as well as keeping the peace and unity of the communities. Because we penitents are members of the Church which is the body of Christ, the sins of each of us aect all the members of the body. Our sins prevent us from best witnessing to God in our world and building up the Church. Our sins also make us bad examples, leading others into temptation or causing them harm.

Representing the bishop, who is the leader of the local church, the pastor reconciles us to the Church. The priest speaks on behalf of the people of God as well as humanity, when he forgives. Here again, God is God; understanding our roles and functions allows the priest to fulll our work faithfully without added personal responsibility. The work done on behalf of the Church is done without personal oense, fear or jealousy. Clergy need not worry about being personally taken advantage of, nor do they need to worry about people taking advantage of God.

Instead we need to remember that God forgives seventy times seven, or innitely, and it is the responsibility of the clergy to discern and deliver the message of what God is doing and saying. Let us remember the command of God given to St. Peter and to the Church: "If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven, and if you retain the sins of any, they are retained" (John 20:23). Here we are revealing what God is forgiving and what God is retaining.

Penances are often appropriate to help us heal, journey home, resolve issues, make peace or understand better the nature of our sin, so that we will be successful in turning our lives around and changing. Some mistakenly associate penances with punishment, which is rarely effective in bringing about change. Like all learning, we do better when we can observe correct behavior, acquire effective tools, and understand what we are doing and why we are doing it. Penances are a wonderful help, but often the priest needs to explain their nature and purpose, both to the congregation and to the penitents, when penances are being offered.

A penitent's age, maturity, experiences, struggles, education level and circumstances of life must all be considered when the priest responds to him in and outside of confession. It is not good enough to be right. The priest must be wise in order to be e ective. He also needs to express the kindness, generosity and love of God. Timing is also key to ministering effectively to a penitent. An insight offered before the penitent is able to receive it will be experienced as aggression or as a violation of privacy.  The confessor must be patient. Also, if a penitent is still in shock from a recent trauma, or is mourning a loss, he may need time to process these things before theological discussions are helpful. At such times, the penitent needs gentle care, friendship and respect.

The parish priest has many roles with each of the persons among whom he lives. Apart from the varied roles mentioned above, sometimes the pastor is also the dental patient, gym client, language student or younger church member to the people that he serves. Such multiple relationships or roles are simply a way of life for the Orthodox clergyman. These multiple roles may present some confusion as we teach others or work together professionally and socially. The clergyman would do well to keep his roles as pastor and confessor protected in order to complete his vocation within the community. The clergyman must deliberately remember his role as a Christian example living among Christ's flock. This clarity allows great flexibility in professional, family and social relationships, but it takes some deliberate care.

Parishioners sometimes fear that the bishop or parish priest will lose respect for them if they confess sins. The priest must show appreciation for the difficulties of self-disclosure and how respectable and laudable a good confession is. It takes great courage to deal with sin. Clergy and parishioners alike respect those who confess shameful things more than they respect those who cannot. Clergy and parishioners when hearing things said by other parishioners can prevent themselves from being tempted to judge by remembering how all of the same passions face all.

Boundaries help us define our roles, as outlined by our functions, even when those roles are multiple. All of the priestly functions of both clergy and laity are within Christ's priesthood, in which He brings us to God the Father and God the Father to us. We are called to be holy and faithful to Christ in all that we do as Christians and as clergy. By thinking of these things explicitly, we do better the tasks set before us.

Bishop John