Schmemann, Very Rev. Alexander. “Holy Things for the Holy.” Great Lent: Journey to Pascha. Crestwood: St. Vladimir, 2001. 107-133.
- What is the link between confession and communion in the Orthodox Church? Is it necessary to confess before reception of communion? Are they separate “stand-alone” sacraments?
- If frequent Communion was the norm in the early church, why did that change? What was the role of penance in the early church?
- Does the reception of communion forgive sins? What are the effects of communion?
- If penance is not necessary before communion, then how does one prepare?
The Very Rev. Protopresbyter Alexander Schmemann was the dean of St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary, a major center of Orthodox theological and liturgical thought in the United States. This article is a summary of a report delivered to the Holy Synod of Bishops of the Orthodox Church in American in 1972. Schmemann argues forcefully confession is not necessary before the reception of communion. Frequent communion was the norm in the early church, and penance was very infrequent. The purpose of penance was to reconcile the excommunicated to the church. For instance, an ancient church source indicated penance should only occur once in a person’s lifetime.
At the same time, there is no doubt some preparation is required before communion. If it is not penance, then what is it? According to Schmemann, prayer before and after communion, and daily prayer and mediation are necessary. An examination of conscience and a desire to be united with God are also required. Finally, the communicant must ask for forgiveness while approaching the altar.
Schmemann makes a powerful and convincing argument, particularly in his discussion on the preparation for communion sacramental penance is not required. For instance, an Eastern Christian congregation prays before communion, “…make me worthy to receive for remission of all my sins and life everlasting. Amen. Oh God, be merciful to me a sinner! O God, cleanse me of my sins and have mercy on me! O Lord, forgive me, for I have sinned without number.”
Following Schmemann’s advice and the practice in the Roman Catholic Church, it has become the practice in the Byzantine Catholic Church, which is loyal to the Pope but uses the Orthodox liturgical rites, for the congregation to receive communion on every Sunday. This is still not the practice in the Orthodox Church. An Orthodox priest will not give Holy Communion to someone whose confession he has not heard.
It was startling to find the article described above was in fact changed substantially from the final report Schmemann made to the Holy Synod. In that report, Schmemann recommended general absolution on Saturday evening. Communion should only be received once a month. The Synod eventually adopted a policy requiring a priest to turn someone away if they did not at least attend general absolution. The sacramental understanding of the need for penance appears to be different in the Orthodox, Byzantine Catholic, and Roman Catholic Church, even though all three profess the same sacrament.