What exactly is an Elder?

I know that the title “Elder” is used as, as far as I can gather, an honorific of sorts for certain respected / venerable monks who are considered particularly holy and worthy of imitation. Is there any formal process around granting the title, or is it simply an organic “people start calling him Elder” sort of thing? Also, are all “Elders” monks, and if so, also priests, or does it vary?

Finally, I’m interested in the word itself. Our English word “priest” comes from the Greek presbyteros meaning Elder… is this the same word / title, or is something else used in Greek / Russian?

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In Orthodoxy, anyway, Elders can be male or female, clerical or lay. Though typically they are monastics (and more often than not, priests). But this is not always and everywhere the case.

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Interesting. So we essentially have “Elders” in Latin Catholicism too then, based on this description, we just don’t necessarily use that title. A prominent example that comes to mind would be Padre Pio…

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Elders are, more or less, spiritual directors. They help people cater their daily prayer rule to suit where they are at on their spiritual journey. What’s interesting to note is how it is regularly encouraged for Orthodox to confess their sins to Elders (if they seek them for guidance). Even if the Elder in question is not a priest. Obviously, for non priests, no absolution can be given for the confession. But the Elders will still give advice and guidance on those who confess their sins to them, on how to overcome their sins.

On a side note, confession in Orthodoxy and Eastern Catholicism is so vastly different from my experience in Roman Catholicism. Essentially they ought to be similar. But the Eastern Catholic confessions I’ve done, the priest’s response was to give me a penance that was specifically molded not only to address my sin(s), but at the same time foster spiritual growth through fasting and prayer. It is a far cry compared to my many many confessions to Roman Catholic priests (especially diocesan priests) where you confess your sins, get absolved, and your penance is to simply “say one our father and three hail mary’s”. And then that’s it. I know it varies priest to priest but this is “generally” what confession in diocesan parishes has become. I admit, I understand that confession is ultimately about absolution, and that it’s not necessary for a priest to spend any length of time walking you through your sins and giving guidance/counsel. But in the East (and generally in TLM parishes like the FSSP, Institute of the Good Shepherd, and SSPX- I’ve confessed at all three), there remains a heavy emphasis on spiritual guidance as part of the healing that comes with the absolution. It’s something diocesan priests need to start learning in seminary again. Heck, most of them don’t even require you to say your act of contrition in the confessional anymore. It’s tragic how watered down the practice of our faith has become.

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It varies. Some priests are amazing with tailored spiritual guidance. And you’re right, there may be more emphasis on that among religious priests. That said, it is also partly practical. At our local Roman Catholic cathedral, confession is scheduled twice a day, 6 days a week. There is always a line. It simply isn’t fair to those in line to spend 20 minute on personal spiritual counsel… “time and place” is a factor. When you have a large number of penitents in need of absolution, absolution needs to be the focus.


All the more reason why the surrounding parishes ought to offer confession daily, more than once. When the average parish only offers confession once a week, on Saturdays, for 30min to an hour (otherwise by appointment), Catholics will flood to wherever they can to get confessions reasonably. Confession ought to be offered for at least 30 minutes before and after every Mass. And if there’s more than one priest at the parish, confession should be offered through the Mass (at least until the line is cleared) to ensure that everyone has the opportunity to validly receive our Lord’s life giving grace in Holy Communion.

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True. My local parish actually does this. Or rather the pastor, on his own, hears confession a half hour before every Mass… 7 days a week. But yes, many parishes don’t do this.

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It’s helpful to note that Greek πρεσβύτερος presbuteros was already in use as an honorific in pre-Christian Greek-speaking culture. It generally had the connotations of ‘wise’ and ‘sagely’, as elderhood does in most languages. In Ancient Greek, presbuteros was commonly applied to ambassadors, which carries over into Modern Greek’s πρεσβευτής presbeutes. Also in Modern Greek, senators are termed γερουσιαστής gerousiastes, which has the same semantic connotations as presbuteros.

Modern Greek has a large variety of terms for priest: ιερέας iereas , γέροντας gerontas, παπάς papas. Presbuteros isn’t used all that often in daily parlance, most often to clarify that a priest is married, and in theological discussions specifically regarding the office of the presbyterate. Iereas is more the catch-all term for priest, and it’s interesting to note that both Greek and Latin (sacerdos) predominantly uses the pre-Christian term for priest. Papas is more of an intimate term for a priest with whom one is familiar. Generally, the Russian starets is translated into Greek gerontas, which has the same general meaning as presbuteros: ‘someone who is older’.


elder (n.1)

“elderly person, senior citizen,” c. 1200, from Old English eldra “older person, parent; ancestor; chief, prince” (used in biblical translation for Greek presbyter); see elder (adj.). Meaning “one having authority in the community” (originally through age) s from late 14c. and biblical translations of Latin seniores.

From: https://www.etymonline.com/search?q=elder

The Catechism describes a far different - deeper - expression of “penance” (or “satisfaction” - repair) for the disorder and injury resulting from the sins confessed:

CCC 1459 Many sins wrong our neighbor. One must do what is possible in order to repair the harm (e.g., return stolen goods, restore the reputation of someone slandered, pay compensation for injuries). Simple justice requires as much. But sin also injures and weakens the sinner himself, as well as his relationships with God and neighbor. Absolution takes away sin, but it does not remedy all the disorders sin has caused.<Cf. Council of Trent (1551): DS 1712> Raised up from sin, the sinner must still recover his full spiritual health by doing something more to make amends for the sin: he must “make satisfaction for” or “expiate” his sins. This satisfaction is also called “penance.”

CCC 1460 The penance the confessor imposes must take into account the penitent’s personal situation and must seek his spiritual good. It must correspond as far as possible with the gravity and nature of the sins committed. It can consist of prayer, an offering, works of mercy, service of neighbor, voluntary self-denial, sacrifices, and above all the patient acceptance of the cross we must bear. Such penances help configure us to Christ, who alone expiated our sins once for all.

For such “penance” / “satisfaction” / “repair” to be just, meaningful and effective, the priest, as judge, must be an actual spiritual “elder.” He must be mature in the faith and in prayer - the spiritual life - to know within himself our common human path to holiness, and the actual consequences our sins have caused in violation of that path. Priests ought to be striving for personal holiness for themselves a billion times more than the average parishioner, to be sensitive to the real needs of the sinner confessing to them. They obtain the power to absolve by ordination, but the maturity / wisdom needed to be “an elder” - “a presbyter” - must be developed, in full submission to the Spirit who is at work within them.

TLM parishes tend to be fairly small, the priest gets to know a lot of the regular attendees, and the people who attend are likely to be receptive to obtaining spiritual direction in the manner you describe. So giving spiritual counseling during confession is something priests can more easily do there.

By contrast, many ordinary RC diocesan parishes are very large - or if small, one priest may be handling several parishes. Gone are the days when the priest knew the people in his parish well enough to be providing individualized spiritual direction. And not everybody going to confession wants that sort of thing, especially if they’re going anonymously, or only confessing 1 or 2 times a year. If a person actually wants spiritual direction, in some cases they can make a separate appointment with the priest (which also means the person is not taking up too much time of the hour scheduled for confession) or they can seek out a spiritual director who specializes in counseling, who often is not also handling all the tasks of a parish priest.

In the closest parish to me here there are 2000 families. Even with 4 priests assigned to the parish, I think it would be a pretty gargantuan task for the priests to be dealing in depth and one-on-one with the spiritual growth of each person in a parish that size, especially for things like “fasting” which RCs aren’t used to doing like ECs are, and which could have medical consequences.

I would suggest that maybe you be a little more culturally sensitive to things like parish size, priest workload, and how the average RC approaches their faith before just making big pronouncements about what you think diocesan RC priests should do.

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Priests are aware that most Catholics are going to Confession maybe once a year, or not at all. They don’t want to make it more involved than the (typical) penitent wants, since the typical penitent’s Catholic friends never go to Confession.

My pastor came 12 years ago, offering Confession every day. But he ended up sitting alone usually, so he cut back to half hour on Saturday.

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The novus ordo parishes I’ve been too are dwindling in number (even pre covid) whereas two out of the three TLM communities I was part of were almost standing room only (the sspx were standing room only at all three of their Sunday Masses and sometimes even for daily Mass, for the few that I was able to attend).

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I don’t know where you live, but it isn’t my Archdiocese or neighborhood. One church 5 miles away had to rebuild twice in 20 years because more and more Catholics kept moving in.

As I always say, be careful of extrapolating what’s going on in your neck of the woods to Catholicism as a whole. Moreover, the dwindling of OF parishes is not due to some great love for TLM and SSPX, at least not in the USA, but rather because neighborhood demographics change and the Catholic families move out of an area and into some other (often nicer, more upscale) one such as this area where churches are growing. Of course there is also the issue of fewer people going to church, which in turn has led the Catholics to build fewer new churches when the shifts happen and instead create these mega parishes that I am seeing around here.

We have a Catholic OF parish about every 5 miles around here for a total of about 6 of them within a short driving distance, plus a college Newman Center that holds Mass. Pre-COVID, some of the Masses were standing room only. Even after COVID, with half the pews blocked off and a lot of folks not attending Mass, at the two closest churches to me it’s still hard to get a socially distanced seat at a number of the Sunday Masses and on popular feast days like St. Jude and All Souls. Since there is still a lot of new housing development getting put into this area, I expect this population to continue over time.

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Is being a good “judge” of the penitent’s walk very feasible for a priest in the Western setup (where people confess anonymously, to a priest they may have never seen before and will never see again)? I’m genuinely asking, because to me it seems that would be somewhat difficult :thinking:

I think that’s what he’s saying - the current setup (including parish size / priest workload) is the problem. It’s like a surgeon being so overloaded that they’re unable to do more than quick basic procedures. The Church often uses a medical analogy for addressing sin, no?

This isn’t universally true. There’s one local parish that, pre-Covid, had 7 Masses every Sunday (Ordinary Form)…and at some it was literally standing room only with people standing in the back…and the choir loft packed with people too. They also had confession before each of those Masses, always with a line…but in this case we’re dealing with Dominican friars, and they would take time to offer counsel even when there was a big line outside the confessional…

You raise a fair point, but remember this isn’t the only Western approach to confession. Yes, there should be the option to confess your sins anonymously, receive absolution, and leave…this is an act of mercy on the part of the Church. For some people with some sins, it would be psychologically extremely difficult to seek absolution any other way. But the more spiritually “mature” are still encouraged to seek out a spiritual director/father and regularly confess to him…even face to face.
I’ve experienced both many times - behind a screen and face to face with a priest I know.

Remember, in the Latin Church, the “law” is the bare minimum for salvation. You must at least confess your sins once a year to a priest, even if anonymously behind a screen and to a priest you do not know. You must at least fast on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday and abstain/do some penance on every Friday. You must at least go to Mass on Sundays and certain major feast. But this is the bare minimum. As individuals mature in the faith, they should be building a relationship with a trusted priest…praying…fasting more…going to Mass more.
(As opposed to the Orthodox / Eastern tradition where the “law” is the ideal that people strive for).

It’s pretty easy to pray, do reasonable fasts, and attend daily Mass without needing a priest to give you counseling on how to do it.

It’s nice when you can have a relationship with a priest to be your spiritual advisor, but there are plenty of saints and holy people throughout history who had limited access to priests for one reason or another, often because there was oppression against the Church, or a scarcity of priests. Even if one did have a relationship with a trusted confessor, priests change assignments, are transferred away, and pass away. It’s good to be at least somewhat self-sufficient in my opinion, unless you have some huge issue that really requires the help of a priest to sort out.

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I think I’m still confused. Even if the church says anonymously isn’t the only way to confess, there’s still nothing prohibiting people from doing that exclusively (and I think the majority of Catholics do). That is totally allowed and licit. But we both agreed that this sort of confession - where the priest can’t be a good judge of your spiritual state or history - can’t help penitents find the precise and “surgical” remedies for sins that may help them. So why does the church allow (and not prohibit) the spiritually unhelpful practice of exclusively anonymous confessions?

I question whether every penitent “needs” this. It is not part of my tradition. I am not aware of anyone in my family ever needing any more remedy for sin than a priest giving two sentence of advice. I myself have committed lollapaloozas of sins and do not feel like I “need” more than that.

Often the things that stay with us most from confession are the things a priest says in 10 words or less. Which might come during confession and might come during a homily. This idea of every priest to whom I confess being some kind of big in-depth spiritual counselor sounds very uncomfortable to me. I know it’s part of Eastern tradition, but I’m not from the East, and their traditions aren’t all my traditions. The Church breathes with both lungs, not always with the Eastern one.

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