Forgive me, Father, for I have sinned
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.