Seal of confession (2015)
Sermon for the pilgrimage of saint John of Nepomuk, June 6, 2015
Editor´s note: On June 6, 2015, the pilgrimage of saint John Nepomuk took place in the Czech republic including the Mass celebrated by Fr. Martin Fuchs, a Resistance priest residing in nearby Austria. Despite the hot weather and the remoteness of the place there were about 20 participants. Here is the transcription of the sermon given on the occasion.
When they brought a paralyzed man to the Saviour, He said: Be of good heart, son, thy sins are forgiven thee. And behold some of the scribes said within themselves: He blasphemeth. And Jesus seeing their thoughts, said: Why do you think evil in your hearts? Whether is easier, to say, Thy sins are forgiven thee: or to say, arise, and walk?
But that you may know that the Son of man hath power on earth to forgive sins, (then said he to the man sick of palsy,) Arise, take up thy bed, and go into thy house. And he arose, and went into his house. (Matthew 9:2-8)
Yes, only God can forgive sins, because sin is an offense against God. Only God and those - who have got a special power to forgive sins - can forgive sins.
„Dominus noster Jesus Christus, te absolvat et ego auctoritate ipsius te absolo ab omni vinculo excommunications et interdicti in quantum possum et tu indiges. Deinde ego te absolvo a peccatis tuis, in nomine Patris et Filii et Spiritus Sancti. Amen.“
„Our Lord Jesus Christ and I absolve you in his order from any bondage of excommunication and interdict as far as I can and you are worthy. So I absolve you from your sins in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost. Amen.“
Since the remission of sins is a matter that concerns only the sinner and God, the sacramental confession is protected from the natural, the divine and the Church law by the seal of confession.
Natural law prohibits the revelation of things that are essentially a secret and that could harm our neighbour´s honour. The duty of confidentiality, however, is stronger as far as these things are revealed as a secret and the confidentiality is promised implicitly in the confession.
The divine law obliges the confessor to do so because Jesus Christ, the Son of God, wanted all people to confess their mortal sins to a priest. With this commandment he had to institute implicitly the seal of confession because without the seal of confession, the confession itself would be detested and the people would be terrified to confess their sins.
Church made the confession seal as a holy duty that can be proved from the time of the Pope Gregory I. Since the 4th Lateran Council in 1215 and later in the canon Law of 1917, canon 889 §1 she repeated this law by severe penalties.
The duty to hold the seal of confession is absolute, without exception, and it exists even after the penitent´s death. There is no exception that could justify any violation neither in a private nor in a public interest.
Even to prevent a sacrilege the priest is not allowed to use the knowledge of the confessional. For example, not even if somebody confesses and does not receive holy absolution and appears a moment later at the communion rail where the confessor who refused absolution is distributing Holy communion. The confessor is not allowed to refuse Holy communion. Or if the confessor knows about an invalid marriage only by confession, he is not allowed to reveal anything from the confession.
The obligation to keep the seal of confession arises from any confession and only from confession, this means from all that is said to the priest to receive absolution. It does not matter whether the confession is valid or invalid, whether it has merely begun or completed, whether the absolution is given, postponed or refused, whether there are mortal sins, venial sins or only imperfections - everything is irrelevant.
Any other secret has its exceptions. If a doctor discovers an infectious disease (for example: plague, cholera etc.), he has to tell the authorities. At this moment he is released from the medical secrecy.
The confessor has a knowledge he is not allowed to use in any case; we can compare this knowledge with the knowledge of our Saviour when he was asked to establish the kingdom for Israel. As God he had to know, when this will happen. But as a man he had this knowledge that he was not allowed to teach the others. People would come to harm with this knowledge. They would live in sins as they could not see any danger.
What extension has the confession seal?
The seal extends to everything connected with the sins confessed. That is, it obliges the confessor to complete silence about any circumstances that might reveal, or cause to be suspected, the identity of the sinner who has confessed to him. Also if somebody has received absolution or not, special graces, that is stigmas or other charismas.
Who is bound to keep the secrecy?
The priest hearing a confession is bound by the seal of confession. One who overhears a penitent and also a translator is seriously bound to the secrecy but is not, strictly speaking, under the seal of confession.
What a priest knows from a source other than confession does not come under the seal. Thus, if a priest saw a man commit a robbery, he could testify to the fact, even though the robber had, in the meantime, confessed the sin to him. For while the sin as confessed is under the seal, the sin as observed apart from confession is not under the seal.
Those who find a confession sheet must stop reading as soon as they realize: „This is a confession sheet.“ They must burn or destroy it.
What is the intention of the Church in obliging priests to keep the confession seal?
The intention to hold the confession seal can be no other, than to help the repentant to a complete confession of his sins.
Finally, I would like to mention a few martyrs of the confessional:
Father John Sarkander + 1620:
He should reveal the confession of the Lord of Lobkowicz. He refused, was tortured and died a little bit later as a result.
Father Andreas Faulhaber + 1757:
He heard the confession of the soldiers. A deserter who was captured testified that he had asked father Faulhaber in the Holy confession if he can desert. And father Faulhaber told him „It would be a serious matter, but it would be not so bad in his case.“
Although the deserter had withdrawn his testimony for several times and his innocence was proved, father Faulhaber was arrested in September. Friedrich II condemned him to death. In front of the gallows Father Faulhaber should break the seal of confession to save his life but he chose the gallows. So he ended his life on the 30th December 1757.
Father Henry Garnet + 1606:
He was an Anglican, converted to Catholicism and became a Jesuit. When he heard confession, he was aware of the Gunpowder Plot. He was accused as an accomplice and sentenced for high treason.
The Gunpowder Plot was an attempt by British Catholics to kill the King of England, James I, his family and the government. On the 3rd May, father Henry Garnet was executed near St. Paul’s Cathedral.
Father Felipe Ciscar Pulg + 1936:
He was a Spanish priest and was killed during the persecution in 1936. He refused to reveal the confession of a Franciscan priest. This was the reason why he was shot.
Saint John of Nepomuk, + 1393:
Today, I would especially like to remember saint John of Nepomuk who refused to reveal the confession of Sophia, the wife of Wenceslaus, the King of Bohemia.
At first Sophia had tried to exhort the King of his bad conduct. He ate and drank too much, had vices of immorality and was cruel towards his subjects.
When saint John asked her to stop the exhortations, she intensified her prayer life and received more frequently the holy sacraments. But it was precisely because of the frequent confessions why the King became suspicious. He asked saint John to reveal his wife’s confession. Saint John, however, refused. This fact finally led to his execution.
Before his death, he was aware that he should soon die because of the seal of confession. In his last sermon he announced the afflictions which would bring the heresy of the Hussites over Bohemia and he exhorted all people to do repentance and to keep the Catholic faith.
This is what we must repeat in our situation! We must do repentance and keep the Catholic faith. Even if we must suffer a lot. We know, that truth will never disappear!
Let us pray to saint John in order that he will protect the Czech Republic! Amen.