Confession: Part III
Q. Can a priest reveal what he has heard to others?
A. No. A priest can never reveal the sins a person has confessed. This is known as the “Seal of confession,” which admits of no exceptions (CCC 1467). If a priest were to violate the seal of confession he would be automatically excommunicated (CIC 1388).
Over the centuries several priests have died and many have been imprisoned because they refused, even under threat of torture and execution, to break the inviolable seal of confession.
This is one of the most beautiful aspects of the sacrament and of the priesthood: the priest who hears our confession, in order to protect the secrets we have whispered to God through him, will allow himself to be imprisoned, tortured or even killed. That’s how seriously he and the Church take the seal and the sacrament.
Q. What if I haven’t been to the sacrament for many years? How do I prepare? What do I say?
- First, don’t be afraid. Jesus said, “Heaven rejoices more for one repentant sinner than for 99 righteous persons who never needed to repent.” The priest will probably be so happy you’ve returned to confession after many years that you will make all the hours he spends in the confessional seem light.
- Second, try to prepare with the help of a good examination of conscience sheet, but the priest will know that you cannot remember your sins with the precision of someone who came the previous week.
- Third, get the largest sins off of your shoulders first.
- Fourth, don’t be afraid to ask the priest for help; most confessors are experts in leading someone in your circumstances through an examination of the “big stuff” in the confessional.
- Finally, don’t wait. Come back to be reconciled to your loving Father, set off the celebration in heaven, and share your Father’s joy!
Q. What if I’m not comfortable going to confession face-to face?
A. If you prefer to go to confession anonymously, that’s fine. Most churches have traditional confessionals or reconciliation rooms with the option to confess either face-to-face or kneeling behind an opaque screen.
In Church law, both the priest and the penitent have the right to opt for the screen if for whatever reason they find that more comfortable.
Q. May I receive the sacrament if I’m divorced?
A. If you are civilly divorced but have not remarried or were validly married in the Church after receiving a declaration of nullity for your first marriage, then, yes, you may receive the Sacrament.
If you have remarried outside of the Church or have entered into a cohabitating relationship, then those predicaments must be addressed before you can receive absolution.
Pope John Paul II addressed this situation in 1981:
“The church reaffirms her practice, which is based upon sacred scripture, of not admitting to Eucharistic communion divorced persons who have remarried. They are unable to be admitted thereto from the fact that their state and condition of life objectively contradict that union of love between Christ and the Church that is signified and effected by the Eucharist. …
Reconciliation in the sacrament of penance, which would open the way to the Eucharist, can only be granted to those who, repenting of having broken the sign of the covenant and of fidelity to Christ, are sincerely ready to undertake a way of life that is no longer in contradiction to the indissolubility of marriage.
This means, in practice, that when, for serious reasons such as, for example, the children’s upbringing, a man and a woman cannot satisfy the obligation to separate, they ‘take on themselves the duty to live in complete continence, that is, by abstinence from the acts proper to married couples’” (FC 84).
If you’re in these circumstances, you are encouraged to talk to a priest in the light of God about your present situation and possibly begin an investigation of whether your first marriage was valid.