In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost.
Many are those among you who have come to confession either yesterday or the days before, on occasions before, before you received communion, and I want you to reflect later on a very important point. The early Church knew nothing of the private confession which we use nowadays. People came to confess their sins to the whole community, to all their brothers and sisters in Christ because it was felt – as it should be felt by us but is very little perceived – that when one member of the body sins the whole body is wounded, that whatever sin I commit it soils and pollutes the whole body, and moreover that whenever I commit a sin against a brother, against a sister, indeed against myself I am partaking in the Crucifixion of Christ. Because He came into the world to save sinners and whoever is a sinner is to a greater or lesser extent responsible for the Incarnation He accepted in order to die for us. And in the early Church people had an intense sense of community and therefore when sin was committed it was confessed to all the community.
And I know of two communities in the early days of the Revolution when two spiritual guides whenever anyone wanted to make a confession called together all their spiritual children and the confession was made aloud before all in his presence, standing there as the friend of the bridegroom and endowed with the power to forgive or to bind which was given by Christ to His disciples. And when the sinner had confessed his misdeeds these spiritual guides turned to the community and said: you have heard now, are you prepared to carry the weight of his sin, are you prepared to take him on as a beloved brother or sister, are you aware that you are sharing with him his misery? If you are prepared to take him on wholeheartedly, completely, unreservedly in the name of Christ I can give him forgiveness, if you refuse to do this, I cannot do it, but also you will be answerable before God for having rejected one for whom Christ had given His life.
This was the early attitude of the Church: come to the whole community and open one’s heart. And this was possible as long as the community was small, as long as it was persecuted, as long as it was an act of heroism to be a member of the body of Christ. But when the Church was recognized by the State, when there was no danger in belonging to it, moreover when it was easy and advantageous to belong to it, then a confession of that kind was impossible because it was nor received by people who considered that the sin of their brother was their own sin and that they had to carry one another’s wounds and weaknesses; and therefore individual confession was introduced.
You have a certain experience of what this common confession can be at retreats when the priest having prayed with you, talked to you, standing before God with you, makes aloud his own confession before God. You participate in his own confession and you can identify with him as he accepts to share with you his frailty, his sinfulness and his need of forgiveness. This is a small approximation but we must learn to share together the burden of one another sins.
I remember by hearsay the story of a Russian officer who came at a youth conference in the 1920ths and said to the priest in confession that he was in a position to mention all the sins he has committed but his heart was of ice and of stone and he had no feeling about it. He could give a list but not shade a tear. And this priest, father Alexander Elchaninov, commanded him not to make his confession to him but the next morning when the Liturgy would be celebrated to come /off/ before the Liturgy and to all the youth conference assembled there to make the confession he intended to make to the priest. And this man, feeling the desperate need of his resurrection from the dead, because he was dead at heart, came out, explained what he was about to do. He expected that everyone would move away from him in horror instead of which he felt that all the conference moved towards him in compassion, in sympathy, in oneness; he began to speak his confession and his heart broke and he burst into tears and he was redeemed.
And therefore when we come to confession let us not be content to come to the priest and to speak in his presence to the Lord Jesus Christ who stands there with the wounds of the Crucifixion to which we have added our own. But let us turn to everyone whom we may have offended individually between our last confession or perhaps a long, long time before, open our heart, tell the truth, obtain forgiveness for our victim, heal that limb of the body of Christ which we have wounded at time almost mortally and then only come to the priest and confess our sins to the Lord Jesus Christ who stands crucified and obtain from the priest in His name forgiveness of the sins for which we have truly repented. Amen.