What is the seal of Confession, and why does it need to be protected?

The late Cardinal Francis George of Chicago once called the encounters that take place within the Sacrament of Reconciliation “the most important conversations on the planet.” And he was right.

The truth is that the most important conversations in our world don’t happen in boardrooms or courtrooms. They neither do happen in the oval office nor in the chambers of parliament. Instead, they transpire in the confessional.

These conversations make effects on the salvation of the human race. In these meetings, the power of the Blood of Jesus changes contrite sinners into saints. Because something of infinite worth takes place in confession, and it requires a unique level of protection. The Church calls it the seal of confession.

During the early Church, the sacrament of Reconciliation was given communally; grave sinners confessed their sins publicly and they would take on necessary acts of satisfaction in order eventually, sometimes after months or years of penance before they need to be reconciled to God and His Church. As the Church started to grow, Her ecclesial rites developed. As public penance continued, confession of certain sins would often take place in private.

During the 4th century, St. Ambrose was being praised for his role as a discreet minister of mercy with these words: “Of the transgressions, however, which the sinner confessed, he spoke to no one but God, with whom he interceded”. St. Ambrose left a wonderful example to future priests, that they should be intercessors before God rather than accusers before men.

After a century, Pope St. Leo the Great notably condemned the practice of reading out the lists of sins committed by those taking on public penance. The Saint understood that the sins spoken to God in the privacy of confession must be sealed by supernatural secrecy.

At the end of the 6th century, St. Columban and his fellow missionary monks made the practice of private penance popular. While private confession became the norm across Christendom, the privileged secrecy of sacramental conversations became formal.

By the beginning of the second Christian millennium, the law of the Church set forth grave consequences for priests who would reveal the sins of penitents to others.

The Fourth Lateran Council taught in 1215:
“For whoever shall dare to reveal a sin said to him in the tribunal of penance we decree that he shall not be deposed from the priestly office only, but that he shall also be sent into the confinement of a monastery to do perpetual penance.”

After 800 years, the Church still dilligently protects the seal, punishing any priest that would break it with excommunication. These deadly consequences flow from the supreme importance of the sacrament of Confession.

And who approves this kind of importance? In (Luke 19:10), The Lord Jesus Himself, who came to seek and save those who are lost. He came to the lost sheep of the house of Israel (Mt 15:34), and he came only for those sick with the deadly illness of sin (Mk 2:17). As a result of that, the sacrament of Confession continues his merciful mission.

As another Christ, the priest has the privilege to sit in on the most important conversations in the world. He receives the grace of being an instrument of the power of Christ’s cross to heal every wound that sin inflicts. He becomes the mediator of the encounter between the Prodigal Father and His wayward children.

Most people do not like the sacrament of Confession because they fear telling someone their sins. Actually, this universal human experience of shame is one of the strongest tools of the devil’s blackmail. When he catch us in sin, the enemy uses shame over what we have done to prevent us from confessing and being reconciled with our loving Father.

The seal of confession is one of a priest’s chief weapons in thwarting Satan’s plot, because it gives a guarantee to the contrite Christian that his sins no matter how big or small will never leave the safety of the tribunal of God’s mercy.

The sacrament of Reconciliation is one of the great gifts of the Trinity to the pilgrim people of God. It is the permanent institution of the mercy of Christ in the world. It is a divinely instituted safe-space where fear and condemnation have no place at all, but hope and forgiveness exist.

We should pray that the Sacrament of Penance and her seal is respected and preserved by those within and without the communion of the Church.

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