The Mystery of Penance

During his earthly ministry, our Lord Jesus Christ taught the necessity of turning from our sins, expressing sorrow for them, and turning instead to God. In the mystery of Baptism by which we are joined to Christ and his Church, all our sins are forgiven; and our "daily sins" too are forgiven in the mystery of the Eucharist, through the reception of the Body and Blood of Christ.

In the early church, however, there was a question of whether serious sins such as murder or apostasy (denying Christ) committed after baptism could be forgiven. But because Christ had given authority to forgive sins to his apostles and their successors, the bishops, the Church saw fit to allow those who publicly confessed such serious sins and did public penance, to be reconciled to the church through the Mystery of Repentance. Like the entry into the monastic life, forgiveness of sins through the mystery of repentance was sometimes called a "second baptism."

Later, when great persecutions of the early Church had ended, it became more common to confess serious sins privately and receive absolution (forgiveness) from a priest of the Church. By ancient tradition, the priest is forbidden to reveal to anyone the sins that are confessed to them. Also, some Christians confess even lesser sins and temptations, in order to receive spiritual guidance and direction from the priest, and God's blessing.

The Meaning of Penance

Through the mystery of Repentance, a baptized Christian who confesses his or her sins to a priest may be absolved (that is, forgiven). The priest has the responsibility and authority to determine whether the person coming to them (called the "penitent") is sorry for their sins, and determined not to commit them again; he may ask the penitent to take specific actions such as returning stolen goods before receiving absolution.

In this way, the Church cares spiritually for its members by leading them to seek forgiveness from God, and reconciliation with the Church and its members. Repentance is not a punishment, but an opportunity for spiritual healing. Because of this, the Mystery of Repentance and the Anointing of the Sick are sometimes considered together to be the Mysteries of Healing.

The Rite of Penance

Texts and sources

The official order of confession and absolution in Slavonic can be found on pages 72-77 of the Malyj Trebnyk (Small Euchologion), printed in Rome in 1952.

A short service of confession and absolution was included in the 80-page booklet, Office of Holy Oil for the Anointing of the Sick, which was published by the Byzantine Seminary Press in 1973.

Individual confession

Over the years, some parishes adopted Latin (Roman Catholic) practices toward confession, but in our time confession to a priest is often done before the icon of Christ at the iconostasis. The penitent expresses a desire to confess and receive absolution, and states the sins for which forgiveness is sought. The priest may provide a spiritual exhortation, and then will usually place his epitrachilion over the head of the penitent and impose his hand on them while saying the Prayer of Absolution:

May our Lord and God, Jesus Christ, by the grace and mercies of his love toward mankind, forgive you all your transgressions. And I, a priest, though unworthy, by his power given to me, forgive and absolve you from all your sins, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

to which the penitent responds, "Amen."

Services of repentance

In parishes, particularly during fasting seasons, it is often customary to hold special services dedicated to this mystery. After prayers and hymns, individuals have the opportunity to confess their sins privately, and receive absolution. The order for these services varies widely.


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