Dear Grace: I have not been to Confession in a very long time, but because it is almost Lent, I am considering it. There is something, however, that 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?
© Copyright 2003 Grace D. MacKinnon
This article taken from the book Dear Grace: Answers to Questions About the Faith, coming in March 2003 from Our Sunday Visitor. Order online by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 1-800-348-2440. Faith questions may be sent to Grace via e-mail at: email@example.com. You may also visit Grace online at www.DearGrace.com.
Your friend is wrong. I have heard this question before and it is a shame how misinformation can keep a person from receiving the healing which Jesus offers us in the Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation (better known to many as “Confession”). The Catholic 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” (CCC #1467).
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 (canons 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, see also John 20:23).
When we stay away from Confession, it is often for a number of reasons. Sometimes, it is because of 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, above all, 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. Lent is an especially good time to unburden our sins to God. 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. In fact, I can almost assure you that if you prepare for Confession well and pour yourself out to the Lord of Mercy, you will come from it feeling as if your were on a cloud. God wants to forgive you!
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).