My child, sit here with me. Tell me what troubles you. Only if you want to. I am Father Gregory. […]
I can’t tell you, Father.
Would you like to go to Confession?
I can’t, Father. I did terrible things.
God forgives all who repent. He sent his only Beloved Son to die for us.
I can’t, Father. I can’t.
But you could tell St. Francis, couldn’t you? […] We’ll sit here and you’ll tell him the things that trouble you. If I sit and listen it will only be a pair of ears for St. Francis and Our Lord. Won’t that help?
– from Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt
The sacrament of Confession can be, all at once, mysterious, perplexing, terrifying, humbling, and liberating. The Catchecism says that “even from a simply human point of view, frees us and facilitates our reconciliation with others. Through such an admission man looks squarely at the sins he is guilty of, takes responsibility for them, and thereby
opens himself again to God and to the communion of the Church in order to make a
new future possible.”
The Catechism also says:
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. 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.
The word ‘sacrament’ comes from the Latin meaning ‘sacred sign.’ The sacraments are intended to point beyond themselves to the fullness of God’s mercy and loving justice. It is the responsibility of the priest to be a servant of God’s forgiveness and to mediate between God and the penitent. The sacrament of Confession or Reconciliation is rooted in both Sacred Scripture and Tradition.
When [Jesus] had said this, he breathed on [the disciples] and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” – John 20:22-23 (NRSV)
Father William Saunders tells this story about the inviolability of the sacramental seal:
A beautiful story (perhaps embellished with time) which captures the reality of this topic is the life of St. John Nepomucene (1340-93), the vicar general to the Archbishop of Prague. King Wenceslaus IV, described as a vicious, young man who easily succumbed to rage and caprice, was highly suspicious of his wife, the Queen. St. John happened to be the Queen’s confessor. Although the king himself was unfaithful, he became incrasingly jealous and suspicious of his wife, who was irreproachable in her conduct. Wencelaus, as king, demanded that St. John break the sacramental seal. Although Wencelaus tortured St. John to force him to reveal the Queen’s confessions, he would not. In the end, St. John was thrown into the River Moldau and drowned on March 20, 1393. Similar stories abound, especially in the past century during the awful persecution of the Church under Communism and Naziism, where priests were tortured, imprisoned, and executed because they would not break the sacramental seal.
Though “it is a crime for a confessor in any way to betray a penitent by word or in any other manner or for any reason” (Code of Canon Law, no. 2490), there are instances where priests have betrayed the authority and responsibility of their positions. Though the sexual abuse scandals that have occurred have been the main focus of attention by Catholics and non-Catholics alike, the sacred trust abuse scandals deserve, I think, our serious attention, especially in light of dozens of efforts by governments that threaten the inviolability of the sacrament.
Though the known cases of abuses of the sacramental seal are very few relative to the longstanding tradition of secrecy, it is wrong to underestimate these known cases and to omit from our consideration the possibility of many possible unreported cases.
The most startling example of a breach of the sacramental seal that I have learned about occured in the life of a young boy. I will excerpt his whole account of the experience from his autobiography:
An Early Traumatic Experience
You should know that I took my religion very seriously. The first serious crack in my religious belief happened when I was thirteen years old. On a Saturday morning, during the usual pushing and shoving to be the first one into the gym, I accidentally pushed a classmate down the stairs. Throughout the years, hundreds of students must have sailed down these stairs without any serious injuries. This time he was unlucky; he broke his ankle. I was punished with two hours of detention. I went to confession in the afternoon as I did every week, confessed what I did like a good boy, but I didn’t say anything about this incident at home because I didn’t want to spoil Sunday for my parents. They would learn about it soon enough in the coming week.
That evening my confessor, who was a good friend of my father, was visiting at our house. The next morning my father scolded me about the pushing incident, and I was punished because I did not report it to him right away. I was devestated, not because of the punishment, but because of this unheard of breach of confidence by my confessor. Wasn’t it always taught that the secrecy of the confessional could not be broken? Even the most serious crimes that a person tells the priest in the holy confessional cannot be reported to the police. And now this priest, whom I trusted so deeply, who was my steady confessor and knew my whole little world of sins by heart, had broken the secrecy of the confessional for such a minor incident. Only he could have told my father.
Neither my father, mother, nor anyone else from our house had been in town that day. Our telephone was out of order, and none of my classmates lived in our neighbourhood. No one had visited us except my confessor. For a long, long time, I checked all the details of this over and over because this was such a horrible thing to me. Then and even now I am firmly convinced that the priest had violated the secrecy of the confessional. My faith in the holy profession of the priesthood was smashed and doubts began to stir within me. I never went back to him for confession because I could no longer trust him. I told the priest that I was going to our religious instruction teacher in the church near my school because my father lectured me when he discovered I was no longer going to the priest. My father believed it, but I am convinced that the priest knew the real reason. He tried everything to win me back, but I just couldn’t go back to him. In fact, I went even further. I didn’t go to confession at all anymore if I could get away with it. After this incident, I could no longer trust any priest.
In religious instruction we were told that if a person went to communion without confession, he would be severely punished by God. We were told that someone had done that and had dropped dead at the communion rail. With childish simplicity I begged God to be lenient because I could no longer confess faithfully and to forgive my sins, which I now recited directly to him. So I believed I was free of my sins. Full of doubt, I went trembling to the communion rail in strange church. And nothing happened! So I, poor earthworm, believed that God would hear my prayers and agree with what I was doing. The deep, true, childlike faith which so calmly and surely guided my soul until this time was smashed.
How sincere and contrite! Who could refuse pity and sympathy to this boy whose trust and childlike faith were so terribly betrayed? What became of this boy? The next year his father died. The boy was supposed to become a priest. With the loss of faith and the loss of his father, he became zealous to join the military, though he was just fifteen. He doubted his vocation to be a priest and explained that both the traumatic incident of betrayal and having witnessed the trade in holy relics that he had seen in the Holy Land had destroyed his faith in priests. His mother then died and the young man became more and more convinced of his desire to be a soldier.
The one of whom I speak is Rudolph Höss and I have been quoting from his autobiography Death Dealer: Memoirs of the SS Kommandant at Auschwitz. According to the back cover, “Höss (1900-1947) was history’s greatest mass murderer, personally supervising the extermination of approximately two million people, mostly Jews at Auschwitz.”
Two months before he was hanged at Auschwitz Höss ended his memoirs saying:
May the general public simply go on seeing me as the bloodthirsty beast, the cruel sadist, the murderer of millions, because the broad masses cannot conceive the Kommandant of Auschwitz in any other way. They will never be able to understand that he also had a heart and that he was not evil.
Though his memoirs are filled with alternations between truthtelling and lying, the challenges in deciphering the truth render the work all the more fascinating. And so, from this Nazi we have an extraordinary testimony on the absolutely paramount secrecy of the Seal of Confession. Though the terrible betrayal of trust (whether sexually or with respect to sacred trust) does not exonerate penitents from future sins, it does rouse heartbreaking sympathy for those who, in their vulnerability and trust, have expected to
place themselves before the mercy of God, but have instead encountered extreme human weakness, and perhaps even Satan.
But “since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23, NRSV), there is a need for the sacrament of Confession. It is a real, transformative event through which God imparts His loving mercy even though priests fall short of mediating (as Christ does) the perfection of the love of God the Father.
In her Letter to a Priest, Simone Weil writes: “The Church is only perfectly pure under one aspect; when considered as guardian of the sacraments. What is perfect is not the Church; it is the body and blood of Christ upon the altars.” Similarly, it could be added: What is perfect is not the confessors; it is the mercy of God poured out through the Sacrament of Reconciliation.
Confession is a powerful experience. The priests through whom I have confessed my sins have been extraordinary examples of Christ’s love. They have always listened lovingly and patiently. They have often given helpful advice, encouragement, and spiritual direction. I am thankful for their ministry. It is truly amazing that there are priests all around the world listening to hours of confessions every week. They are doctors of the soul and deserve our gratitude for their selfless service. Still, we must encourage and pray for them, that each would “lead a life worthy of the calling to which [they] have been called.” (Ephesians 4:1)