Before a man is ordained priest and permitted to hear confessions, he must go through a long period of careful study and preparation. The present rule is to have a four-year preparatory course after the intermediate course, three or at least two years of Philosophy, and four years of Theology, Canon Law, Ecclesiastical History, and Sacred Scripture. One subject matter that is given great emphasis is Moral Theology, so necessary for hearing confession.
This long and detailed preparation would usually not attract a low class of men. Though sadly, we have seen over the past 40 years that this is not necessarily so for the devil has penetrated every stronghold within the Church. Nevertheless, we can pray that the majority of our priests do seek to uphold their vows and carry out their vocation to which they have been called for the honor and glory of God.
After one is ordained a priest, he is continually reminded of his duties, not only by his superiors, but by his daily meditation and prayer. Every priest - up until the relaxation of rules brought about by the reforms of Vatican II - was obliged to say the Breviary every day. These spiritual duties bring down the grace of God on the priest, and serve to strengthen him to be faithful to his sacred duties, one of the most important being to keep the Seal of Confession, the sacramental secret.
The "Seal of Confession" is the most solemn obligation of a priest to keep secret what has been revealed to him in confession.
1. The priest may not break this seal even to save his own life, or to avert a great calamity. He must act as if he had not heard anything in confession. This is why a sense of shame or fear of telling our sins should never lead us to conceal mortal sins in confession.
Towards the end of the fourteenth century, Wenceslaus, King of Bohemia, ordered St. John Nepomucene to be drowned in the river Moldau. The king had tried to make the Saint reveal to him what the queen had said in confession, and the saint had firmly refused, in spite of inducements and threats. Hundreds of years after, during the process of canonization, the saint's tongue was found incorrupt, and looked like a living tongue.
2. The Seal of Confession must be observed even in a court of justice, for the divine law is higher than human law.
In the beginning of the nineteenth century, a Jesuit priest from New York, Father Kohlman, was called into court to testify. A couple were on trial for having received stolen goods. Father Kohlman was supposed to have knowledge of the matter through the confessional, for he had restored the stolen goods to the rightful owner. At court, the priest refused to testify, and was thereupon tried for contempt of court. However, he was not punished, and soon after a New York law was passed exempting priests from revealing in court any knowledge obtained in confession.
Such a law, nevertheless, is far from universal, and the position a priest who refuses to reveal confessional matter in a court of law is not secure.
It would be a mortal sin for a priest to divulge what he knew through someone's confession, even a venial sin.
1. The penalty for violating the Seal of Confession is excommunication reserved to the Pope, besides severe ecclesiastical penalties. From time to time we hear of priests who apostatize, priests who are perverted, those who cover-up scandal, but never has anyone fallen so low as to break the Seal of Confession.
This incident happened in France during medieval times. The chaplain of a castle one night heard a knock at his door, and opening it saw a man, who said that he wished to go to confession. The chaplain heard the confession during which the man revealed that that same night he was to lead an assault against the castle, having been chosen to execute a plot. The chaplain tried to dissuade him, but in vain. Absolution having been denied him, the man departed.
The chaplain passed the night in an agony of dread. However, he remained at the castle, and told no one of what he had heard in the confessional, but prepared himself for death. At dawn he heard a knock, and admitted the man of the night before. The man said, "I wished to be convinced that priests really observe the Seal of the confessional, for I am a great sinner. All night I watched to see whether you would inform others, or leave the castle to save yourself. Now I no longer doubt the secrecy of the confessional, and I want to confess all my wicked deeds."
2 The penitent, however, may give the priest permission to make use of what he has revealed in confession. In that case the priest may do so, although he is advised to be most careful, in order to prevent unjust accusation concerning the secrecy of the confessional.
Enemies of the Church have constantly tried to attack the Seal of Confession, to break this rule of the Church. So far, by the grace of God Who watches over His Church, these enemies have failed.
Penitents are in no way bound by the Seal of Confession; but they are strongly advised to refrain from talking about what the priest tells them in the confessional.
1. Penitents should avoid speaking about the advise given, the penance, etc.
One reason for this is that if we misunderstand or misrepresent what the priest told us, he has no way of defending himself. Besides, each penitent is different from the others. Advice or penance given by a confessor to one may not be good for another; just as a doctor prescribes different medicines for his patients.
2. If we overhear something being told in the confessional, we are strictly bound to secrecy.
We are absolutely free to choose the confessor we like.
1. It is advisable to have a regular confessor. In this way he becomes well acquainted with our character and state of conscience. He is thus enabled to direct us better, to give us more effective spiritual advice and instruction.
A confessor is like a physician. If a sick man consults a different physician every week and follows the directions of none, he cannot expect much improvement in health. Similarly, a penitent who moves from one confessor to another can hardly get the advice he needs.
2. We should choose a skilled confessor, and follow his directions faithfully. However, for the peace of our conscience, we should not hesitate to change confessors.
If we change confessors, we should never without necessity mention to the new one what our old confessors advised us. It might work an injustice to the previous confessor, who cannot defend himself.
3. Some conceal mortal sins in confession out of a sense of shame before their ordinary confessor. Such persons should go and confess to another priest.
They should also remember that the priest, who represents Christ Himself, is bound by the Seal of Confession never to reveal anything told to him in the confessional.
4. Those who are ashamed to confess to any priest must remember that one day they will have their sins revealed, to their eternal confusion, before all mankind. "I will show thy nakedness to the nations, and thy shame to kingdoms" (Nahum 3: 5). Is it not better to reveal our sins now to only one man, who need not know the penitent, and is furthermore bound by the sacramental secret? Is it not better to confess them now to the priest, than burn in hell for all eternity?
God Himself said, "There will be joy in Heaven over one sinner who repents, more than over ninety-nine just who have no need of repentance" (Luke 15: 7).
For previous installments, see APPRECIATING THE PRECIOUS GIFT OF OUR FAITH Archives