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Common confession.

Common (or public) confession, which was practiced by St. John with the permission of the church authorities, due to the impossibility of hearing confession individually from the thousands of people who streamed to him, is a special topic all to itself. Descriptions give but a very faint idea of this great miracle of masses of people being penitently renewed by the power of St. John’s prayer and pastoral love.

Before beginning confession, St. John would turn to the penitents with this appeal:

"Sinners, similar to myself! You have come to this church so as to offer to the Lord Jesus Christ, Our Savior, repentance for sins and then to partake of the Mysteries. Have you prepared yourselves sufficiently to partake of so great a Mystery? Do you know that I will answer heavily before the Throne of the Most High if you partake without preparation? Do you know that you are confessing not to me, but to the Lord Himself, Who is visibly present here. Whose Body and Blood are at this very moment present upon the altar table?.."

Having thus prepared the faithful, St. John would himself begin — on behalf of the people and facing them — to read the prayers of penitence — speaking in a slow, lengthened tone, at times dividing words into syllables, and sometimes also extending his arm over the heads of the penitents — as if indicating each one of them separately to the Merciful Judge.

"O God, Our Savior! Forgive these, Thy servants!" — he exclaims in a loud voice. His voice now rises, then falls, passing suddenly from moving prayer to sternly prophetic words. It is as if St. John sees the Just Judge before himself. From reading of the prayer he passes, from time to time, to its interpretation in his own words, striving to drive into the consciousness of the penitents the prayer’s every thought, its every shade of meaning. "O, my God," — recalls a female participant in such a preparation for confession. "How the penitent soul would be filled with trepidation at the sight of the good pastor, who at that given moment has taken upon himself the task of conciliator and intercessor for God’s mercy to us sinners!"

Having prepared the people in a fitting manner, St. John would announce in a loud voice: "Repent!"

"Now something unbelievable began to happen. Wailing, shouting, spoken confession of hidden sins. Some (especially women) strove to shout as loudly as possible, so that Batiushka might hear them and pray for them."

"Repent, repent, the Lord hears you!" — St. John would cry. "Such an uproar would arise that no words can ever describe. This was something whole, mutual or general, gigantic! Individual voices could not be heard, as also individual people could not be separated from this crowd. This was one mass... None noticed his neighbor, each thought only of himself..."

During that time St. John stood, leaning upon the analogion, and prayed. He prayed and wept — wept so much that tears flowed in torrents. Each saw only himself, not noticing anyone else, and fearlessly laid bare the secrets of his sins. Batiushka— saw everyone.

Now from somewhere in a corner is heard the cry of a woman possessed by the devil, beginning to sing some wicked song — she quiets down, joining herself to the common confession... Batiushka is still praying...

"Over there in that corner, you must yet repent!" — suddenly, unexpectedly he exclaims, straightening up and pointing with his finger toward the western side of the cathedral. And in reply, wails of repentance begin to flow from there with unusual fervor...

Sometimes St. John would walk away into the altar and pray there, bowing before the holy table and placing his head upon it...

How much time in all passes like this? About fifteen minutes! Finally, Batiushka comes out again to the ambo. Perspiration is pouring from his face. Requests for prayers, wails of penance are still directed at him... But now little by little the packed cathedral quietens down. St. John extends his stole over the people and reads the prayer of absolution. Sometimes he covers those closest to him with it, makes a sweep with it in a semicircle, first on the ambo, then in the altar...

Confession has ended. From all sides may still be heard subdued sighs, sobs and groans — heat lightning after the breaking and passing of the cleansing thunderstorm.

In St. John’s book, "Of God, the Universe and the Human Soul," the following is mentioned: "Remarkable was the vision seen by one layman in the Church of St. Andrew the First-called; namely, the vision of Our Savior, extending over all present during common confession and the absolution of sins by myself — His Divine Arms embracing all. I thank the Lord for this vision, for this grace, making it known that He is pleased with common confession and that it is being conducted in accordance with His Divine Will."

In one overseas publication one could read more extensively of this vision. We will quote from it:

‘This was on one of the Fridays of Great Lent in 1903, when Batiushka usually arranged common confession. I had no intention of preparing for the sacrament, did not go to church, but, after feeding the baby, set out to meet my husband. Having left the house, I walked in the direction of the store, but suddenly turned quite automatically toward the cathedral. I walk up and am amazed at why confession is taking so long today... I walked in also somehow automatically... In the entrance-1 noticed that the young men and women who stood there were sniggering on account of the penitent cries and were generally conducting themselves improperly, but when they turned their attention on me and began to look under my hat, I hurried forward with bitter and heavy feelings. I stood on the very threshold of the church, as it was higher, and from here it was easier for me to see Batiushka on the ambo. He was just then appealing for penance and kept referring more to the left — it could be seen he was especially calling upon someone over there... Then he faced the icon of Our Savior, prayed silently for some time... Then he faced the crowd again — with the same appeal and again kept looking to the left. I even thought to myself — why is he taking such an unusually long time to hear confession today? Again he turned toward the icon of Our Savior and, it could be seen, was praying fervently, as he kept wiping his eyes with his handkerchief. Suddenly... in front of the closed Royal Gates, closer to the people and standing a little off the ground, I saw, in reality, quite simply — Our Savior... There are no words to describe the beauty of His Most Pure Face, the radiance of His Eyes. He was in a white tunic, barefooted, arms raised to bless the people. I rub my eyes, look around on all sides, tremble completely from fright — and keep seeing the same thing...

"At this time Batiushka goes into the altar, opens the Royal Gates, and only when he comes out through them to give the people remission of sins — Christ the Savior rose upward and disappeared...

"I tremble all over, am afraid of believing myself...

"At this time the people, after receiving remission, are hurrying toward the exit. I catch acquaintances, stop them, ask them — have they by any chance seen anything? — No one has seen anything! I walk out, beside myself, go to my husband at the store. He immediately notices that something is not right with me, wants me to rest there — but I cannot sit for long... He takes me for a walk in the open air — that may possibly calm me. But I cannot calm down, and cannot say anything because of fear, as I do not trust myself... I was in such a state the whole day. Later my aunt came, who had arrived to prepare for the sacrament — I ask her why confession took so long today — she says that never before has there been such a confession, nor was it likely to occur again...

"On the following day, after Liturgy, I hurried to the Working House, as I knew that only there would it be possible to get to Batiushka, to whom I was drawn with my whole soul. I arrived when all were sitting with Batiushka at tea. He did not even raise his head at me... He is told: ‘Olga has arrived; bless her to have tea.’ He pours, sort of unwillingly, evidently; hands it without looking. I am horror-struck, not knowing what to think, begin to doubt myself even more... Batiushka is already leaving, takes the door handle, and only then turns to me: ‘Olga, isn’t there anything you wished to tell me?.. Then he came up to me, placed his hand on my shoulder and said: ‘Well, say what you wanted to say.’ I recounted everything as it was... He made me repeat it twice and said: ‘Go the following Friday as well, and stand in the same spot.’

"Come Friday, I went to the cathedral and stood in the same place on the threshold. Batiushka was speaking from the ambo just exactly about how we once again crucify Christ by our sins... This time I looked ahead intently when Batiushka began to pray as previously; as once before I saw, in the very Royal Gates, the living Jesus Christ, crucified on the Cross. I became somewhat nonplussed. I do not know how to understand why Our Lord was now on the Cross, and not blessing, as He did then... On the following day, after Liturgy, I hurried to Batiushka in the Working House. He immediately asked me loudly in front of everyone: ‘Well, what did you see?’ And I said that this time I saw the Savior crucified on the Cross. And Batiushka loudly exclaimed: This means you have truly seen Christ!’

"Later Batiushka told me that evidently through me the Lord is indicating that common confessions were pleasing to Him, when he himself wished to end them for the reason that during the pushing of the crowds, accidents had occurred... And the Mother of God said to him:

"‘John, continue your confessions.’ And Batiushka continued, but already with the Royal Gates opened."

The gathering of people during common confession was truly frightening. Special preparations were made for it. The cathedral was divided by high balustrades in front of the steps leading to the ambo. The cathedral was divided, both in the center and on both sides, so as to avoid congestion. Common confession would begin at 8:00 AM. But people would gather from 5:00 AM so as to get a closer position. An analogion would be placed on the ambo — as for a sermon. The heat would become terrible. So as to somehow clear the air, guards would bring snow in basins to the choir-places, would make large snowballs and throw them into the crowd. It could be seen how this snow would fly and melt in front of your eyes in the air over the crowd.

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