What a Priest Really Thinks about His People during Confession

In my previous blog post, “Cautious about Confession,” I ended with the personal questions that many of us wonder: Can I really be honest with my priest? What will he think of me? What about the habits and sins—the passions—that I just can’t seem to get past? 

I thought it would be a good idea to go directly to an experienced priest and father confessor to see what he has to say. What follows is a transcript, lightly edited for clarity, of my interview with Fr. Theodore Dorrance, protopresbyter—or “head priest”— at St. Catherine Greek Orthodox Church in Greenwood Village, Colorado. [You can listen to the actual podcast interview at Walking an Ancient Path on the Ancient Faith Radio app or by clicking here.]

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Father Theodore grew up Roman Catholic, then in college became involved with various Evangelical Christian campus ministries. Father, how did your background affect you? 

The difference between the Evangelical, nondenominational Protestant world and my Roman Catholic upbringing really motivated me to start asking some more fundamental questions. I started studying church history, and when I was presented with the Orthodox Church’s statement that they have unbroken continuity of doctrinal development, of liturgical expression, of biblical interpretation, of apostolic succession from the present day, all the way back to the time of the apostles, I thought to myself, “Wow. This is either one of the most presumptuous statements, or it’s true, and it should be able to be verified.”

So I spent the next year while I was in undergraduate school, probably between my sophomore and junior year, studying church history and really looking specifically into the Orthodox Church, almost century by century, and trying to answer the question, “Was this statement true, or was it false?” And I found that it was true for me, that I could verify that there is this unbroken continuity. So at the end of that year, I finally attended my first Divine Liturgy at this St. Catherine [parish] when I was a junior in college, and it wasn’t here—it was in a shut-down elementary school, and so it didn’t have the grandeur of a typical beautiful Orthodox church building, but the Liturgy really brought to me the Old and New Testament Scriptures. It actually brought them to life for me, and I really felt like I was home, so on the one hand I had studied the theology and then experienced the worship, which is the heart and soul of the Orthodox Church, and I knew that the Orthodox Church was going to be for me my permanent home. 

[Icon of the Last Supper, source unknown]

Father Theodore finished his undergraduate degree, married his wife, Presbytera Stacey, then went to Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology and was ordained. He served in parishes on the West Coast and, with marching orders from his bishop to grow Orthodoxy among people who were searching for the “one, holy, Catholic, and apostolic Church,”  he started a brand-new parish, St. John the Baptist in Portland, Oregon, with six families. He served there for many years before moving back to Denver and working for the Metropolis. He returned to parish ministry at St. Catherine in the fall of 2020. Father Theodore and Pres. Stacey have four adult children and a growing tribe of grandchildren.

Your church back in Portland was mostly converts, wasn’t it? 

It was.

Did you find the converts were a little bit skittish about the idea of confession, or more open and receiving?

You know, I think that they were curious, and they were hungering and thirsting for spiritual mentorship. In their words, they often used the word “discipleship.” They wanted accountability. They wanted to be able to unburden themselves in a confidential, safe way, to not carry things around inside of them. They found that to be able to say out loud before God and before another human being what was burdening them actually helped them to see it more clearly, to understand it, and to feel forgiven—to feel unburdened and light and free. And I think that it really was something that they welcomed once they understood it. 

Father, in the previous blog post, I wrote about confession being a real stumbling block on the road to Orthodoxy for me personally. Once I started to grasp the theology of confession and the profound differences between East and West, I still had nagging questions on a personal level. I wondered, “If I’m really honest with my priest about my sins and struggles, could I ever look him in the eyes again?” Do priests ever feel disgusted with their parishioners’ failings or privately think that we’re hopeless? 

I think that’s a really good question, and, you know, it’s a question that I’ve been asked many, many times by parishioners. I always tell them that I think part of the grace of the priesthood is that it really protects the priest from ever feeling judgmental or disgusted in any way by the sins that he hears. 

One thing that the priest knows very well is that he’s a sinner and that he needs to also have a father confessor, and that he needs to regularly go to confession. And he knows personally—experientially, but also theologically—that every single human being is a sinner, and that the more we hide that, the more that that sin enslaves the person. So to bring it to light, and to see it for what it is, and to present it to God, who is the Physician and Healer of souls, is what is expected of every human being if they’re going to grow from the image of God to the likeness of God. So I tell all people who come to confession: everybody’s sinning. It’s only those who are really coming to confession that are going to grow and are going to be healed and are going to be freed from that sin. So rather than feeling disgusted, I actually feel a greater understanding and a greater intimacy and compassion for those people. And when I see them, I don’t see the sin. I see a beautiful person in the image of God, and I think that the Lord protects clergy from ever, ever looking negatively upon parishioners. 

I think that people don’t need to be afraid of [a priest’s judgment] at all, because the priest and the parishioner who’s confessing are on the same journey. The priest is aware of his own frailty and is aware that it’s the Lord Jesus Christ who is the unique High Priest who is listening and absolving, and the priest just bears witness to the love of God. 

Is that what you meant earlier when you were talking about the grace of the priesthood? Is there something about it that just protects you personally?

It protects us, and keep in mind that we do not have the power or the grace or the illumination to personally absolve someone of any sin. Only God can do that. We are there participating in Christ’s priesthood, and it protects us, but it also protects the person confessing. Every priest that I know in the Orthodox Church takes absolutely seriously the confidentiality of the role of being a confessor and what takes place in confession. 

[Photo by Ivan Aleksic on Unsplash]

But what about the sins that I just can’t seem to overcome? This is not a theology question—it’s an embarrassment question. We all have something in our lives that we can’t seem to conquer, whether it’s anger or addiction or judgment. It just feels weird to go back again and again, confessing the same sins over and over. 

I think that while people may confess over and over again the same habit, the same behavior, it doesn’t mean that they are literally confessing the same thing, because growth is by degrees. Repentance is by degrees. So, if I struggle with gossip, the key here is: I’m struggling against it. I may confess it over and over again, but the more and more I confess it out loud and see it for what it is, the degree to which I’m struggling with gossip is different every single time—

As that awareness grows.

—and we have to get to the point where we hate gossip so much that by degrees we’re actually giving it over to God. We’re trying to separate ourselves gradually from it, and God illumines us, and He gives us grace, and He’s healing us—again, by degree. If I sprain my ankle, it may take three weeks to walk without a limp, but it may take five, six weeks to be able to run without pain, because the healing is gradual. And that’s true of our soul and of our mind and of the spiritual component of who we are. 

The other thing that I would say is that we’re all going to feel a degree of shame or embarrassment, but there are two different kinds of shame: one that repels us away from God, and that’s very unhealthy. We do not want to cultivate that at all.

But there’s another kind of shame that we have regarding our understanding that [our current] way of thinking or behaving is not truly human. It’s not really acting according to who God has created us to be, and we’re ashamed of it, but we’re drawn to God, and that’s never going to go away. We do want to cultivate that [godly kind of shame], so there’s always going to be a sense of, “Wow. I have the shame of what I’m going to say before God and before the priest, but I want to be cleansed of it, and so I’m drawn to the mystery in the holy Sacrament of Confession so that I can be free in an ever-increasing way.”

You know, when we read about the saints, we see incredibly godly men and women who talk of themselves as being unworthy or the worst of sinners, and their words don’t seem like false humility. Their humility seems genuine and yet very different from what modern people might call a “negative self-image.”

It comes out of a comparison between ourselves and our Lord Jesus Christ. It’s not a comparison between ourselves and the people around us. The saints who have this great compunction and this great sense of humility, calling themselves the chief among sinners, are really just imitating the Apostle Paul, who actually said that in Scripture [1 Tim. 1:15]. And it was because he had his eyes and his focus firmly fixed on the Lord. As he compared himself to the perfect human being, he saw his own imperfections, and he could rightly say in that light, “I’m the chief among sinners. Lord, have mercy on me.”

There’s a difference between saying “Lord, have mercy” and being drawn to God and His grace and healing [versus], you know, an unhealthy self-deprecation that makes us feel guilty and repels us from God and therefore true freedom. 

[Photo by Jason Hogan on Unsplash]

Freedom. That’s compelling, and something I think everyone wants. So, back to people who confess the same stuff over and over: Can you give an example of that, and how it relates to freedom?

I remember when I was in Portland at St. John that there was a young person who had had a very disturbing, dark spiritual experience, and from that was really motivated to deepen and renew her relationship with Christ. And she began to come to confession regularly and to be very transparent and very vulnerable and open about the things that she was struggling with. And I could tell that as she was coming time and time again, that she was becoming increasingly freed from the things that had held her away from realizing the full grace and love of God—to the point where after a year of doing this, she was really cleansed and purified in her life. 

[Photo by Jose Alfonso Sierra on Unsplash]

You could see the fruit of repentance and the presence of God in her life to the point where she really blossomed in her inner Christian life and became life-giving to the people around her and totally freed from the initial demonic experience that she had by the healing presence and love and grace of Christ. 

Sometimes we have a transactional theology, which is not the Church’s teaching. The Church’s teaching is more relational, that if we abide in Christ, who is the vine, we as the branches will then bear fruit. Our job is just to abide in Christ, and His job is to bear fruit in us, to give us life to bring spiritual health. 

There’s nothing we can do to earn it, and we don’t earn God’s love, or His grace, or His healing, or His illumination by trying to impress Him or to perform or to be better people—more moral. We receive it as a free gift just by being in relationship with Him, by receiving His love and loving Him back. 

It is Christ who is the one forgiving and reconciling and restoring and giving illuminating grace to the person who has confessed. So, there is a real thing that is a spiritual thing that is happening to that person through this Sacrament of Confession. The priest—the human being—is simply participating in the high priesthood of Christ, who is the celebrant of that holy mystery. 

I’ve often felt when I go to confession and finish talking with the priest, and he puts that stole over me, it’s hard to put into words, but there’s something . . . It’s more than symbolic. There’s something physical. I feel covered. I feel protected, plus being forgiven through the grace of Christ, and I’m not even sure how to put that into words, [except] that the presence of that stole means something.

Well, I think that we have to remember that we are at one and the same time spiritual, because we have a soul, and physical, because we have a body. And the reason why our Lord commands that we have confession before a priest is because that physicality makes tangible what is happening invisibly and spiritually. And placing the stole over the head, kneeling down, being in the presence of another human being, saying [our confession] out loud is all a part of what we need as human beings physically to also experience what is happening spiritually. Sometimes we have the feelings that you’re describing; sometimes we don’t, because these are fleeting, and we’re so changeable as human beings. But I think that the fact that the act is physical reinforces our faith in believing and experiencing what is actually happening invisibly.

[Photo from Wikimedia Commons]

You mentioned how our Lord commanded that we confess before priests. I know a lot of people would say, “I don’t see that in my Bible.” How do you explain that?

Well, I think that even in the Old Testament we see—especially once the Old Testament priesthood was established and the corresponding sin offerings and sacrifices [were prescribed]—that in a limited way, the people were being commanded to go to the priests with those specific sin offerings and with those specific sacrifices. [They were] confessing before the priest, by virtue of what they were bringing to the temple, what they had done. We see even in the Gospel of Mark, the very first chapter, when John the Baptist was in the Jordan, and he was cleansing people through baptism, that they were confessing their sins. 

I remember that.

The Lord said, “Peace be with you. Whatever sins you retain are retained, and whatever sins you forgive are forgiven” [John 20:23]. He said this specifically to His apostles, whose spiritual descendants were the bishops and the priests. 

And so we see that the type, the Old Testament confession of cleansing and reuniting oneself to the body and to God, is then fulfilled in the high priesthood of Christ, who ordains bishops, priests, and deacons with the power of the Holy Spirit to participate in His high priesthood and to fulfill what was lacking in the Old Testament priesthood. So this is what I mean by “God commands people to come to the church, to the high priesthood of Christ, to be absolved and to be forgiven and to agree out loud with God for another human being what they have done.”

When you’re talking about the freedom and the way a priest understands that we’re all in process, there are probably people listening and thinking, “Man, I need to schedule my confession appointment.” And people who have never experienced confession would love to experience that [freedom].

What would you say to someone who has gone to confession but had a negative experience? I remember years ago meeting and talking with a young woman who went to her priest, and she said he made her feel really shamed. Now, I don’t know—maybe that’s because of something in her, the way she responded, or maybe the priest is very shaming. [What if] someone feels like they can’t talk to their priest? What kind of advice would you give them?

Well, again, I think that we have to remember that priests are human beings and that they also are sick. They’re not God; they’re part of the Body of Christ. They have a need for this spiritual hospital, which is the Church, and sometimes they bring, unfortunately, their own issues into their priesthood, and especially, I would say, this can be pastoral. 

Confession is a pastoral act as well. [The priest’s weakness] doesn’t violate the sacrament, in other words. A person could have a bad experience, and that might relationally affect them negatively, but they’re still forgiven by God because of the effectiveness of the confession. But I would say that there have been issues of abuse or shaming in the Sacrament of Confession, and if that’s the case, that person just needs to go to a different father confessor but try to forgive the person for their frailties and their weakness. 

[Photo by Rob Horner]

And that’s okay to go to a different father confessor? It almost feels like cheating.

No, there’s a long history of people going to clergy other than their own parish priest. Keep in mind that the office of confessor, in at least in the Greek tradition, is not bestowed upon someone simply because of their ordination. They have to display to their bishop a spiritual maturity in order to be bestowed the office of father confessor.

 

And it could take a few years, right? Or many?

Yeah. It’s not really on a timetable. It’s more [about] maturity, so there are parish priests who don’t hear confessions, and people have to go elsewhere, whether it’s to a different parish priest or to a monastery. Again, we move around a lot in the modern world, and some people don’t want to change who they’ve been confessing to just because they moved, whether they relocated for business reasons or family reasons, or whatever it may be. So, they keep the same spiritual father or father confessor.

And again, it may not be their parish priest, or there may be some relational issue there—they don’t hit it off, or they felt like there was something that happened that affected their trust. So, I really think it’s important that there be a trust level between the person and the priest that they’re confessing to. Obviously the ideal is that your parish priest is your father confessor, simply because you have access to him, and it’s practically easier to do it on a more regular basis.

[Photo by Manasvita S on Unsplash]

 

One final question for you about the frequency of confession. I’ve heard differing things about this. I’ve read about people in the Russian tradition who would confess every Saturday night at Vespers before Sunday’s Liturgy, and then I’ve heard of people who maybe confess twice a year—once before Christmas, once before Pascha. How often should I go to confession?

You know, I don’t think that there’s an easy answer to that question, “Should.” Again, because each person is different, and each priest is different. 

I think that the Russian tradition was influenced by some of the Western practices, and so they established a rhythm where, you know, each Saturday evening people would go to Great Vespers, and then they would confess their sins, and that was looked upon as a part of the preparation for receiving the Eucharist. I think confession can be looked upon as part of preparation, but not in a legalistic way—just as a part of living the Christian life and participating in sacramental life. 

It’s not an equation, like one confession per one eucharist.

Right, any more than we can quantify prayer, or fasting, or anything else that we would consider part of the Christian life. When you begin to make a formula and quantify it and try to measure it in terms of your worthiness or your unworthiness, we get into a more legalistic approach to Christianity, as opposed to a relational approach. 

I use the concept of “regular,” and I work that out in freedom with the parishioner, and particularly, depending on their own motivation, on their own personality, on what they feel is helpful to them. I think that, you know, every Saturday might be on the extreme side on one hand, and I think that once or twice a year might be on the extreme on the other hand. 

Basically your advice to people is, “Talk to your priest about it.” There could be certain times of life when there’s greater need for healing and support. Confession might be more frequent then than at other times. 

Absolutely. You know, a lot of people will [advise confession] definitely during the big fast periods, preparing for some of the big feasts: during the Nativity fast, during the first fifteen days of August as they’re preparing for the Dormition of the Theotokos, during the Apostles’ fast, during Great Lent. But I tend to encourage people to do it just more regularly, every month or two months, and just as a part of the rhythm of their life, because it holds them accountable. 

It helps them to really see more clearly what they’re working on, and I compare it to someone who wants to really get in shape. They get a trainer, because it holds them accountable. What great musician, what great athlete doesn’t have a coach, doesn’t have that relationship of accountability, doesn’t have someone outside of them more objectively looking at their life with them to help them to see what they can’t see by themselves?

Thank you, Father, for your time, because talking to you makes it more personal and real versus an intellectual discussion about reasons for confession. I really appreciate it. 

You’re very welcome. God bless you. 

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I hope Fr. Theodore’s words were as helpful to you as they were to me. I think my biggest takeaway from this interview is that regular confession leads to spiritual freedom, especially from those discouraging, habitual sins that enslave us. I also learned that our Orthodox father confessors act as physicians, not judges in a court of law. They are instruments of healing, not of condemnation, in our lives.

I’m pretty sure I’ve never seen anything like that on TV.

For the next post on Walking an Ancient Path, we will be about halfway through Great Lent. I don’t have a title yet, but we’ll talk a bit about the Church’s focus on the Cross midway through Lent, when we’re tired and discouraged. After that, we’ll look into the work that Jesus did on Holy Saturday, between His Crucifixion and Resurrection—a sacred celebration that is virtually unknown in much of the Protestant West.

Finally, in May we will return to our series, “Stumbling Stones on the Orthodox Road,” and examine the practice of asking the saints for their intercessions.

In the meantime, good strength to you on the spiritual journey of Great Lent!

 

4 comments:

  1. It’s embarrassing to confess the same sins again and again. That’s one of the most uncomfortable aspects of confession. But it might be helpful to ask, Would I rather be struggling with the same sins, or struggling with new sins?

    “Good news, father, I no longer have a problem with gluttony. On the other hand, for the first time, I killed a guy last week.”

    Or maybe we just need to remember that, new sins or old, confession will be embarrassing.

    1. Confession is embarrassing because it puts a dagger into our pride, which we need. It’s an exercise in humility as well as a healing sacrament! 🙂

  2. I love this.

    A young person I know—I think he was 13 at the time—was uncomfortable confessing in the church building. A priest accommodated him by listening to his confession on a walk. It made a big difference to him.

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