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October 04, 2006



One problem I see with this situation is that it is not clear how the priest will know the penitent is said child when it comes time for confession. Is this a face to face confession? If the penitent is not visible to the priest, I can't imagine that the priest would be allowed to ask "is this John Smith?" If the priest can't figure out if his penitent is the child he heard about, how could he impart the parent's advice (were he so inclined)?

Even if it is face to face, aren't priests supposed to treat penitents as if they do not know or recognize them? I suppose if the priest is also a spiritual director to the penitent, there would be no need to act as if the penitent is a stranger. But in the case of an ordinary parish priest and a parishoner, it still seems that as much anonymity as possible is best. Correct?

Clayton Barnett

I'm not at all sure you should be using the words "Rome" and "willies" in the same sentence... maybe not even in the same paragraph....


"willies" applies to the over-controlling parent. One would hope that the priest would scold the parent for trying to manipulate a situation with an adult child. Let 'em grow up!

Fr Martin Fox

I agree with a lot of what Mr. Akin says, and follow the practice he outlines.

I.e., sometimes someone will say, "my son came to confession to you last week." And I'll respond, "really? I can't say." And people get the point. I do that even when someone says, "I came to you for confession..." I just don't discuss it. Occasionally, if someone wants to revisit something from confession, I explain, "the seal is absolute -- which means I need your permission, now, even to discuss something from your own confession." Even then, I don't remember much, because I don't try and don't want to. This is one advantage to hearing confessions in the confessional -- one thing that can make an event memorable is if it happens in a memorable, i.e., unusual, place.

I don't even reference confession stories in a general way, since even if I rearrange things, I figure (a) I might let something slip and (b) it might cause concern that father talks about his confessions.

The most I will do -- and this does not violate the seal -- is to ask another priest for advice on how to handle a particular situation. I am very careful to describe the situation so that the penitent's identity isn't even indirectly revealed.


"Even if it is face to face, aren't priests supposed to treat penitents as if they do not know or recognize them?"

That's humorous to me, living in a rural Oklahoma town. I never go in face to face, but the priest knows exactly who I am and gives advice that shows he obviously knows me. The priest in the large town next to me knows me also and does the same! I think it has to do with the fact that not many people confess regularly and when someone does, they want to give very personal advice that would only apply to that individual.

Ed Peters

Ruction? Ruction? Rukus maybe, but ruction?

Re so and so came to me for confession, it doesn't expressly say that he WENT to confession, only that he came for it. fwiw.

Glad to see JA's threat to go Biblical on us is on hold. Too many canon law issues need hashing out.

Lest there be a ruckus.

Tim J.

Ed -

"ruction" - commotion, din, ruckus, rumpus, tumult

Sounds kind of like "ruckus" and "friction" combined. You just never know what you might learn here at JA.O.

I have sometimes given my kids (11 and 15) guidance about what they should confess - not that they asked for it - but I have never tried to advise the priest on how to counsel them. That's his job.


"While saying "John Smith came to me for confession" does not violate the seal, the disclosure of even this amount of information would give Rome the willies in most circumstances."

I don't know whether it is true or not, but I think I once read or heard that the priest that last dealt with Timothy McVeigh was criticized for publicly stating that McVeigh received the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick just moments before being executed. Since we know that a conscious person must first confess before receiving the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick; and since we know that McVeigh was conscious before being led into the death chamber; we can conclude with some degree of certainty that McVeigh also made a sacramental confession just prior to being put to death, the silence of McVeigh's priest on that subject notwithstanding.

Whether this is tantamount to a violation of the seal of the confessional is a question that I will leave to minds far greater than my own. Any thoughts, Father Fox?


Ruction? Ruction? Rukus maybe, but ruction?

According to dictionary.com, a disturbance, quarrel, or row [Origin: 1815–25; orig. uncert.].

Fr Martin Fox

Re: the priest and Timothy McVeigh...

I would say he did not violate the seal.

While one may infer that McVeigh did receive the sacrament of confession, it is not strictly, invariably the case that he did. After all, for all we know the priest anointed him without prior confession; whether that's right or wrong isn't the issue here, but whether revealing one fact means indirectly revealing another.

What is actually the case is that one conscious of grave sin must confess before receiving the anointing, and that I believe pertains to liceity, not to validity. (Whether the grace of anointing avails for a hardened sinner is an interesting question, but not the one before us.)

Finally, as indicated already, the seal is not actually broken by it being revealed that So-and-so went to confession. My point was I stay far away from the actual line where breaking the seal is crossed for obvious reasons.

One indication of this is that if the mere fact of someone going were a breaking of the seal, then (a) all the set-ups at conferences and outdoor events where people are going to confession out in the open would be a problem, and (b), the confessionals in Rome would also be a problem -- where the priest is inside the "box," but the penitents are outside, visible to the whole world.

Of course, no one knows that the person actually received absolution, unless one overhears the words, or is told so; but back to Timothy McVeigh -- we also don't know that he received absolution.

For all we know, he told the priest, "I've examined my conscience closely, and for all the grave matter, I find a lack of deliberate intention or full freedom, thus my sins weren't mortal." Now--were I that priest, I imagine I'd look at him, and say, "C'mon Mr. McVeigh, you're a few minutes from meeting God, now's not the time for this. Just confess and receive absolution. I mean, are you crazy?" Then, of course, maybe he was; and maybe I'd say, I can't read your soul, but what I can give you, I will -- and anoint him -- and leave him to God.


IMO, a parent of an adult child who resorts to that kind of tactic to get somewhere needs a kick in the ruction.

As for "give Rome the willies," I had this mental picture of a long line of cardinals having simultaneous cold shivers...pretty funny.


I don't know if you are much of a baseball fan or not, Father Fox. That said, and after reading your post above, I think I now have some idea of what Fred Hutchinson must have felt like after Ted Williams sent his pitch soaring towards what we now call "The Red Seat in Fenway Park."

"Good-bye, Mr. Spalding. That ball is out of here!"

Congratulations, Father, on the homerun you just hit in answering my question. Well done.

Why are all those seats green except that one red one?

Ed Peters

sdg: i don't trust them innernet dictunarys.


Re: The Seal of Confession

Does a priest violate the Seal of Confession if he speaks in his homily about a certain confession that was made to him in the past in order to make a point in his sermon although he doesn't actually reveal the name of the confessor?

I am assuming this does but it seems that for some reason (perhaps because he didn't reveal the name of the confessor) it appeared the priest did not feel he did.

Just wanted to know the official answer...

Marty Helgesen

From the song Finnegan's Wake:

Then Maggie O'Connor took up the job
"O Biddy," says she, "You're wrong, I'm sure"
Biddy she gave her a belt in the gob
And left her sprawlin' on the floor.
And then the war did soon engage
'Twas woman to woman and man to man,
Shillelagh law was all the rage
And a row and a ruction soon began.




Generally speaking, the word "confessor" is used of the one hearing the confession (that is, the priest). The one making the confession is called something else, such as "penitent."

As far as your question, I think the answer is that situation would technically not violate the seal, as Jimmy points out the identity of the penitent is not truly disclosed...but it would be a very edgy, slippery-slope, willie-giving kind of situation, preferably avoided.

Whether is violates the seal or not, Anon, I would not avail myself of a confessor that publicly spoke of what he heard in the confessional, regardless of whether he named names or not. If anything, priests should be looking for ways to encourage lapsed Catholics to reconcile with the Church, not discourage them.

Case in point: My parish is made up of thousands of families. This past Saturday, however, the only people that showed up for scheduled confessions were myself and a couple of suspicious looking women in their seventies. But yet at Mass the following morning, virtually everyone received Holy Communion. Did everyone else confess in a neighboring parish? (Incidentally, short or no lines at the confessional are common in my experience.) Were myself and the the two grandmothers the only sinners in the lot? Or, more likely, are we living in a generation that, by default, has six sacraments instead of seven? (e.g, "We don't confess because we don't sin.")

When is the last time you heard a priest preach from the pulpit that receiving Holy Communion while not in a state of grace is a sin itself? When is the last time you heard a priest tell those in the pews that confessing at least once a year is a precept of the faith? If your parish is anything like mine, you probably heard those homilies around about the time you last heard a priest speaking of Humanae Vitae and the sinful nature of using artificial birth control -- which is to say, it's been a very, very long time.


Thanks to both for the answer to my otherwise superficially ignorant inquiry. I had to pose in spite of the previous explanation because there are priests that uses that technicality (in almost a legal fashion) that since they did not reveal the identity of the 'penitent', they're in the clear. However, in a rather small parish, this evidently would seem an entirely different matter altogether.

(... also, thanks franksta for the info on the proper usage of 'confessor'; if one confesses, I presumed this one to be the confessor such as in the case where a person who assesses is presumed to be the 'assessor' -- not too keen on the jargon for these things!)

To the gentleman stating, "When is the last time you heard a priest preach from the pulpit that receiving Holy Communion while not in a state of grace is a sin itself?"

I think that one of the major problems (among many) is due to the fact that priests, if they ever do touch on the subject, often say that we need to confess prior to Holy Communion because 'the Church says so' not substantiating their argument with the fact that this is actually in Sacred Scripture as well:

1Cor:11:27: Wherefore whosoever shall eat this bread, and drink this cup of the Lord, unworthily, shall be guilty of the body and blood of the Lord.

1Cor:11:28: But let a man examine himself, and so let him eat of that bread, and drink of that cup.

1Cor:11:29: For he that eateth and drinketh unworthily, eateth and drinketh damnation to himself, not discerning the Lord's body.

If more people heard of the Scriptural support for this, perhaps there may be a more attentive hearing of this vs. the almost juvenile argument 'because the Church says so'.

Certainly, Tradition is indeed important. But, as Sacred Scripture often arises in the forefront for convincing arguments, this should be reiterated to make for a more persuasive argument.


Sadly, the poster above is right. Any priest telling an anecdote about a recent confession is highly likely to disclose that person's identity, since the penitent may well have been the only one in line for reconciliation...

J.R. Stoodley


It seems strange for the priest to mention it in a homily, at least if this person were at the homily, but I have several times, both in person and on EWTN, heard priests make reference to confessions. Most often though the actual sin is not mentioned though, just something unusual, like when someone spends more time explaining the sins of others than their own, making excuses for themselves, etc. This certainly would not seem to break the seal of confession by the definition given by Jimmy.

Fr. Stephanos, O.S.B.

Once a father prepared me to hear his teenage son's confession. The father and son had already discussed the matter between themselves. What the father told me beforehand was extremely helpful to me in hearing the son's confession and providing him pastoral direction. In this case, the father was particularly wise.


I would think something like "if that comes up, I'll keep that advice in mind" would be a short way of deflecting and not revealing anything.


About a priest showing in confession that he remembers your last confession -- I have read many things from earlier centuries that show that it was not only common but approved of.

For instance, confessing to itinerant priests was objected to precisely because they would not go on hearing your confessions and could not gauge your behavior from time to time.

And one saint said that one evil of a life of sin was the frequent changing of confessors, to avoid their remembering.

The very practice of having a confessor -- which is, to say, always making your confession to the same priest -- would point to a priest being intended to remember.


``Any priest telling an anecdote about a recent confession is highly likely to disclose that person's identity....''

How about a priest giving a homily who not only tells an anecdote but actually mentions the woman's name and recounts part of their conversation? That happened in our parish oh, 15-20 years ago. I sat there paralyzed, and wondered why lightning didn't strike him where he stood.

Ed Peters

anon: the practice you describe was expressly reprobated by the Holy See about, if memory serves, 60 years ago.


Annalucia -- the appropriate response to that, assuming you can still move, is stick your fingers in your ears and go "La, la, la" or anything you need to do to block out the words.

(I still remember my in-depth inspection of the architecture of one church. The father's word were just on the other side of audibility, I couldn't move the line back, and I was afraid it would become just a bit clearer.)

Fr Martin Fox


I'm sorry that happened; I'm appalled.

Remember, the grace of the sacrament doesn't address the problem of the priest being stupid.

Fr Martin Fox


I'm no expert in baseball, but I know who those two fellows are; Fred Hutchison went on to be a beloved manager of the Reds, his number is retired. Thanks for the compliment!


"anon: the practice you describe was expressly reprobated by the Holy See about, if memory serves, 60 years ago."

For the sake of clarity (since there had been much said), what practice were you referring to?

Some Day

Once heard a story of a really d(charity)
lady who came out of the confessional, went to mass, heard the priest say people were sinning doing so-so, especially so-so type of people, I think it was a gender-common sin, and the genial lady stood up and said "Father you just told them what I said in Confession and broke the Seal."
Catastrophe. Tre Bien.
That lady just did the most (no-charitable word available) thing ever.
She just revealed it herself.
And then people make mafias up about decent priests who still actually hear confessions and get them into trouble. Some sacristan at my parish said a monsignor from latin america broke the seal, which considering the priest and the accuser, the priest seems entirely innocent. The poor priest got kicked out of the diocese and he is an old man. And the sacristan...
Never see him recieving Communion.
I think I once heard that a saint once said that no priest has EVER broken the Seal of Confession no matter how evil the priest was. Now some really intuitive people, or ones graced with dicernment of the souls can tell. Ever see that picture of St.John Bosco confessin a ton of boys around. A saintly man said that could be inprudent, but that is only because he could see the boy and see his state of soul. For us, that just seems like a phenomenal picture, and it is.


To 'Some Day':

Speaking of Mafias, have you ever heard of how the Mafia would give certain target victims -- the ones they did like -- the chance to confess their sins to a priest prior to murdering them whereas those persons they didn't like, they would get them a hooker and wait until they've committed fornication with them and only then they would kill them just to ensure they committed a mortal sin prior to their death -- perhaps to make certain they went to Hell.

I think Scott Hahn had mentioned this also in one of his programs in fact. I think it was called 'A Lukewarm Parish' but can't be sure. Anyway, as he stated in that program, even these morally depraved individuals acknowledged the Sacrament albeit in a quite twisted fashion.

Fr. J.

As a priest, I interpret the seal of confession in the most strictest sense. When someone says somthing like "I went confession to you last week," I neither confirm it nor deny it. The same thing is true as when a mother asked "Did my child go to confession to you today?" For me, to answer "yes" or "no" to such questions violates the spirit of the law if not its letter. In my mind the Sacrament of Confession guarantees complete and full anonymity. And it shall be so.

not saying this time

A priest once threatened me that he would reveal what I told him in confession. He was angry at me because I had challenged something he said in public. He even said that revealing this in the right place might advance his career as it would lead to the removal of a person whose place he could then take. He said that since he had heard from other people that they suspected something like what I told him, that he had an out on the revealing what he heard in confession issue. I think I said...but even they told you in confidence .... and out of concern for that person and myself...not to use to advance yourself. He said no more and did not do what he threatened. I told another priest this and said I thought this priest had violated the spirit of the rule about the confessional, and the other priest said never mind the spirit, he violated the letter of it. I am not sure whether that is true. I felt so in the wrong and ashamed at the time that there was no way I could pursue the issue. But my naive belief that no priest had ever revealed or misused a confession was certainly shattered. (This doesn't mean I never trusted another one; I just would never trust this particular one ever again.)

This is the first thing I have ever posted online that I didn't sign, and I apologize for that, but it still seems too private for me to put my name to it. I know Jimmy can't read comments and comment, but maybe Fr. J, above, will. Thanks

Some Day

Maybe he did not break the Seal of Confession, but if you are certain about what you just said, then that might constitute an offense in Cannon Law and in God's law in general. Seek the advice from a trustworhy priest and don't talk to it with other people, because it could cause unnecesary scandal.

Fr. J.

no saying this time,

As Father Fox said above: "Remember, the grace of the sacrament doesn't address the problem of the priest being stupid."

maria grech ganado

does the seal of confession cover the future as well? for example, someone confesses that he is about to blow a school up - according to me, the sacrament of penance is there to forgive sins already committed by a penitent. If someone reveals what he intends to do to the detriment of others in the future, then there is no penitence and the sin cannot be forgiven. Would it not be more caring and Christian to save many lives (especially of children) by revealing whathas been told - if not, then Jesus is not very well served by his ministers


You mean: "The ends justify the means"?

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