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Forgive me, Father, for I have sinned

May 15, 2012

NB: this post has been modified slightly from its original version.

Something I read on the internet about confession kind of gave me the willies. I am quite sure that no harm was intended by the writer; however, it provides an opportune moment to remember the importance of remaining silent about particular confessions.  The point of what I was reading was to remind children to whisper in the confessional so that sins cannot be overheard.

As a priest, many people ask me what it is like to hear children’s confessions, especially first confessions.  They joke about being pelted with popcorn and how it must be so funny to hear children tell their little sins.  And yes, sometimes it brings a smile to my face.  But I am also aware that these little children are confessing their sins to God, sins about which they feel guilty.  I am aware of how delicate their consciences are more than I am amused at how they recount their sins.  Such things need to be handled delicately.  After all, the children have been taught about the seal of the confessional.  They are baring their souls to God.  Trust is important to them.

Now all of us know that the seal of the confessional is absolutely inviolable for the priest who hears the confession (c. 983).  The seal binds the confessor under threat of excommunication latae sententiae (c. 1388.1).  Not so for an interpreter present at the confession, or for someone who overhears a confession, or who comes to a knowledge of sins from a confession.  The latter are bound, under pain of sin and of penalty (c. 1388.2), to observe secrecy.  But the difference is really a technical one.  The direct divulging of the secrets of the confessional by others is punishable by a penalty not excluding excommunication because it’s a nefarious thing to do.  Even if unpunished by ecclesiastical authority for whatever reason, to divulge what someone has confessed in the sacrament remains matter for sin.  Obviously, the priest who hears, judges and absolves the penitnent has the greatest responsibility.  In practical terms, however, that secrecy also affects everyone else.

So what does all that have to do with a parent writing about a child’s first confession?  Well, for most of us nothing.  And I quickly add that it is not clear that an actual sin confessed was being described; however, it was highly suggestive in this regard  But for that child, who might hear the parent re-telling the incident, or encouraging friends to read what s/he wrote on the internet, it might be a terribly embarassing, confusing, if not scandalous, thing.  Of course those involved didn’t intend that. They were trying to make a very valid point that we can’t forget to teach people to whisper.  But to publish the content of the overheard sin, or to re-tell it to others, is to break a sacred trust enshrined in our canon law.

We need to be careful.  The confession of anyone, young or old, deserves reverence.

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7 Comments
  1. It’s best for all-priest,penitent and those in close proximity as to hear what is being said to never refer or talk about it even in a joking manner.Too often have I heard a priest relate that he heard a confession where such and such was told.Once a priest related that he was so relieved that a person who had been away from the church for over 20 years had made his confession.A few of us in the room knew of whom he was speaking.Your comment re kids’ confessions is especially true.I have heard parents ask kids what did he (the priest) tell you or even what did you tell him.Parents and,yes, some comfessors need to be reminded of the seal.Thank you for this.It should be required reading in parishes.

  2. Nice post. I often tell people that all share in the priest’s penitential ministry just because of this. It’s kind of an honour reall, to share in the protection of the penitent in this way. I was once taught that we cannot even mention who was in the line up for confession. Whether that’s true or not – I live by it.

  3. Father, I came across your Blog and this particular post entirely by chance. And it was fortuitous for I was immediately reminded of an amusing conversation I had some years ago with the late Cardinal Tom Winning. Oor Tam (as he is known hereabouts) was both my PP in my teens and a great friend of my dad (also RIP). As a contributor to The Scottish Catholic Observer, I had recently interviewed Canon George Boyd, the first priest ordained for the Diocese of Motherwell (still on the go but obviously now retired) an old friend of the Cardinal. They had been classmates at Our Lady’s High School, Motherwell, before both going to the seminary. (By the by, OLHS, of which I too am an FP, produced more Catholic priests than any other school in Great Britain.)

    Canon George is also a family friend being my auntie’s cousin and having been in my mother’s class at primary school. Knowing that I would be seeing His Eminence he asked me to pass on his regards.

    The Canon is a great devotee of Padre Pio (which was why I was interviewing him) and I knew that His Eminence had visited San Giovanni Rotondo several times while he was Spiritual Director of the Scot’s College in Rome. So when I saw him I asked if he had ever gone to Padre Pio for confession.

    “You must be joking,” he replied. “The old boy was nearly deaf and he repeated everything said to him in confession out loud. So everybody kneeling in the queue could hear what you confessed. I was taking no chances.”

    Of course, Oor Tam was roaring with laughter as he recalled this. And I dare say that being a canon lawyer like your good self — Doctorate cum laude and an Advocate of the Sacred Roman Rota, and at the time the only diocesan priest in the British Isles so qualified although there was a Franciscan who resided in Rome — he would have had little enough to confess despite the fact that he did once say that if you wanted to find a saint the last place you would look was in the Sacred College.

    Mind you, while he was probably right at that time I have since met His Eminence Estanislao Esteban Cardinal Karlic, Archbishop Emeritus of Parana, Argentina. I met him in St Peter’s on the Monday morning following the consistory of November 24, 2007. I spoke to him for about five minutes and walked away convinced I had met that rarest of men: a living saint.

  4. Thanks Father for this one. I was assiting at parish hearing First Confessions in the “crying room” one time. The penitents had their back to the window I was facing it. At one point I saw one family videotaping their child’s first confession. I had to act like an NFL head coach putting the program over my mouth so that the video camera would not lipread me for posterity. With all due respect for that family that thought they were doing something special, I would say out of respect for the sacrament leave the video camera for the sports fields and other places.

  5. Dan permalink

    Good reminder, Father. I think the 1915 instruction from the Holy Office on the issue of relating particular, confessed sins–even when no one is identified–should be required reading for confessors. Personally, I see no reason why anyone would have to make it known that such and such was revealed in confession. It’s better to say “If someone confesses ———-, then ———.” instead of “Once, a lady confessed ———–, so I said ————–.” I know of no online source but the instruction is in Canon Law Digest, volume 1, pp. 413-414.

  6. notgiven permalink

    Amen! Would that more would read and heed your post. Thank you for it.

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