QUAERITUR: Can I change my voice to fool the confessor?

From a reader:

I have a problem. Whenever I go to confession (traditional screened booth), my confessors can recognize my voice, and sometimes indicate that they know it’s me.

I abhor this with a deep purple abhorrence, and am now really self-conscious when I go to confession. I repeatedly drive around the block trying to avoid confession.

I was thinking, I don’t speak in my actual voice anymore. I have somewhat of a deep manly voice and often got mistaken for a man on the phone, so I sort of changed my voice several years ago.

Would I be sinning if I changed my voice back down several pitches during confession in order to throw off my confessors into mistaking me for a man so they don’t know it’s me? Does it make a difference for priests whether or not I’m female or male?

I am glad that you overcome your nerves and actually GO TO CONFESSION!  Very good.

First, I will say to priests, if you are giving a sign that you know who the penitent is, and the penitent hasn’t said “Father, it’s ‘John” again.”, the KNOCK IT OFF! Penitents should be able to be anonymous. Do NOT burden them with the additional knowledge that, when you meet out side of the confessional, you may be connecting what they confessed to their person. Sheesh!  Don’t feel you have to be chummy in the confessional.

Secondly, dear penitent, don’t play games with confession. Don’t try to deceive your confessor.

It is a good, standard practice in making your confession to start be indicating your state in life (“I’m married, with children”, “I’m a diocesan priest in good standing”, “I am a professed religious sister”, “I am single/ divorced/separated awaiting annulment…”.).  Whether you are a woman or a man does make a difference in your confession.  Yes, everyone, it does.   People are not “generic”, or “gender neutral” in confessing.

If you have an option, perhaps you can go to confession to a confessor where you are not usually also going to Mass. Put some distance between your regular parish situation and your regular confessor.

If that is not possible, just – breathe deeply – bite the bullet and go anyway.

The priest is bound by the Seal of Confession. Were the priest to betray anything of the content of the confession you have made… let’s just say that will have been a Very Bad Day™ in the tale of Father’s life.

I fully understand how nervous people can be when making a confession, a good confession.  The anxiety can be especially heavy if it has been a while and you have a lot to confess.

May I refer you to my Tips For Making a God Confession?  Especially:

11) …never be afraid to say something “embarrassing”… just say it;

12) …never worry that the priest thinks we are jerks…. he is usually impressed by our courage;

13) …never fear that the priest will not keep our confession secret… he is bound by the Seal;

and

20) …remember that priests must go to confession too … they know what we are going through.

On a personal note, two things:

I have once in a while been startled by some saying, “But Father, I’m a man/woman!” Yes, it happens.  This happens because we are human beings.  Just smile and go on.

Also, I think other confessors will attest to this, but my experience is that even in a matter of a few seconds after the penitent gets out of the box, I can’t easily recall what it was that I just heard!  I have, over the years, knowledge and experience of lots of confessions, and therefore (please, God, I pray and hope) the accumulated wisdom that comes from experience.  However, whether it is because of graces or the results of my years-long discipline of wanting to protect the anonymity of penitents, or both, I don’t usually remember what I hear for more then a very brief time.  Granted, were I in a really small country village – of many decades ago – where few people moved around or visited the place, the story might be different.  Still, I’ll bet other priests are this way too regarding the content of confessions.

Lastly, a moment of embarrassment does not outweigh the benefits of a sacramental confession well made and the absolution that come from it, regardless of who the priest may be, saintly confessor, wise-cracking jerk, less-than-faithful sinner, scatter-brained but pious.  The one who is giving you absolution in the person of the priest is none other than Jesus Christ, High Priest, Savior, Judge.

Keep going, friend.

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About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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32 Responses to QUAERITUR: Can I change my voice to fool the confessor?

  1. Papabile says:

    I will generally never go to confession in my own parish. The same thing often happens to me. I am friends with several Priests, and when I know that they know who it is, it creates a real psychological block for me to make good Confessions. I am not saying I should feel that way, but I do.

    I usually drive to a parish close by on a day that they have confessions.

  2. marthawrites says:

    This question reminds me of when I was in a grade school in a suburb of Boston; each class went to Confession once a month at our parish church. The priest always called me by name at the conclusion of my confession and I couldn’t figure out how he knew it was me. That was troubling to a nine-year-old. This was in the ’50′s when kneeling behind a screen was the only choice. Years later I realized that I was the only child in the entire school who didn’t have a Boston accent! We had moved from San Diego.

  3. ghp95134 says:

    Fr. Z sez: Lastly, a moment of embarrassment does not outweigh the benefits of a sacramental confession well made and the absolution that come from it,

    I concur wholeheartedly! I cannot express how clean I felt after confessing something I was holding back due to “embarassment.” Hearing the words of absolution lightened my heart tremendously and the weight of that sin no longer drags me down.

    –Guy

  4. Joseph-Mary says:

    Being a regular penitent and often going between two parishes, I have the possibility of 4 different confessors. And they all know me—well. They know my voice, etc. It is humbling. It is a way to smash down that pride, like kneading down bread dough. And then the yeast of concupiscence will cause that pride to rise again until the next time. Since these two parishes both offer confessions daily, we have the opportunity to be very regular penitents. I almost always go during the week and every week. A number of others do too. This is what offering the sacrament often does: allows for more penitents to receive the sacrament frequently and to grow in holiness.

  5. Priam1184 says:

    Right there with papabile, I have had that same feeling and I figure that it is just one of the enemy’s many ways of trying to build a wall between me and the Confessional. So I go to a parish on the other side of town. If you are uncomfortable or worried that the priest might recognize you then, if you possess the means of transportation to get there, just go to another parish. But however you do it: GO TO CONFESSION.

  6. I heartily concur with our host’s advice. Here are some thoughts of my own:

    While humanity is awfully inventive, the fact is, most people sin in rather pedestrian ways. Or, as someone said–I can’t recall who, but I think it was a confessor–”sin is boring.”

    So, one good reason to add no unnecessary details, but to state the matter in an accurate but bare-bones way is…that’s a lot less memorable. I don’t want to remember, and I pray that I won’t. Less memorable is…less memorable!

    While it stands to reason that some people will have easily identifiable voices, this is probably less true than people think, particularly when there’s no face involved. And if one is fairly low-key and brief, without any embellishments, that makes it harder. Another reason for “short and sweet.”

    Another piece of advice–tangentially related–comes to mind. Sometimes when folks go to confession, they will identify themselves, and ask a question or share information entirely unrelated to the sacrament, and expect that I will follow up outside the confessional. This is awkward; because I’d really rather keep that other matter completely separate. If you want me to remember the invitation to a Marie Antoinette Day party, please don’t include it in a conversation we both want to forget.

  7. vandalia says:

    As soon as I started to read this post, I was going to give a reply saying “In my experience, and just about every other priest I have talked with, it is amazing how you really don’t remember what people actually confessed.” At that moment in reading you said basically the same thing.

    I believe ever more strongly as I go along that this is one of the graces associated with the Sacrament.

  8. Years ago I tried to change my voice.. I turned my male voice into that of a squeaky child. I went through all my sins and when I was done the Priest gave me his blessing. As I got up to leave, I heard Fr. M. says “Have a blessed day Michael”… I nearly fell over in shock. He knew who I was. You can’t fool God!! I never attempted such a thing again. LOL.

  9. St. Epaphras says:

    Probably many of us give verbal cues as to our identity. Then there is our manner of confessing, which may vary from one to another (I sure don’t know!) I wouldn’t count on anonymity unless Father really does not know me at all. One can travel a bit if that’s necessary. Otherwise — I try to forget the priest and focus on “That’s Jesus over there! No, really!” The sacrament of Penance is so awesome. Talk about the mercy of God! Forget what Father might think; this could be my very last confession. But I do understand the embarrassment aspect.

  10. Stu says:

    Father,

    Coming at this from a different angle. I too have been caught up in wondering if the priest will recognize my voice and such. In response, I just opt to flat out identify myself as a means to simply take the concern away and replace it with certainty. Thoughts from the point of view of the priest?

  11. sw85 says:

    One of the most comforting things I’ve ever heard a confessor say was “I don’t know if you’ve confessed to me before or not but one of the things I always recommend is…” Because I had confessed to him each of the previous two weeks as well! It is comforting to know that a priest is respecting the confidentiality of my confession and that he is occupying his mind with giving me sound counsel and spiritual direction rather than trying to puzzle out my identity from whatever clues I’ve given him.

  12. Supertradmum says:

    When my son was younger and in North America, he was the only person in any congregation with a British accent. He was unperturbed. And, for the past 30 months, I was the only American woman in most parishes where I went to confession. One just gets over being identified. And, I am convinced priests are too busy to be concerned about who is saying the list of sins, rather than what is being said. I am also sure they are not going to remember things. And, if they do, I trust they merely use the memory for prayer.

    It can be merely part of the humility of facing one’s sins and not pretending to be something one is not….

  13. Depending on your level of comfort, it might be a good idea to simply tell the priest – in confession or out – that this habit makes you uncomfortable. He may think he is doing you a favor, setting you at ease, but knowing that it has the reverse result could be a pretty effective deterrent.

    Coming at this from a different angle. I too have been caught up in wondering if the priest will recognize my voice and such. In response, I just opt to flat out identify myself as a means to simply take the concern away and replace it with certainty. Thoughts from the point of view of the priest?

    I like having uncertainty about who is confessing to me. Its one more extra protection in helping keep the Seal inviolate.

  14. marthawrites says:

    I should have added that ever since it’s been allowed I confess my sins seated, facing the priest. So anonymity is no longer an issue for me.

  15. I wholly concur with the idea that priests should not indicate that they know who the penitent is. Confession is not a drop by between friends.

    But I do urge the penitents out there to tell the priest something of your state in life (married, vowed, single, widowed) and things that help him understand the sins (working, in school, retired, etc.). Some times general age is also important.

    The same kinds of sin often suggest different penances or approaches given the varying circumstances.

  16. MaryL says:

    Confession is a time of humility for us to kneel down before God and admit our sins and we are asking for forgiveness. Humility is so good for the soul. Confession is such a great sacrament, that we have this opportunity to be humble. If our sins are so embarrassing, surely by attending Confession regularly is the best way to help overcome the sin, because you really don’t want to have to tell Father that one again and so maybe it will make you think twice. Its actually our Lord you need to worry about offending.

  17. Glennonite says:

    My priest was a fantastic confessor for me when I came back after 2o years; he will always be in my daily intentions.

    However, he has shown himself over the years to be consistently loud (!) when restating my sins, (I have to create some noise while next in line in order not to hear the other guy’s session) and…overly advice-oriented, sometimes I just want to “get-it-out” and move on to my penance. Sometimes it’s harder than other times, and short and to the point can be a mercy in itself.

    But he also consistently finds a way to chuckle or respond in a somewhat jovial manner at some point of each confession. I assume he’s trying to lighten the pain, I guess, but frequently I get the feeling that my immortal peril is NOT a small thing and I want some straight-up seriousness.

    Any thoughts or suggestions for me?

  18. mis3gal says:

    This reminds me of the time my 11 year old daughter, having gone to confession after daily Mass, told us around the breakfast table that in the middle of the confession she started speaking with a British accent. The kids do that from time to time to be funny, and apparently it just spontaneously happened while she was confessing. I would love to know what our priest thought….apparently he didn’t acknowledge the sudden change.

  19. Elizabeth D says:

    I had the opposite problem. I’m never trying to be anonymous in confession because I confess to the same priest regularly and want the wise and prudent priest’s knowledge of me to help him in giving me advice. I had been going to confession behind the screen because some other past confessors or occasional confessors who I respected preferred that for some reason and I thought maybe there is something better or more traditional about that. And as I got used to it (at first it distressed me) I found it helped me to stay focused and clearly distinguished confession from some other kind of conversation. But then one time my current confessor said I was giving away my identity by what I was saying. And I realized he thought I was trying to be anonymous. No!! I really need his help in advising me well! So I stopped using the screen. Now face to face confession seems awkward to me but it does seem more personal.

  20. Glennonite asked for advice:

    “My priest…has shown himself over the years to be consistently loud when restating my sins”

    Tell him. By your description, he seems easy-going. He will be glad to know. I would be.

    I can tell you that it’s kind of hard for the priest to know whether he can be overheard. How would we know? We can’t stand outside the confessional when we’re inside!

    Also, sometimes people coming can’t hear very well, so it becomes necessary to raise ones voice. If I am not careful, my volume creeps up.

    “and…overly advice-oriented, sometimes I just want to “get-it-out” and move on to my penance. Sometimes it’s harder than other times, and short and to the point can be a mercy in itself.

    But he also consistently finds a way to chuckle or respond in a somewhat jovial manner at some point of each confession. I assume he’s trying to lighten the pain, I guess, but frequently I get the feeling that my immortal peril is NOT a small thing and I want some straight-up seriousness.”

    On that latter, just be grateful. Remember, a priest in the confessional has to deal with every possible personality and situation, and it’s a bit tricky to get ones manner and tone just right so it works for the penitent.

  21. lux_perpetua says:

    as a blind person, there is no such thing as anonymity. :) i have done everything from accidentally opening the door to father’s side of the confessional to having to ask his assistance to leave and get back to the front door of the church afterward to having my cane fall down mid-confession and slide behind the screen onto father’s side. it is the most humbling thing in the world, and the only way that I can get through it is by telling myself, “the last judgment won’t be anonymous, I may as well get used to it now.”

  22. Nan says:

    @Fr Martin Fox, after his All Saints Day homily a few years ago, in which Father discussed how boring sin was, I mentioned after Mass that one of my concerns in confession is boring the priest into a coma. Who knew it was a real possibility? I thought he was going to blow a gasket from trying not to laugh. I do worry about my confession being the one that puts the priest over the edge.

    Last time I went to confession, I went to a parish that I had been to once for Mass. Once. I wasn’t excited about going for confession but I had some scheduling issues for confession time at my parish, so went when it was convenient. I got the baby priest and he totally rocked! A couple of times before that, I had stayed away from confession because I had an issue with the priest and feared that I’d get the same one as the time before. I know that the next priest is the right priest and when there’s more than one, don’t wait for the one I prefer so sure enough, I got the priest I didn’t want to talk to.

    Oh, and getting laughed at in confession? Happens to me regularly. Apparently my sins are amusing. And no, not a chuckle, an outburst of laughter. It happens with multiple priests.

    Nevertheless we must remember that we’re blessed in having Mass and Confession regularly offered.

  23. Uxixu says:

    At my old parish (which was newer construction, it was a room than the old style booth with a screen and kneeler, but I would usually surprise the priest by coming around for a face to face confession which they never encouraged.

    My current parish is a 1950′s-1960′s construction best of both worlds. Great old style sanctuary (though I’m left to imagine how it’s old high altar might have looked) that retains the marble altar rail with padded kneeler, though they removed the gates. But with modern creature comforts like A/C. Anyhow, it has the older confessional booths on either side of the main aisle, though relatively modern with soundproofing on the walls, but no option for face to face confession, at least in the scheduled times.

  24. Uxixu says:

    Mangled that one. Should read: At my old parish (which was newer construction) had more of a room with visible chair on one side and a a screen and kneeler on the other, I would usually surprise the priest by coming around for a face to face confession, which was neither encouraged nor discouraged.

  25. Tamquam says:

    I started going to confession regularly after I went to Fr. Diamond (may he rest in peace). He asked some probing questions about my confession that were really helpful. After that I started going to him regularly. I am pretty sure that he could not have picked me out of a lineup, but he certainly knew me. Two things I found particularly memorable about him. His questions were very helpful in getting a better grip on myself. He was able to convey somehow, I don’t understand it, God’s love and mercy in a way such that I felt it in my body, and I began to believe that God’s love for me might be something more than an intellectual abstraction.

    All priests, I think, have particular gifts, specialized charisms to serve the Church; I am minded of the Cure d’Ars in this thread. Finding one that clicks is a wonderful gift. Non sum dignum, just grateful.

  26. Peter in Canberra says:

    On a lighter note, I understand that one of my grandfathers, a farmer, would be asked “how are your pumpkins going [Name]“, without apparently any particular trepidation on either side.

    On a slightly more serious note, I recall talking to a Ukrainian rite Catholic who somewhat bemoaned the (moderatley recent) introduction of the Roman confessionals into their churches, and went on to explain that it had formerly been the custom in their rite for the penitent to kneel [in the sanctuary? can't recall sorry] beside the priest who would drape his stole over the shoulder of the penitent. This seemed to me a beautiful custom though it would be confronting for me, and those acustomed to roman anonymity.

  27. bookworm says:

    If you think you have it bad in this regard…

    I read years ago that John F. Kennedy, while president, did go to confession fairly regularly, but always worried that the priest would recognize his unmistakable voice and perhaps be tempted to break the seal someday. When he went he always had some Catholic Secret Service men go into the confessional booth and make their own confessions before and after him; he hoped this would make his prescence somehow less obvious, but it didn’t always work. On one occasion, as soon as he stepped into the booth, the priest said “Good evening, Mr. President.” He responded “Good evening, Father” and walked out.

  28. cresci says:

    (I think it’s a déjá-vu or I might have commented ths before here in the past)

    Coming from a latin american background (Brazil), I really don’t get this “obsession” with confessional ANONYMITY that I see in English-speaking countries.
    The sacrament does not mean to be anonymous, but PRIVATE and SECRET. That is very distant from being anonymous. Canon Law doesn’t provide any dispositions for anonimity of the penitent him/herself (it only warrants anonymity of the partner of the penitent on a sin). It provides for the priest not to point our, reveal or even using the confessed sins as examples on a talk even if generically.

  29. Fr. Denis Lemieux says:

    Just to add my two cents, I can assure you that priests have an amazing ability to largely forget anything confessed to them – I experience that, and most priests I’ve asked about it say the same thing. So, even if father knows your voice, don’t worry – two minutes after you’re done, it’ll be out of his mind.
    And yes, sin is really, really boring.

  30. Nan says:

    @Peter in Canberra, the Ukrainian Church uses the Byzantine Rite and I’ve gone to Byzantine Ruthenian confession, which is a bit weird for those used to the box, Father stands at the corner of the Iconostasis and the penitent doesn’t kneel but stands with Father’s stole overhead; it has an opening for priest to put head through but is sewn down the front instead of draped like Latin Rite. Just that between you and the priest. This is the only time I’ve gone to face to face confession (face to stole?) and it was Wed. of Holy Week when all receive the Holy Anointing. It was a bit weird because a) I don’t know their form of confession so just started off the way I would normally; b) I felt conspicuous because it was visible to all; c) I know the priest so he has a different context for my sins than the priests to whom I typically confess. The line formed quite a distance from where the priest stood but I was facing the stole, which minimized my distractions.

  31. Indulgentiam says:

    Frankly if the Priest behind the screen recognizes me or not does not concern me in the least. GOD already saw me sin…who else matters? Confession is such a gift! Good grief! I, a repeat offender, really a “stiff necked criminal” as one of the Saints puts it am allowed to approach the KING and ask for mercy. And, if I do what I’m supposed to, HE forgives and wipes out my prison sentence. Good golly what more could a person want?
    Before thine eyes, O Lord, we bring our sins and we compare them with the stripes we have received. If we examine the evil we have wrought, what we suffer is little, what we deserve is great. What we have committed is very grievous, what we have suffered is very slight. We feel the punishment of sin, yet withdraw not from the obstinacy of sinning. Under Thy lash our inconstancy is visited, but our sinfulness is not changed. Our suffering soul is tormented, but our neck is not bent. Our life groans under sorrow, yet amends not in deed. If Thou spare us, we correct not our ways: if Thou punish, we cannot endure it. In time of correction we confess our wrongdoing: after Thy visitation we forget that we have wept. If Thou stretchest forth Thy hand, we promise amendment; if Thou withholdest the sword, we keep not our promise. If Thou strikest, we cry out for mercy: if Thou sparest, we again provoke Thee to strike.

    Here we are before Thee, O Lord, confessedly guilty: we know that unless Thou pardon we shall deservedly perish. Grant then, O almighty Father, without our deserving it, the pardon we ask; Thou who madest out of nothing those who ask Thee. Through Christ our Lord. -St. Augustine of Hippo (+430)

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