"Concealing Sins in Confession" a sermon by St Alphonsus de Ligouri for the Third Sunday of Lent
“And he was casting out a devil, and the same was dumb.” – Luke 11:14
The devil does not bring sinners to hell with their eyes open: he first blinds them with the malice of their own sins. “For their own malice blinded them.” He thus leads them to eternal perdition. Before we fall into sin, the enemy labours to blind us, that we may not see the evil we do and the ruin we bring upon ourselves by offending God. After we commit sin, he seeks to make us dumb, that, through shame, we may conceal our guilt in confession. Thus, he leads us to hell by a double chain, inducing us, after our transgressions, to consent to a still greater sin – the sin of sacrilege. I will speak on this subject today, and will endeavour to convince you of the great evil of concealing sins in confession.
In expounding the words of David: “Set a door, O Lord, round about my lips.” St Augustine says, that we should keep a door to the mouth, that it may be closed against detraction, and blasphemies, and all improper words, and that it may be opened to confess the sins we have committed. “Thus,” adds the holy Doctor, “it will be a door of restraint, and not of destruction.”
To be silent when we are impelled to utter words injurious to God or to our neighbour, is an act of virtue; but to be silent in confessing our sins, is the ruin of the soul. After we have offended God, the devil labours to keep the mouth closed, and to prevent us from confessing our guilt. St Antonine relates, that a holy solitary once saw the devil standing beside a certain person who wished to go to confession. The solitary asked the fiend what he was doing there. The enemy said in reply: “I now restore to these penitents what I before took away from them; I took away from them shame while they were committing sin; I now restore it that they may have a horror of confession.” “My sores are putrefied and corrupted, because of my foolishness.” Gangrenous sores are fatal; and sins concealed in confession are spiritual ulcers, which mortify and become gangrenous.
St John Chrysostom says that God has made sin shameful that we may abstain from it, and gives us confidence to confess it by promising pardon to all who accuse themselves of their sins. But the devil does the contrary: he gives confidence to sin by holding out hopes of pardon; but, when sin is committed, he inspires shame, to prevent the confession of it.
A disciple of Socrates, at the moment he was leaving a house of bad fame, saw his master pass: to avoid being seen by him, he went back into the house. Socrates came to the door and said: My son, it is a shameful thing to enter, but not to depart from this house. To you also, O brethren, who have sinned, I say, that you ought to be ashamed to offend so great and so good a God. But you have no reason to be ashamed of confessing the sins which you have committed. Was it shameful in St Mary Magdalene to acknowledge publicly at the feet of Jesus Christ that she was a sinner? By her confession she became a saint. Was it shameful in St Augustine not only to confess his sins, but also to publish them in a book, that, for his confusion, they might be known to the whole world? Was it shameful in St Mary of Egypt to confess, that for so many years she had led a scandalous life? By their confessions these have become saints, and are honoured on the altars of the Church.
We say that the man who acknowledges his guilt before a secular tribunal is condemned; but in the tribunal of Jesus Christ they who confess their sins obtain pardon, and receive a crown of eternal glory. “After confession,” says St John Chrysostom, “a crown is given to penitents.” He who is afflicted with an ulcer must, if he wish to be cured, show it to a physician: otherwise it will fester and bring on death. The Council of Trent says, “that the physician cannot cure an evil of which he is ignorant.” If, then, brethren, your souls be ulcerated with sin, be not ashamed to confess it; otherwise you are lost. “For thy soul be not ashamed to say the truth.” But, you say, I feel greatly ashamed to confess such a sin. If you wish to be saved, you must conquer this shame. “For there is a shame that bringeth sin, and there is a shame that bringeth glory and grace.” There are, according to the inspired writer, two kinds of shame: one of which leads souls to sin, and that is the shame which makes them conceal their sins at confession; the other is the confusion which a Christian feels in confessing his sins; and this confusion obtains for him the grace of God in this life, and the glory of heaven in the next.
St Augustine says that to prevent the sheep from seeking assistance by its cries the wolf seizes it by the neck, and thus securely carries it away and devours it. The devil acts in a similar manner with the sheep of Jesus Christ. After having induced them to yield to sin, he seizes them by the throat that they may not confess their guilt; and thus he securely brings them to hell. For those who have sinned grievously, there is no means of salvation but the confession of their sins. But what hope of salvation can he have who goes to confession and conceals his sins, and makes use of the tribunal of penance to offend God, and to make himself doubly the slave of Satan? What hope would you entertain of the recovery of the man who, instead of taking the medicine prescribed by his physician, drank a cup of poison? O God! What can the sacrament of penance be to those who conceal their sins, but a deadly poison which adds to their guilt the malice of sacrilege?
In giving absolution, the confessor dispenses to his patient the blood of Jesus Christ; for it is through the merits of that blood that he absolves from sin. What, then, does the sinner do when he conceals his sins in confession? He tramples under foot the blood of Jesus Christ. And should he afterwards receive the Holy Communion in a state of sin, he is, according to St John Chrysostom, as guilty as if he threw the consecrated host into a sink. Accursed shame! How many poor souls do you bring to hell? “They think more of the shame than of salvation,” says Tertullian. Unhappy souls! They think only of the shame of confessing their sins, and do not reflect that, if they conceal them, they shall be certainly damned.
Some penitents ask: “What will my confessor say when he hears that I have committed such a sin?” What will he say? He will say that you are, like all persons living on this earth, miserable and prone to sin: he will say that, if you have done evil, you have also performed a glorious action in overcoming shame, and in candidly confessing your fault.
“But I am afraid to confess this sin.” To how many confessors, I ask, must you tell it? It is enough to mention it to one priest who hears many sins of the same kind from others. It is enough to confess it once: the confessor will give you penance and absolution, and your conscience shall be tranquillised. But you say: “I feel a great repugnance to tell this sin to my spiritual Father. “Tell it, then, to another confessor, and, if you wish, to one to whom you are unknown. “But if this come to the knowledge of my confessor, he will be displeased with me.” What then do you mean to do? Perhaps, to avoid giving displeasure to him, you intend to commit a heinous crime, and remain under sentence of damnation. This would be the very height of folly,
Are you afraid that the confessor will make known your sin to others? Would it not be madness to suspect that he is so wicked as to break the seal of confession by revealing your sin to others? Remember that the obligation of the seal of confession is so strict that a confessor cannot speak out of confession, even to the penitent, of the smallest venial fault; and if he did so [that is, without the permission of the penitent], he would be guilty of a most grievous sin.
But you say: “I am afraid that my confessor, when he hears my sin, will rebuke me with great severity.” O God! Do you not see that all these are deceitful artifices of the devil to bring you to hell? No; the confessor will not rebuke you, but he will give an advice suited to your state. A confessor cannot experience greater consolation than in absolving a penitent who confesses his sins with true sorrow and with sincerity. If a queen were mortally wounded by a slave, and you were in possession of a remedy by which she could be cured, how great would be your joy in saving her life! Such is the joy which a confessor feels in absolving a soul in the state of sin. By his act he delivers her from eternal death: and by restoring to her the grace of God, he makes her a queen of paradise.
But you have so many fears, and are not afraid of damning your own soul by the enormous crime of concealing sins in confession. You are afraid of the rebuke of your confessor, and fear not the reproof which you shall receive from Jesus Christ, your Judge, at the hour of death. You are afraid that your sins shall become known (which is impossible), and you dread not the day of judgement, on which, if you conceal them, they shall be revealed to all men. If you knew that, by concealing sins in confession, they shall be made known to all your relatives and to all your neighbours, you would certainly confess them. But do you not know, says St Bernard, that if you refuse to confess your sins to one man, who, like yourself, is a sinner, they shall be made known, not only too all your relatives and neighbours, but to the entire human race? If you do not confess your sin, God Himself shall, for your confusion, publish not only the sin which you conceal, but also all your iniquities in the presence of the angels and off the whole world. “I will discover thy shame to thy face, and will show thy wickedness to the nations.”
Listen, then, to the advice of St Ambrose. The devil keeps an account of your sins to charge you with them at the tribunal of Jesus Christ. Do you wish, says the saint, to prevent this accusation? Anticipate your accuser: accuse yourself now to a confessor, and then no accuser shall appear against you at the judgement-seat of God. But, according to St Augustine, if you excuse yourself in confession, you shut up sin within your soul, and shut out pardon.
If, then, brethren, there be a single one among you who has ever concealed a sin, through shame, in the tribunal of penance, let him take courage, and make a full confession of all his faults. “Give glory to God with a good heart.” Give glory to God, and confusion to the devil. A certain penitent was tempted by Satan to conceal a sin through shame; but she was resolved to confess it; and while she was going to her confessor, the devil came forward and asked her where she was going. She courageously answered: “I am going to cover myself and you with confusion.” Act you in a similar manner; if you have ever concealed a mortal sin, confess it candidly to your director, and confound the devil. Remember that the greater the violence you do yourself in confessing your sins, the greater will be the love with which Jesus Christ will embrace you.
Courage, then! Expel this viper which you harbour in your soul, and which continually corrodes your heart and destroys your peace. Oh, what a hell does a Christian suffer who keeps in his heart a sin concealed through shame in confession! He suffers an anticipation of hell. It is enough to say to the confessor: “Father, I have a certain scruple regarding my past life, but I am ashamed to tell it.” This will be enough: the confessor will help to pluck out the serpent which gnaws your conscience.
And, that you may not entertain groundless scruples, I think it right to tell you, that if the sin which you are ashamed to tell be not mortal, or if you never considered it to be a mortal sin, you are not obliged to confess it; for we are bound only to confess mortal sins. Moreover, if you have doubts whether you ever confessed a certain sin of your former life, but know that, in preparing for confession, you always carefully examined your conscience, and that you never concealed a sin through shame; in this case, even though the sin, about the confession of which you are doubtful, had been a grievous fault, you are not obliged to confess it; because it is presumed to be morally certain that you have already confessed it. But, if you know that the sin was grievous, and that you never accused yourself of it in confession, then there is no remedy; you must confess it, or you must be damned for it.
But, O lost sheep, go instantly to confession. Jesus Christ is waiting for you; He stands with arms open to pardon and embrace you, if you acknowledge your guilt. I assure you that, after having confessed all your sins, you shall feel such consolation at having unburdened your conscience and acquired the grace of God, that you shall forever bless the day on which you made this confession. Go as soon as possible in search of a confessor. Do not give the devil time to continue to tempt you, and to make you put off your confession: go immediately; for Jesus Christ is waiting for you.