This past month, we have explored the Church’s belief around the sacrament of Penance. One aspect of the Church’s practice which fascinates many people is the seal of Confession. This seal means that any sins confessed to a priest in the context of the sacrament are absolutely private and cannot be disclosed to anyone for any reason. The seal is of great spiritual benefit to those who go to Confession. Here is what the Catechism says about the seal.
“Given the delicacy and greatness of this ministry and the respect due to persons, the Church declares that every priest who hears confessions is bound under very severe penalties to keep absolute secrecy regarding the sins that his penitents have confessed to him. He can make no use of knowledge that confession gives him about penitents’ lives.72 This secret, which admits of no exceptions, is called the “sacramental seal,” because what the penitent has made known to the priest remains “sealed” by the sacrament” (Paragraph 1467).
The reason the seal of confession exists is so that people who want to receive forgiveness from God feel free to do so without human judgment. I can attest that in my few months as a priest, the seal of confession has given great freedom to many people to bring their burdens to the Lord, knowing that I would not disclose the details of their life to anybody.
Every once in a while, we hear in the media about countries or states that try to pass a law forcing priests to disclose knowledge they received in the context of confession. These laws usually don’t get passed either by the legislators or by the court systems because this is seen as a violation of religious freedom. And it’s not just Catholics that this applies to. In the United States, we all have the right to private spiritual counsel from a pastoral minister. Even if the state were to pass a law forcing us to disclose some people’s sins, no Catholic priest would do so, no matter the temporal consequences.
There are times when priests have questions about how to advise people who come to him in confession. In this case, a priest will usually call another priest and explain the situation in generic terms, not even disclosing if the person is a man or a woman. When I was in the seminary, I had several practice confession sessions with my classmates and teachers. In the course of our learning about the sacrament, our professors shared many stories and examples from confessions they had heard, which was very helpful for us. However, most of these priests were from different states and had been priests for decades. There is no chance of mistakenly revealing someone’s identity in these situations.
Priests sometimes talk about their ability to forget sins which were brought to them during Confession. The first reason for this is that most confessions are heard behind the screen, so we don’t even know the identity of the one confessing. We also hear a lot of confessions, and most people deal with the same problems, so very few confessions are absolutely unique. However, it is not as if the Holy Spirit does a memory wipe on us when we walk out of the confessional. And it is good for us to remember some things because as priests the Church asks us to pray and do penance for those whose sins we have forgiven in confession.
The Catechism quote above said that the seal is in place due to the “greatness of this ministry.” It truly is a great ministry to be a servant of God’s mercy and forgive sins in Jesus’ name as a Catholic priest. Here at the Cathedral, we offer many times for confessions, and we never go a day without somebody coming to the parish to be reconciled to God. The Sacrament of Penance truly is a gift straight from the pierced heart of Jesus Christ. May we all accept this gift with open arms!