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Fr. Jan Kobylowicz: Living Martyr of the Confessional Seal

The sacrament of Confession has been under attack in Australia since the conclusion of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse in December of 2017. Several states have now passed legislation that requires Catholic priests to violate the confessional seal in cases where child sexual abuse is revealed in confession. The Queensland Labor government has announced its intention to table a similar bill in the coming weeks, making it the latest Australian state to openly attack the Catholic Church and her sacraments by use of the law.

Without here detailing the theological reasons behind the seal, or the logical flaws inherent in the proposed legislation, let us consider the inviolability of the seal and the lengths to which priests must go in order to protect it. While many may know of the great saints who died in defense of the seal, such as St. John Nepomucene and St. Mateo Correa Magallanes, few may know of a 19th-century Polish priest who suffered a twenty-year martyrdom in defense of the seal.

Fr. Kobylowicz was a Catholic priest in 19th-century Ukraine, then a part of the Russian Empire, and was parish priest to the small town of Oratov. In the strongly Eastern Orthodox Russian Empire, Catholics were discriminated against, and Catholic priests had to conduct much of their ministry in secret. In these conditions, Fr. Kobylowicz was a clandestine apostle, routinely working in secret to bring Orthodox converts into the bosom of the Catholic Church.

On one such occasion in 1853, Fr. Kobylowicz was attending the house of a local official, who had secretly converted to Catholicism, in order to minister the sacraments to the man and his family. During that time, the parish organist broke into the Oratov priory and stole Fr. Kobylowicz’s hunting shotgun. The following morning, news broke that a local official had been found murdered, having been shot while he lay in bed.

Later that day, the organist entered the Oratov church and placed an object behind the church altar, before walking into Fr. Kobylowicz’s confessional. Fr. Kobylowicz slid the screen to the side, saying, “Dominus sit in corde tuo et in labiis tuis: ut digni competener annunties Evangelium suum: In nomine Patris, et Filii, et Spiritus Sancti. Amen.”

With sacrilegious intent, the organist proceeded to confess to the sin of murder, stating that he burned with lust for a man’s wife and had shot a local official with the intention of marrying the man’s widow. What Fr. Kobylowicz said to the man is unknown to us, and the organist left the church, knowing that by confessing, he had sealed the priest’s lips for eternity. He then proceeded to the local magistrate’s court, where he informed the magistrate that he knew who had murdered the local official and had even seen him hide the murder weapon. The magistrate listened in disbelief as the organist informed him that Fr. Kobylowicz had murdered the man and hidden the shotgun within the sacred sanctuary of the Church of Oratov.

When the police entered the Oratov sanctuary, they discovered a shotgun behind the altar. With the murder weapon in hand and a supposed eyewitness to testify, the evidence was overwhelming, and the hapless Fr. Kobylowicz was arrested. For six weeks, he suffered through the humiliation of a murder trial, all the while remaining silent in the face of lies and calumny. He knew that one word in his own defense would exonerate him, but he also knew that that one word would violate the sacred seal of the confessional. He would not even reveal where he was at the time of the murder in order to protect the family of secret converts. The trial concluded with a guilty verdict, and the silent hero was taken to the Cathedral of St. Sophia, where he was to be defrocked, as canon law required.

Mgr. Borowski was charged with defrocking the convicted murderer and convened the solemn ceremony. Knowing the personal sanctity of the heroic young priest, however, Borowski trusted in his innocence and was brought to tears during the ceremony, along with the entire congregation. At the conclusion of the ceremony, with head shaved and garbed in the thin uniform of a prisoner, Fr. Kobylowicz was joined to a chain gang and marched to the coal mines of Siberia, where he was sentenced to live out the remainder of his life in hard labour.

For twenty years he toiled away, living in the freezing cold, eating scraps, and unable to celebrate the holy sacrifice of the Mass. At the end of each backbreaking day, Fr. Kobylowicz would pray:

Now thou dost dismiss thy servant, O Lord, according to thy word in peace:

Because my eyes have seen thy salvation:

Which thou hast prepared before the face of all peoples.

A light to the revelation of the gentiles, and the glory of thy people Israel.

Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost,

As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end. Amen

Protect us, Lord, while we are awake and safeguard us while we sleep, that we may keep watch with Christ and rest in peace.

Twenty years passed. The organist, nearing the point of death, called the magistrate to his bedside. Confessing to the murder, he professed Fr. Kobylowicz’s innocence and detailed how he had used the seal of the confessional to frame the priest. The magistrate immediately sent a telegram to Siberia ordering the priest’s release; however, he received this terse and tragic reply: “Father Kobylowicz is dead. He died two months ago.”

Nothing has so demonstrated the sanctity of the confessional seal as Fr. Kobylowicz’s living martyrdom. For twenty years, he lived with the knowledge that one word would free his body, but he also lived with the knowledge that that one word would imprison his soul.

When governments threaten priests with imprisonment for failing to violate the seal of the confessional, we must elevate the example of Fr. Kobylowicz. We must call upon his intercession, and that of other martyrs of the seal, to strengthen our priests in the face of such opposition and protect them from the abuses that are sure to follow from the egregious legislation proposed by the Queensland Labor government.

Fr. Kobylowicz, pray for us.

References:

McKeon, Albert S.T.L.. 1906 The Catholic Confessional and the Sacrament of Penance. Ontario: Seaforth.

n.a. 1898 “The Secret of the Confessional” The Sacred Heart Review, August 3, 1898.

n.a. 1896. “The Seal of the Confessional – A Heroic Priest” New Zealand Tablet, April 17, 1896.

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