The Confessional SealGRACE MACKINNON
Dear Grace, I have not been to confession in a very long time and there is something I would like to know. A friend told me that, under certain conditions, a priest could divulge what you tell him, even in confession. Is this true?
A priest can speak to no one of anything you say to him in confession, and this includes you. For example, even if he is aware of your identity, and later runs into you in church or elsewhere, he may not bring up anything you said to him in confession, unless you first bring it up to him. Then, and only then, may he discuss it with you. Otherwise, he must remain silent. Under no circumstances may the “seal” of confession be broken. According to canon law, the penalty for a priest who violates this seal would be an automatic excommunication, reserved to the Apostolic See. (canon 983, 1388)
It is very important to remember that when we confess our sins before a priest, he is standing there in Persona Christi (in the Person of Christ). It is Christ himself who hears our confession and forgives us. Jesus gave us this sacrament because he knew that we would continue to sin and be in need of reconciliation with God. So, he gave to his apostles his authority to forgive sins “in his name” when he said to them, “whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven" (Matthew 16:19).
When we stay away from confession, it is often for a number of reasons. Sometimes, it is shame over what we have done. Or perhaps we think that the priest is going to be shocked by what we will say. I can assure you, however, that he will be happy that you are there, seeking reconciliation with God. Sin offends God, but he is always ready to forgive, if we will only turn to him and ask. Do not put it off any longer. Go as soon as you can. You will experience a joy and peace that the world can never offer. God loves you so much and his mercy is far greater than you may realize.
Listen to the words of Jesus as spoken to St. Maria Faustina Kowalska and recorded in her diary: “I want to give myself to souls and to fill them with my love, but few there are who want to accept all the graces My love has intended for them (p.388). Speak to the world about My mercy; let all mankind recognize My unfathomable mercy (p.333). The flames of mercy are burning Me — clamoring to be spent; I want to keep pouring them out to souls; souls just don’t want to believe in My goodness (p.99). I desire trust from My creatures. Encourage souls to place great trust in My fathomless mercy. Let the weak, sinful soul have no fear to approach Me, for even if it had more sins than there are grains of sand in the world, all would be drowned in the immeasurable depths of My mercy (p.400)” (see Diary: Divine Mercy in My Soul).
Dear Grace: I just read your answer to the question posed in a previous article about priests not being able to reveal what is said to them in Confession. How does the seal of the sacrament pertain to confession about abuse? What if another priest confesses to abusing a child in some way?
It is unfortunate
that the recent revelations of the moral misconduct on the part of a minority
of Catholic priests has resulted in the questioning of some of the Church’s practices,
among them the sacrament of Reconciliation, also known as Penance or Confession.
One positive result of this, however, is that it provides an opportunity to clarify
anew the teaching of Christ through his Church.
Grace D. MacKinnon "The Confessional Seal." Catholic Exchange (June 2002).
Reprinted with permission of Grace MacKinnon.
Grace MacKinnon is a syndicated columnist and public speaker on Catholic doctrine. She is the author of Dear Grace: Answers to Questions About the Faith published by Our Sunday Visitor. Order online by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 1-800-348-2440.
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Copyright © 2003 Grace D. MacKinnon
Not all articles published on CERC are the objects of official Church teaching, but these are supplied to provide supplementary information.