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Some More Liturgical Questions - Fr Gregory - 07-06-2010

10. My Confession Father lives a considerable distance from me, and I usually talk to him by telephone. Do I need to receive absolution in his physical presence before I receive Communion?

Absolution can only be given by a Priest physically present. However, in some cases people who have a special relationship with a Priest who offers them spiritual guidance and hears their confessions, but who lives some distance away, may arrange with another Priest to pronounce the Absolution. In my experience, I have known some people whose Confession Father was in another State. They would confess to him and receive his guidance by telephone and then come to me to receive sacramental Absolution. They would not repeat their confession to me. Obviously this arrangement was agreed between the three of us.

11. Some Priests have said that there needs to be a special drainage system for the Baptismal font/tank. Is that correct?

Yes. Because the water in the baptismal tank is specially blessed, it should not be put into a common drain. Although there is an interesting prayer at the conclusion of the Coptic rite of Baptism to return the water to the status of “ordinary water”, Myron (Chrism) has been put into the water and this must never be disposed of irreverently or put down the drain. Churches usually have a drainage system which allows the baptismal water to empty into a specially prepared pit going into clean soil.

12. Can I confess to any Priest or should I have a specific Father in Confession?

You can, of course, make your confession to any Priest, but it is preferable that you establish a personal relationship with one Priest. Confession in Orthodoxy is (to put it very simply) less formal and “mechanistic” than in Roman Catholicism and more a sort of therapeutic conversation. An Orthodox Priest is less interested in knowing that you lied four times, felt lust in your heart twice and broke the fast three times, than in assisting you in your spiritual life and in your relationship with God. This is difficult to achieve if the Priest doesn’t know you or know anything about your life. Thus people often refer to “Confession Fathers” or “Spiritual Fathers”. The relationship needs to be comfortable and open on both sides so that the conversation is free and honest. It is not the relationship of a magistrate and an accused, as it were! In an emergency confession can be made to any Priest, but it is far more beneficial for spiritual development to have a constant “Spiritual Father”.

13. Can a Priest refuse to give absolution?

Yes. Confession is not intended just to be a recital of sin, but also an expression of repentance and of a firm intention to not repeat the sin. Absolution is not some sort of magic which “wipes away” the sin regardless of the psychological or spiritual state of the person making the confession. If a person confessed to a sin (for example, to stealing money from his employer) but showed no sign of accepting that this was wrong or (worse) expressed the intention to repeat the sin, he cannot receive absolution. Even if a Priest pronounced the words of absolution these would be of no effect. This does not mean that there must be some (probably unrealistic) promise that the sin will never be repeated, but there must be a firm and sincere intention to strive to overcome the temptation to commit it.

14. Who is permitted to handle consecrated liturgical vessels (for example, the Chalice)? Is it only a Priest?

Consecrated liturgical vessels may only be handled by Bishops, Priests and (full) Deacons. If anyone else needs to handle them (and this should only occur very rarely) he should cover his hands with a veil so that he does not have direct contact with the consecrated object.

15. Can anointing with holy oil only be done for those who are seriously ill or dying (as in the Roman Catholic Church)?

In Orthodox tradition, anointing is often used as a general form of blessing and giving spiritual strength rather than as the specific Sacrament of Unction, which is reserved to the sick (although not necessarily the dying). People may seek a blessing and anointing for all sorts of reasons, without seeking the formal Rite of Unction. So we need to make a distinction between anointing as a blessing and anointing as the Sacrament of Unction. There is a formal ritual for the latter, but for the former it usually follows (in the Coptic tradition) a simple rite. The Priest (or Bishop) makes the Sign of the Cross over himself and says the invocation (“In the Name of the Father.....”), then takes some blessed oil onto his right thumb and makes the Sign of the Cross on the centre of the forehead of the person saying “Blessed be God the Father Almighty”, then makes the Sign of the Cross on the centre of the person’s throat (on the larynx) saying “Blessed be His Only Begotten Son, Jesus Christ our Lord”, then makes the Sign of the Cross on the inside of the person’s right wrist saying “Blessed be the Holy Spirit the Comforter”, and then on the inside of the person’s left wrist saying “The One God. Amen.” He will then usually make the Sign of the Cross over himself again saying: “Glory and honour, honour and glory be to the Father, and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit, the One God, Amen.”

16. Does the Coptic Orthodox Church have Deaconesses?

In the early Church the office of the Deaconess clearly existed and was written about, but it seems to have disappeared in the Orthodox Church by about the 12th century.

Pope Shenouda revived the office of the Deaconess in 1991 and the Holy Synod established the rules and rituals for the office in 1992. The ranks of Deaconesses are similar to those of deacons that is Agnostis, Subdeacon, and Deacon, corresponding to Consecrated Woman, Assistant Deaconess, and Deaconess.

The admission to these offices is undertaken by a Bishop but is performed without the laying on of hands. It takes place after the Raising of Morning Incense in a private Liturgy for women .

The Deaconess cannot read the lessons or the Gospel at the Liturgy or administer Communion. She may teach at a meeting for children or women, but may not teach in the presence of men.

17. Who are the Coptic Catholics? Are they just Roman Catholics who are ethnically Coptic?

Put simply, the Coptic Catholic Church is one of the Eastern Churches in communion with the Pope of Rome. These churches are sometimes (wrongly) called “uniate” churches. There are equivalent Eastern Churches in communion with Rome to all the Eastern and Oriental Orthodox Churches (for example, the Armenian Catholic, the Coptic Catholic, the Ethiopian Catholic).

Roman Catholic representation effectively ceased to exist within Egypt after the Great Schism between East and West in 1054, although Catholics lived in Egypt and were served by Roman Catholic Priests. In the early seventeenth century, missionaries of the Capuchin order began work in what was then known as the Levant, and established a centre at Cairo in 1630. The Coptic Orthodox Patriarch allowed the monks to use Coptic churches and to visit Coptic monasteries.

In 1741, the Coptic Orthodox Metropolitan of Jerusalem, Athanasius, converted to Roman Catholicism, and was made Vicar Apostolic for the Catholic Egyptians, now coming to be known as the Catholic Copts. At that time, there were some 2,000 Coptic Catholics. Although a Coptic Catholic jurisdiction was established in Egypt, there were no separate Coptic Catholic Churches, and services were held in existing Roman Catholic churches.

In 1824 Pope Leo XII established the Coptic Catholic Patriarchate of Alexandria, having been misled into believing that the viceroy of Egypt, Muhammad Ali, wanted such a Patriarchate established for all Copts . He issued a Bull, Petrus Apostolorum Princeps, in which he purported to suppress Coptic Orthodox Patriarchate of Alexandria, claiming that although it actually existed it lacked the right to exist, and he established the Catholic Coptic Patriarchate in its place. However, discovering that he had been deceived, Pope Leo took no action to have the new Patriarchate erected, and no Patriarch was appointed.

In 1898, a synod of the Catholic Copts was held at which attempts were made to Latinize the rites, ceremonies and practices of the Coptic Catholics. This included the introduction of Latin feasts, Latin rite offices and clerical celibacy, although the Patriarch was to be able to grant a dispensation from the obligation of celibacy to married priests of the Coptic Orthodox Church who converted to Coptic Catholicism. The filioque was introduced into the Creed. In 1899, the Apostolic Administrator of the Coptic Catholics was appointed (Coptic Catholic) Patriarch of Alexandria, and given the name Cyril II (Cyril I having been Cyril the Great). After the death of Patriarch Cyril II no successor to the Patriarchal throne was appointed until August 9, 1947, when Markos Khuzam was appointed, taking the name Mark II (St Mark having been the first Patriarch of that name). Following his death on February 2, 1958, he was succeeded by Stephanos I Sidarus who, in 1965, was named as a Cardinal. Since 2006 the Patriarch has been Antonios I Naguib.

By 2007, the Coptic Catholic Church in Egypt consisted of six dioceses, about 100 parishes, 200 Priests and some 150,000 members. There are also small Coptic Catholic churches outside Egypt (in the America and Australia, for example).

Fr Gregory