Tag: Confession

The Church Teaches The Necessity of Confession. Healing to Your soul.

The Church Teaches The Necessity of Confession. Healing to Your soul.

Why Confession?

Q. Why do we have confession? If God knows everything, why can’t we just tell him that we’re sorry when we do something wrong?

A. Confession may be one of the most difficult parts of our faith for some. But for others, Confession is something they deeply look forward to. Your question is a good one. Let me offer some thoughts.

First of all, it’s very true that “God knows everything.” We call that omniscience. So, yes, He knows everything you’ve done and He knows whether you are sorry for that or not. But there is a big difference between God “knowing” what you did and His act of forgiveness.

For example, if you sinned against a friend with whom you were very close and then you felt sorry for that it’s possible that your friend would realize, just by knowing you, that you were truly sorry. But that doesn’t mean that you can just presume on your friends goodness and forgiveness. The best thing to do, in this situation, is to actually sit down and tell your friend you are sorry and to have your friend tell you that you are forgiven. This very human exchange brings about reconciliation.

So it is with God. God is all merciful and wants to forgive use all our sins. But for true reconciliation to take place God wants you to actually say those words and then to hear the words, spoken by the priest, that you are forgiven. So Confessions is not only about God forgiving us, it is also about reconciliation with God on a human level.

What’s important to understand is that God offers us forgiveness in His way. He forgives us through a human being. Who is that human being? It’s the Father’s Son who became one of us. Jesus is the one who offers the forgiveness of God and Jesus is both fully God and human. But how does Jesus do that now that He has ascended back into Heaven? Well, before He ascended He gave His divine power of forgiveness to His first priests, the apostles. They, in turn, passed that power onto others who passed it on to others down through the ages all the way to our present age. Priests, despite the fact that they are imperfect themselves, have the spiritual power of Jesus to actually speak His words of forgiveness to others. Therefore, when a priest says. “I absolve you” we must hear Jesus Himself, as the human face of God, saying to us those same words.

Why did God choose to use priests to dispense His forgiveness? Honestly, we really don’t have a perfect answer to that question. Sure there have been wonderful writings and reflections and teachings on this subject throughout the history of the Church. But, in the end, we will only fully understand this mystery of how God gives us His forgiveness when we are in Heaven. For now, we must simply follow what Jesus taught and receive His forgiveness in the way we know He offers it.

And on a psychological level, I, as a priest, have seen so many people benefit from actually hearing those words spoken from my mouth. So many times I have seen people come into the confessional scared and ashamed and walk our freed and at peace. So it really works. Make sure you give it a try soon!

Should I Confess Past Sins As Old As 30yrs? YES!!!

Should I Confess Past Sins As Old As 30yrs? YES!!!

Q. I am 64 and continually go back frequently and recall previous sins that may have occurred 30 yrs ago and wonder if I had confessed them. What should I consider going forward?

A. It is a good idea when we are confessing our sins to a priest to add, after we have finished saying our most recent sins, something like “And for all the sins of my past life”“And for any sins which I may have forgotten.” This is not to say that we can purposefully leave sins out of our confession or can leave them vague and undefined. Making these general statements is just acknowledging the weakness of human memory. We are not always sure if we have confessed all that our consciences’ bear, so we throw a sacramental blanket over past or forgotten behavior through the above statements, thus including them in the absolution the priest grants us.

Perhaps your question also includes a bit of concern over whether past sins, even sins of the rather remote past, have been truly forgiven if we can still remember them. Let me address that concern briefly.Sacraments have a purpose. Memory has another purpose. The Sacrament of Confession is not a form of brainwashing. It doesn’t pull a plug at the bottom of our brain and drain all of our memories out. We sometimes remember our past sins, even our sins from many years ago. The trace images of past sinful events that remain in our memory mean nothing theologically. Memories are a neurological or psychological reality. Confession is a theological reality.

The confession and absolution of our sins is the only form of time travel that actually exists. Despite all of the creative ways that authors and screenwriters have attempted to convey the ways in which we could go back in time, we can only do so theologically. The words of absolution of the priest extend backwards in time. Because the priest is acting in the person of Christ at that moment he is acting with the power of God, who is above and outside of time. God created time and does bend to its rules. So the words of the priest drift into the human past to erase the guilt, but not the punishment, due to sinful behavior. Such is the power of those simple words “I forgive you.” Who has ever gone to Confession, confessed their sins, asked for absolution, and then was told “no?” It doesn’t happen. If you confessed your sins they were forgiven. They may yet exist in your memory because you are human. But they don’t exist in God’s memory. And, finally, if the memory of past sins is bothersome, though they have been confessed, keep in mind that alongside of the memory of your sin there should be another memory equally vivid – the memory of your confession. That happened too!

When Can a Non-Catholic Go to Confession?

When Can a Non-Catholic Go to Confession?

When Can a Non-Catholic Go to Confession?

Q: A close friend of mine was baptized in an evangelical church, but he plans to become a Catholic. But he has not yet been officially received into the Catholic Church because his evangelical family disapproves. He’s been through RCIA, and attends daily Mass, though I’ve never seen him receive the Eucharist, and he confirmed to me that he won’t until his official admittance into the Church.

But he goes to confession regularly. He says he believes absolutely all the Church teaches. Is his confession valid? –Ado

A: Many Catholics will likely be surprised that an evangelical would want to receive the Catholic sacrament of Penance. In actual fact, there are many non-Catholics out there who positively relish the thought that they might unburden themselves of their sins, and receive God’s forgiveness in a formal sort of way. We Catholics tend to take the confessional for granted, and in far too many cases we even try to avoid it; but if you weren’t raised in the Catholic faith, you might find refreshing the notion that you can walk out of the confessional feeling spiritually “clean,” and make a fresh start.

For this reason, it’s not unheard-of for non-Catholics to approach a priest who’s sitting in the confessional and ask if they can talk things over. While a parish priest’s main responsibility is obviously the spiritual wellbeing of his parishioners, he should be (and ordinarily is) happy to talk with anyone—even a non-Catholic—about spiritual matters. In many cases a non-Catholic approaches a Catholic priest like this, not only to get a moral issue sorted out, but also because he’s interested in the Catholic faith in general. If a non-Catholic has a positive experience dealing with a Catholic priest, who knows where (spiritually speaking) this may ultimately lead him?

That being said, the general rule is that when a priest is in church hearing confessions during the regularly scheduled time, then that’s what he’s supposed to be doing. If a non-Catholic wants to discuss something with a priest, it’s more appropriate to arrange to see him at some other time. The confessional, in short, is meant for confessions.

But from the sound of things, Ado’s non-Catholic friend doesn’t go to the parish priest at confession-time just to talk—it appears that he enters the confessional, recites the standard words and then confesses his sins, like any Catholic would do. Presumably the priest doesn’t know him, so he doesn’t realize that this person has not yet been received into the Catholic Church. Think about it: if someone approaches a Catholic priest to receive a Catholic sacrament, and clearly knows what he’s doing/saying and how it all works, it’s only reasonable for the priest to assume that he must be a Catholic, right?

Ado’s friend, however, is a baptized non-Catholic, and not a member of the Catholic Church yet. As we saw in “Do Converts Have to be Rebaptized?” he does not need to be baptized again; but he does need to be formally received into the Catholic Church after a period of instruction and preparation (otherwise known as the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults, or RCIA). Ordinarily, after completing the RCIA program, a non-Catholic who is already baptized will make a profession of faith, and receive the sacraments of Confirmation and Holy Communion—usually at the Easter vigil Mass on Holy Saturday. Once he’s a Catholic, of course, he can and should receive the sacrament of Penance regularly.

But this isn’t what has happened in the case of Ado’s friend. While he says he wants to become a Catholic, he has not done so because “his evangelical family disapproves.” It appears that he went through the entire RCIA program… and then declined to be received into the Catholic Church. This means, of course, that he is still a non-Catholic, although he undoubtedly knows a lot about the Catholic faith, and says he wants to become a Catholic eventually. So in the interim, can he receive any of the Catholic sacraments?

As we saw in “Can a Non-Catholic Receive Communion in a Catholic Church?” the basic rules about who may receive the sacraments are found in canon 844. And the first paragraph of this canon spells out the norm: Catholics are to receive the sacraments from Catholic ministers, and Catholic sacraments are to be conferred on Catholics (c. 844.1). This is how it’s supposed to work, and there is certainly nothing surprising here.

That being said, the paragraphs that follow address some specific and uncommon situations which constitute exceptions. Do they say anything about non-Catholics receiving the Catholic sacrament of Penance?

As a matter of fact, they do. The third paragraph tells us that members of Eastern Churches which are not in full communion with the Catholic Church—in other words, members of the Orthodox Churches—can lawfully receive the sacrament of Penance from a Catholic minister (c. 844.3). This makes theological sense, because as we saw in “Can a Catholic Ever Attend an Orthodox Liturgy Instead of Sunday Mass?” the Catholic Church holds that the Orthodox have a valid priesthood, and thus their sacraments (including Penance) are recognized as valid too. Thus an Orthodox person who approaches a Catholic priest for confession is fundamentally “on the same page” about what he’s doing and what the sacrament means.

But this cannot be said of evangelical Christians, who don’t celebrate the sacrament of Penance in their churches—and even if they did, the Catholic Church would consider it invalid, because evangelicals do not have a valid priesthood as we understand it. Thus canon 844.3 does not apply to Ado’s friend.

The fourth paragraph, however, would at first glance appear to apply to Ado’s friend’s case—but look at the wording carefully: in danger of death, or when (in the judgment of the diocesan bishop or the bishops’ conference) some other grave necessity urges it, Catholic ministers administer the sacrament of penance lawfully to other non-Catholic Christians who (a) cannot approach their own minister, and (b) manifest Catholic faith in the sacrament (c. 844.4). There are a whole slew of qualifications here that allmust be met. Let’s go through this paragraph piece by piece.

For starters, Ado’s friend obviously isn’t in danger of death. Furthermore, there is no indication that the diocesan bishop has judged that a “grave necessity” exists in his case. While he does manifest Catholic faith in the sacrament, there’s no evidence that Ado’s friend couldn’t approach an evangelical minister at his own church instead. Rather, it appears that he simply wants to go to Catholic confession on a regular basis—without becoming a Catholic first. Unfortunately for Ado’s friend, that’s not how it works!

It’s important to keep in mind that we don’t know the whole story here, but we do know that Ado’s friend hasn’t been received into the Catholic Church yet because he says there is some friction with his family about it. When someone wants to become a Catholic, it’s not at all uncommon to find out that his relatives object. How best to deal with a negative reaction from family members is something that a would-be Catholic will ordinarily try to sort out together with his parish priest.

In this particular case, though, Ado tells us that his friend manages both to attend Mass and to go to confession, apparently without his family knowing about it or protesting. This naturally raises a pivotal question: if Ado’s friend can quietly get to the Catholic parish on a regular basis without causing a family ruckus, why can’t he arrange with the Catholic parish priest to be received into the Catholic Church just as quietly?

Put differently, it seems that Ado’s friend wants to remain a member of his evangelical church to please his family, but regularly receive Catholic sacraments at the same time. In short, Ado’s friend wants to have his cake and eat it too.

But you can’t have it both ways! If you want to receive Catholic sacraments on a regular basis, it’s necessary to become a Catholic. If you don’t want to become a Catholic, you shouldn’t routinely seek to receive Catholic sacraments. It’s as simple as that.

As the abovementioned canon 844.4 indicates, what Ado’s friend is doing is illicit, or illegal. He shouldn’t be going to confession—and if the priest-confessor knew he was dealing with a non-Catholic, he would undoubtedly try to find a tactful way to get him to stop coming. But note that the canon doesn’t actually say that the sacrament is administered invalidly, which would mean that it has no effect. (See “Marriage and Annulment” for more on this concept.) The wording of the canon leaves us to conclude that the administration of the sacrament is technically valid.

But that does not mean this is okay. Ado’s friend has to make an either/or choice: so long as he remains a non-Catholic, he should not be receiving Catholic sacraments. When he becomes a Catholic, he can (and should!) receive Catholic sacraments. Trying to straddle the fence in the way Ado describes is illegal—and every single time Ado’s friend goes to confession as a non-Catholic, he is violating canon law.

Let’s all say a prayer for Ado’s friend, that he will appreciate the importance of respecting and following the teachings and laws of the Catholic Church. When he takes the final step and is formally received into the Church, he will then have the joy of receiving the sacraments validly and licitly.

Can the seal of confession be broken or the secrets ever be revealed by priests

Can the seal of confession be broken or the secrets ever be revealed by priests

The mystery of the Sacrament of Penance causes much intrigue and curiosity. People wonder, “Can the priest ever reveal what is said in confession?” The simple, straight answer is “no.”
The standard of secrecy protecting a confession outweighs any form of professional confidentiality or secrecy. When a person unburdens his soul and confesses his sins to a priest in the Sacrament of Penance, a very sacred trust is formed. While the priest is the minister of the sacrament, Christ is forgiving the sins, and the priest must not reveal to anyone else what has been really confessed to the Lord. Moreover, what sins are forgiven are now in one’s past not to be carried into the present via some communication. Therefore, the priest must maintain absolute secrecy about anything that a person confesses. For this reason, confessionals were developed with screens to protect the anonymity of the penitent and to alleviate the possibility of the priest remembering a “face” with a confession. This secrecy is called “the sacramental seal,” “the seal of the confessional,” or “the seal of confession.”
The sacramental seal is inviolable. Quoting Canon 983.1 of the Code of Canon Law, the Catechism states, “…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” (#2490). A priest, therefore, cannot break the seal to save his own life, to protect his good name, to refute a false accusation, to save the life of another, to aid the course of justice (like reporting a crime), or to avert a public calamity. He cannot be compelled by law to disclose a person’s confession or be bound by any oath he takes, e.g. as a witness in a court trial. A priest cannot reveal the contents of a confession either directly, by repeating the substance of what has been said, or indirectly, by some sign, suggestion, or action. A Decree from the Holy Office (November 18, 1682) mandated that confessors are forbidden, even where there would be no revelation direct or indirect, to make any use of the knowledge obtained in the confession that would “displease” the penitent or reveal his identity.
Therefore, from the time a person makes the sign of the cross and begins “Bless me father for I have sinned” to the last words of absolution, the information exchanged between the priest and the penitent is protected by the sacramental seal. Even if a confession is made in a less formal atmosphere or in a less formal way, if a priest imparts absolution, what he absolves is under the sacramental seal never to be revealed by him.
(Just as an aside, a great movie which deals with this very topic is Alfred Hitchcock’s I Confess, which deals with a priest who hears a murder confession and then is framed for the murder. As a priest, I was in agony during much of the movie.)
There are certain circumstances in which the priest would have to discuss the matter of a confession with another but would do so without revealing the identity of the person. For instance, some sins are so grievous that the priest must ask for permission from a superior to grant absolution. For example, if a person desecrates the Holy Eucharist in some sacrilegious act or just “throws away” the Holy Eucharist, he incurs an automatic excommunication reserved to the Apostolic See (Canon 1367); therefore, when this sin is confessed, a priest must inform the penitent that he must contact the Bishop, who would obtain from the Apostolic See the proper permission for the absolution of the sin and the lifting of the ban of excommunication. While keeping the seal of confession, some arrangement would have to be made for the penitent to return to the priest and receive absolution and the appropriate penance.
Or, if a priest needs guidance from a more experienced confessor to deal with a difficult case of conscience brought to him in confession, he first must ask the permission of the penitent to discuss the matter and make arrangements for another meeting. Here again, the priest must keep the identity of the person secret.
Sometimes a penitent wants to discuss the subject matter of a previous confession– a particular sin, fault, temptation, circumstance– in a counseling session or in a conversation with the same priest. Respecting the seal of confession, the priest would have to ask the penitent to refresh his memory, so as to revisit the particulars again outside of confession. For example, especially with the advent of “face-to-face confession,” I have had individuals come up to me and say, “Father, remember that problem I spoke to you about in confession?” I have to say, “Please refresh my memory.”
What happens if a priest violates the seal of confession? The Catechism (#1467) cites the Code of Canon Law (#1388.1) in addressing this issue, which states, “A confessor who directly violates the seal of confession incurs an automatic excommunication reserved to the Apostolic See; if he does so only indirectly, he is to be punished in accord with the seriousness of the offense.” From the severity of the punishment, we can clearly see how sacred the sacramental seal of confession is in the eyes of the Church.
Actually, the Church’s position in this matter has long-standing credibility. The Fourth Lateran Council (1215) produced one of the first comprehensive teachings concerning the Sacrament of Penance. Addressing various problems ranging from abuses to heretical stands against the sacrament, the council defended the sacrament itself, stipulated the need for the yearly sacramental confession of sins and reception of the Holy Eucharist, and imposed disciplinary measures upon priest confessors. The council decreed, “Let the confessor take absolute care not to betray the sinner through word or sign, or in any other way whatsoever. In case he needs expert advice he may seek it without, however, in any way indicating the person. For we decree that he who presumes to reveal a sin which has been manifested to him in the tribunal of penance is not only to be deposed from the priestly office, but also to be consigned to a closed monastery for perpetual penance.”
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 increasingly jealous and suspicious of his wife, who was irreproachable in her conduct. 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.
Each priest realizes that he is the ordained mediator of a very sacred and precious sacrament. He knows that in the confessional, the penitent speaks not so much to him, but through him to the Lord. Therefore, humbled by his position, the priest knows that whatever is said in confession must remain secret at all costs.
Another interesting side to this question is the obligation of the laity to uphold the seal of confession: An interpreter needed for someone to make a confession or anyone who gains knowledge of a confession (such as overhearing someone’s confession) is also obligated to preserve secrecy (Code of Canon Law, #983.2). For such a person to violate the secrecy of another person’s confession is a mortal sin and warrants “a just penalty, not excluding excommunication” (#1388.2). Moreover, a person who falsely accuses a priest of breaking the seal of the confession incurs a mortal sin and perhaps other canonical penalties, including excommunication.
Clearly, the Church regards the seal of confession as sacred. Every person– whether priest or laity– must take the obligation to preserve the secrecy of confession absolutely seriously.