Priests, Pastors, Confessors and Spiritual Fathers:
Thoughts on Confession and the Pastoral Relationship
From the January 2001 "Messenger"
Confession is a subject of much confusion in the Orthodox world today.
In some places and jurisdictions, it is considered necessary to receive
confession each time one is to receive communion. In other places, confession
is hardly practiced at all. At seminary, I met the daughter of an Orthodox
priest who had not been to Confession once in her entire life.
In addition to the confusion about Confession itself, there are a wide
variety of ideas about the role of the priest in confession and the relationship
to a spiritual father. Although precise distinctions cannot
always be made, in this series I hope to be able to offer some basic guidelines
that will help laypeople understand this relationship.
Who can hear confessions? We will begin by stating it this way: a priest,
that is, a priest or bishop. Deacons may not hear confessions or grant
absolution. There is a tradition in the Orthodox Church, however, of lay
monks hearing confessions. Where a special gift from God enables a monk
to do so, the correct practice is for the monk to hear the confession,
but always to refer the penitent to a priest for absolution. Why? A lay
monk has does not have the ability to grant absolution, since this grace
is only given to those who are ordained by the laying on of hands in the
Are all priests able to hear confessions? Well, yes and no. By ordination,
a priest is given the authority and the potential grace to officiate at
all the holy mysteries. But the bishop always grants the actual authority
and to do so to each priest. This is called a faculty. Some
priests, but not necessarily all, are granted the faculty
of hearing confessions. In our Antiochian jurisdiction, as in others,
every priest is invested with the faculty of hearing confessions upon
ordination. In the Church of Greece, however, some parish priests do not
normally hear confessions at all. Certain other priests who are known
as confessors, travel from parish to parish to hear confessions.
Thus confessors are invested by their bishop with this faculty, while
typical parish priests may not be.
In current practice, one generally may confess to any priest. For instance,
Confessions are usually offered at regional conferences. Or
perhaps one visits a monastery and wishes to have his confession heard.
In such cases, one simply makes a confession to a priest who is not necessarily
ones pastor, confessor, or spiritual father. Of course, one cannot
do so to circumvent the relationship with ones pastor, confessor,
or spiritual father, as we shall see in more detail later.
The usual practice in modern American parishes is for a person to confess
to his pastor, that is, the priest of the parish to which he belongs.
This is based on the fact that every parishioner is entrusted to the spiritual
care of his pastor. One of the ways that care is extended to a parishioner
is by means of the sacrament of Confession. A parishioner by membership
in a parish is placed under the spiritual authority of his pastor. There
is a duty of obedience to him in spiritual matters. All this is clear
from Scripture (see Heb. 13:7, 17). So normally speaking, a parishioner
makes his confession to his pastor if he has the faculty to hear confessions.
If he wishes to confess to another priest, whether on an occasional or
ongoing basis, he should request the permission of his pastor to do so.
Such permission would always be granted unless there are extenuating circumstances
that would rule it out. In such a case, ones pastor would be required
to explain the reasons for his refusal, whereupon the parishioner could
appeal to the bishop if he desired.
A different, more formal, and more obliging relationship is entered into
when one requests that a certain priest be ones confessor. A confessor
may be ones pastor or not. When one has a confessor, one commits
to confess regularly to that priest and no other. A relationship is established
in which the penitent becomes accountable for the progress of his spiritual
life on an ongoing basis to the same priest. One enters this relationship
by asking a priest to be ones confessor; if he is other than ones
pastor, then the pastors blessing is obtained BEFORE making the
request of the potential confessor.
Because of the ongoing relationship, a confessor may give more highly
personal directives than would usually occur outside this relationship.
This is because the confessor not only hears ones confession regularly,
he functions as ones spiritual guide. It is important to recognize
that when one adopts a confessor, he is bound in a relationship of obedience
to him. However, his directives are limited to spiritual and moral matters
concerning Gods commandments and canonical guidelines. Confessors
may not intrude into personal business or give obediences outside of these
parameters. He may advise on such matters if the penitent requests it;
however, he does not have the authority to issue directives about such
things. The relationship with ones confessor may only be terminated
with the blessing of the confessor. Otherwise, one is bound to it regardless
of whether or not he continues to confess to him. From this, it is easy
to see why one must be careful about the selection of a confessor. It
must be a priest that one is prepared to trust and obey in spiritual and
A true spiritual father is another matter all together. Spiritual
fathers are normally priest-monks who have been given the blessing
of exercising this ministry by their bishops or abbots. They are men who
are quite advanced in spiritual life and wisdom, and capable of extremely
fine discernment. When one submits to such as a spiritual father, then
one is expressly committing to obey him in all matters. Typically, this
kind of relationship takes place in a monastery, although non-monastics
do enter it from time to time. A hallmark of this relationship is the
daily disclosure of thoughts given by a monk to his spiritual
father. In such a case, the monk attempts to disclose his every pattern
of thought to his spiritual father for discernment and training in spiritual
As mentioned above, in this relationship, the obedience is total. This
is why extreme care is necessary, and one should NEVER enter into such
a relationship with anyone who does not have an outstanding reputation
for this kind of ministry. Of course, the blessing of ones pastor
is mandatory, and indeed, it may be wise to receive the blessing of ones
bishop as well. False elders and spiritual fathers do exist,
and the potential for abuse is enormous when one offers total obedience
to such a person. It is critical to recognize, however, that not only
must the spiritual father be of impeccable reputation, a person must be
spiritually prepared to enter such a relationship. For most of us living
in the world, it is entirely unnecessary. In fact, the desire for a spiritual
father may be an indication of prelest, (spiritual lust)
- that a person imagines himself to be far more spiritual
than he actually is.
We hear much in the Orthodox world today about the necessity for spiritual
fathers, confessors, and the like. It is important to have a basic
understanding of what these relationships are all about. Whether one confesses
simply to a priest, to ones pastor, has a confessor, or a true spiritual
father, one must knowledgeable about the sacrament of confession, the
relationship he is entering into, and the person to whom he confesses.
Only then will the potential for abuse and misunderstanding be counteracted,
and the grace of the sacrament flourish to the spiritual profit of the
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