"And I beheld, and heard the voice of one eagle flying through the midst of heaven,
saying with a loud voice: Woe, woe, woe to the inhabitants of the earth....
[Apocalypse (Revelation) 8:13]

Monday, June 26, 2017

The Seal of Confession

The Seal of Confession
by Michael Muller, 1875

Our divine Savior assures us that the angels of heaven rejoice over you when you give up sin and enter upon a life of penance. He says that "there is even more joy in heaven over a sinner doing penance than over ninty-nine just who need not penance." Now if the angels of heaven rejoice when you come repentant to confession, will not the heart of the priest rejoice when he sees you humbly kneeling before him? As the heart of a mother rejoices on finding her long-lost child, so does the heart of the priest rejoice when he sees the poor lost prodigal returning home at last.

"Oh!" you will say, "but perhaps the priest will speak of my sins, and reveal them to others." Suppose you were to confess your sins to the wall, would you be afraid that your sins would be revealed? No, you would not. Now you may be just as certain that the sins you tell the priest will never be revealed.

The priest is bound by the most sacred, the most solemn obligations; he is bound by every law, natural, ecclesiastical and divine--to observe the utmost secrecy with regard to every sin and imperfection that you reveal to him. He is not allowed to speak of your sins out of confession, even to yourself, unless you give him permission to do so. This is a rule which admits of no exception.

The priest must be ready to suffer every torture; he must sacrifice even life itself rather than reveal, in any way, even the least venial sin. The "seal of confession," as it is called, extends not merely to all the sins mentioned in confession, but also to everything made known during confession, the manifestation of which would tend to make confession odious.

Thus, if a person while preparing for confession, were to go to his confessor, in order to learn how to examine his conscience, or how to declare any class of sins,--or if he were to speak of his sins immediately after absolution,--or even if he came back after leaving the confessional and again referred to the sins he had confessed, as the confession virtually continues, the sins thus manifested would also fall under the seal of confession.

Some persons seem to think that the confessor is not obliged to keep secret what he is told in the confessional, immediately after absolution. This is a great mistake, unless indeed, what is said has no reference whatever to the matter of confession. This strict obligation of perpetual secrecy applies not only to the confessor, but also to all others who have, accidentally or otherwise, acquired any knowledge through sacramental confession. For instance, he who has overheard a sin in confession is as strictly bound to keep it secret as the priest himself.

One of the greatest monsters that ever sat on a throne, was Wenceslaus IV., king of Bohemia. So great were his debaucheries that he was generally called by his subjects "Wenceslaus the drunkard." As is almost always the case with wicked men, he became jealous of his wife, being resolved to find out whether his suspicions were well grounded, he sent for the confessor of the queen.

This confessor was the holy priest, St. John Nepomuck. The tyrant commanded the priest to reveal all that the queen had confessed to him. St. John answered firmly that such a thing was utterly impossible. The emperor tried to win the saint by rich presents; but the confessor spurned such a sacrilegious proposal. The emperor threatened him with imprisonment and death. The confessor answered: "I can die, but I cannot break the seal of confession."

The tyrant ordered him to be put to the torture. The holy confessor was stretched on the rack, burning torches were applied to his side, he was commanded to reveal the queen's confession; but he only raised his eyes to heaven and repeated again and again the sweet names of Jesus and Mary. The tyrant, furious at seeing himself thus baffled, ordered the holy priest to be set at liberty. A few days after, St. John was crossing the bridge over the river Moldau, which flows through the city of Prague. It was night. The holy confessor noticed that some men were following him slowly. He recommended himself to God, and went on courageously. When he had reached the middle of the bridge, just above the most rapid part of the current, the ruffians, who were following, rushed upon him, bound him hand and foot, and cast him into the river.

There was none to witness the sacrilege; but the all-seeing eye of God beheld it. And God soon revealed the murderous deed and proclaimed the sanctity of his servant. A thousand brilliant lights--like twinkling stars--appeared on the dark flood, and floated over the body of the glorious martyr. The people rushed in crowds to behold the wonder. The tyrant himself witnessed it from his palace-window. He could murder the glorious confessor, but he could not prevent the people from honoring him. Next morning the priests of the city, with the bishop at their head, followed by a vast concourse of people, went in solemn procession and carried the body of the brave martyr in triumph to the cathedral.

The Church now honors St. John of Nepomuck as a saint and martyr, and his blessed tongue, which refused to violate the seal of confession, is still fresh and incorrupt, after a lapse of more than three hundred years. Thus suffered and died St. John of Nepomuck, rather than break the seal of confession; and so must every Catholic priest suffer and die, rather than breathe a word of what he has heard in confession.

Every priest can say most truthfully with St. Augustine: "That which I know by confession is less known to me than that which I do not know at all." Yes, the breast of the priest, this angel of peace, is a sealed abyss which neither the fire nor the sword of tyrants can open. The law which shuts the lips of the confidant of our secrets is so strict that no interest in the world--neither the safety of an empire, nor even the safety of the priest's own life, nay, no loss or gain whatever--can ever authorize its violation.

As I have spoken of the seal of confession, I must also remark that this law of secrecy does not, strictly speaking, bind the penitent. He may speak of his own sins, and even sometimes of what his confessor has said to him, without being guilty of sacrilege. There are instances, however, when the penitent is strictly bound to observe silence. It often happens that the advice which the priest gives can be understood only by knowing all the facts of the case, and consequently by making known what he has said, a grievous wrong may be done to him, while he has no means of defending his character. Moreover, the admonition given to the penitent is intended for him alone, and might not be beneficial to another who is differently circumstanced.