1. No priest can give absolution who has not received the faculties for hearing confessions from the bishop of the diocese.
To none but the apostles and their successors did Our Lord give the power to forgive sins. To them alone did He say after His resurrection: “Receive ye the Holy Ghost. Whose sins you shall forgive, they are forgiven them; and whose sins you shall retain, they are retained” (John xx. 23). He commanded the apostles to loose the bands of Lazarus, after he had risen from the grave, to indicate that to them was given the power to unbind. This power is called the power of the keys, because by it the gates of heaven, closed against the sinner, are reopened to him. Thus the confessor is the doorkeeper of heaven. The bishops can confer the right to forgive sins to such priests as they deem fitted to hear confession. A priest, as a rule, has faculties for the whole diocese in which the bishop has given him an appointment.
2. Priests who are duly authorized to hear confessions have not power to absolve from all sins, since there are certain sins which the Pope or the bishop has reserved to himself for judgment. (Council of Trent, 14, 11).
They can only absolve from these sins if jurisdiction be de livered to them by the Holy See or the bishop of the diocese.
These are called reserved cases. The bishops are accustomed to reserve to themselves the absolution from more heinous crimes, such as apostasy, perjury, murder, arson; the object of this is to deter the faithful more effectually from the commission of such crimes. Secular magistrates cannot pass sentence on all criminals; many cases have to be sent up to a higher court for judgment. But at the point of death all priests may absolve all penitents whatever from every kind of sin or censure (Council of Trent, 14, 7). In places of pilgrimage the priests can usually absolve in cases reserved for the bishop; and in many dioceses they are empowered to do so during missions, at Easter, or when a general confession is made,
3. In the confessional the priest stands in the place of God; therefore the penitent is bound to yield him obedience.
If Our Lord Himself sat in one confessional, and an ordinary priest in another, the one would not remit sins more fully than the other. Why is this? We call the priest who hears confessions “Father” because he represents our heavenly Father. For the same reason he deals with the penitent gently and indulgently, like a father. We must obey the confessor, for it is not a man whom we obey in his person, but God, Who has said: “He that heareth you, heareth Me.” If we obey our confessor, we may be sure that we shall not have to give account of our actions to God; for should the confessor be at error, there is no blame attaching to the penitent; he cannot do in obeying. Those who would make progress in perfection should obey their confessor as they would obey the voice of God, even should the practice of some devotion or penance be forbidden them. St. John of the Cross says that to rebel against the dictum of the confessor manifests pride and want of faith.
In the confessional the priest exercises three functions: The office of a teacher, a physician, and a judge.
In his office of teacher the priest has to instruct the penitent if he perceives that he is in ignorance of something important for him to know. Like a guardian angel, he directs the traveller in the right way. In his office of physician he listens to the penitent, who is sick with the disease of sin, while he gives an account of his condition, as the physician listens to the patient describing his bodily pains. He gives him the remedy to effect his spiritual cure, as the physician prescribes medicines for those who are sick in body. In his office of judge, he must decide whether the penitent is or is not to be absolved; in the former case he gives him absolution, in the latter he with holds it.
4. Under no possible conditions may the priest repeat anything out of the confessional,
This obligation to secrecy is called the seal of confession. Not even to save his life may the priest reveal what has been said in confession. St. John Nepomucene could not be prevailed upon either by menaces or torture to disclose the queen’s confession to King Wenceslas. That monarch accordingly ordered him to be thrown into the Moldau, and five lights floating over the water marked the spot where his corpse lay. Not even to avert a terrible calamity may the priest reveal what has been said in confession. A king once asked the court chaplain whether, if any one confessed that he intended to assassinate the king, he would make it known. “On no account,” the clergyman replied. “Then,” said the king, “my life is not safe.” “It would be less so,” the priest rejoined, “but for confession, and the seal of confession.” The obligation of secrecy also exists in regard to the penitent. A priest’s servant once confessed to him that he had stolen his corn; the priest was obliged to leave the key in the barn-door the same as before. The seal of confession must be observed no less strictly in a court of justice, for the divine law is higher than human law. The penalty for violating the seal is deprivation for the remainder of the priest’s life, besides severe ecclesiastical punishments. We hear from time to time of bad priests who apostatize, but never has one been known to fall so low as to break the seal of confession. The obligation of secrecy is for the protection of the penitent as well as to safeguard the Sacrament of Penance. The penitent may give the priest permission to make use of what he has told him in confession, but the confessor must be very chary of availing- himself of that permission. He must only do so when something really important is at stake, and there is no risk of thereby bringing confession into discredit. The seal of confession does not bind the priest if any one speaks outside the confessional of what he has previously confessed.
5. Every Catholic is perfectly free to choose his own confessor.
The slightest coercion in regard to confession is forbidden, for fear of leading any one to conceal a sin. St. Teresa says: “Oh, what mischief the evil one is enabled to do, if force is put upon any one in regard to confession!” Accordingly no one is obliged to go to confession to his parish priest (unless it be at Easter, as is the rule in some places); every one is at liberty to approach the sacraments wherever he chooses, and the priest may not refuse to hear any man’s confession because he belongs to another parish. Monks are required to go to confession to a member of their Order. Nuns have their confessor appointed by the bishops; yet besides the ordinary confessor, the bishop or other superior has to offer them twice or thrice a year an extraordinary confessor whose duty it is to hear them (Council of Trent, 25, 10). No one can prevent them from making their confession to him.
Whoso desires to make progress in perfection must place himself under the guidance of some particular confessor (St. Philip ).
If a man wants to learn a profession or trade, he must have a master to instruct him; how much more he who wishes to acquire that most difficult of all professions, Christian perfection! He who would ascend a high mountain must have an experienced guide; how much more he who would scale the heights of Christian perfection! Choice should not be made of a confessor without mature deliberation and fervent prayer. For twenty years St. Teresa failed to find a spiritual Father who understood her; she persevered in prayer, and St. John of Avila was sent to her. A wise confessor should be chosen; one would not consult the first doctor one met with about one’s bodily ailments; nor in legal difficulties would one take the advice of any but a good solicitor. And should one use less precaution in a matter on which one’s eternity depends? One must also choose a confessor in whom one has entire confidence. The devil ruins many souls by sowing distrust between the penitent and his confessor. One’s confessor should not be changed without good reason, any more than one would leave a doctor who has attended one for long, and who knows one’s constitution. It is, however, well to go to some one else occasionally, so as not to get into servile subjection to one individual.
This article, The Confessor. is a post from The Bellarmine Forum.
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