AFQB: Confession If No One Speaks the Language

Here is a question that came up in the ASK FATHER Question Box.  I thought some of you might find it interesting:

Confession If No One Speaks the Language

AFQB – The ASK FATHER Question Box: Liturgy, Music & The Seven Sacraments: Confession If No One Speaks the Language
   By Amber on Friday, October 27, 2006 – 9:03 am:

What does one do about confession if she lives in a country where no one speaks her language? To be specific, I currently live in China. There is a Catholic church here and I go to Mass regularly. I don’t speak either Mandarin or Cantonese well, but I understand the order of Mass and read the daily mass readings in English, even if I don’t understand the homilies.

The problem is confession: I would like to have the sacrament regularly, but none of the priests here speak English fluently. Is confession possible? What if it isn’t?

   By Fr. "KC" (fr_kc) on Monday, October 30, 2006 – 7:04 am:

Dear friend, Thank you for your questions.

I experienced your situations just a few weeks after I was ordained 47 years ago! I was visiting with my mother before departing for my assignment and the Pastor of my home parish asked me to hear confessions in the parish mission which were heard before Mass. It was a Sunday morning and as I blessed the penitent who had entered the confessional, I heard a language that I had never heard before. Imagine my concerns! Well, I recalled a professor in the Seminary teaching what we students called "Ecclesia suplet" which are Latin words meaning "The Church supplies for my deficiency." I determined the soul was sincere just being there and presuming I understood all she was saying and so I gave her a penance and absolution and with no worry knew with certainty that both her desire to be forgiven and my inability to understand was fulfilled by the power Jesus had given to His Church.

Of course both the penitent and the priest in such circumstances each had to sincere and trusting in God.

In your situation, I suggest that you look around and ask others if they know of any English speaking priests near by… if none then if you feel you truly need the Sacramental graces, then make your confession knowing that the priest represents God and God understands every language. In this situation it is the language of sincerity and desire to receive Absolution and the graces God bestows. You should be able to realize sufficiently whether the priest gives you Absolution and a penance. God does not expect the impossible and fills whatever lack is in the priests fulfilling his calling by Jesus to be the priest in this situation,

I began my studies with the Maryknoll priests and know many missionaries are in countless countries. Keep looking and eventually you will met a priest who can fulfill your desires. Fear Not ..God loves our every effort to be One with Him. God bless you. ASKFRKC

   By Fr. J.T. Zuhlsdorf (father_z) on Monday, October 30, 2006 – 7:16 am: Edit Post

Canon Law also refers to these situations and provides that a translator can be used. However, that translator would be bound by the Seal and would incur a censure if he said anything about the confession. (This is also the case for anyone who overhears a confession!)

Can. 983 §1 The sacramental seal is inviolable. Accordingly, it is absolutely wrong for a confessor in any way to betray the penitent, for any reason whatsoever, whether by word or in any other fashion.

§2 An interpreter, if there is one, is also obliged to observe this secret, as are all others who in any way whatever have come to a knowledge of sins from a confession.

Can. 990 No one is forbidden to confess through an interpreter, provided however that abuse and scandal are avoided, and without prejudice to the provision of can. 983 §2.

Notice is says that people are not "forbidden" to do this. That is not a very positive recommendation on the part of the lawgiver (= the Pope).

I think this is really for a super-emergency situation and I would not recommend it unless absolutely necessary. Try to find and English speaking priest. In the meantime, do your best to examine your conscience daily and make a perfect act of contrition as often as you are able, together with spiritual Communions.

Fr. Z

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. I will make the obvious point:

    This is where knowing and recognizing the words “Pater Noster” and the words of absolution in Latin would be useful. That, with several fingers held up, would make the penance clear.

    I keep a prayer book in the confessional that has the words of absolution in several languages, although I can’t recall ever using any of them. I practice them sometimes while waiting.

  2. Mila says:

    Bravo, Fr. Martin. Your practice of keeping a book with the words of absolution in several languages is awesome, and a true expression of charity. The fact that you haven’t had to use them ever does not mean you mayy not find yourself in that situation in the future.

    But you are absolutely right. Why not Latin? It would solve the problem both for the penitent and the confessor.

  3. Seamas O Dalaigh says:

    Father Zuhlsdorf,

    Ecclesia suplet… even a deficiency of Latin.

    James Daly

  4. RBrown says:

    Many years ago before I spoke French, I went to Confession at Chartres. When the priest noticed I didn’t speak the language, he pulled out a laminated sheet with a list of sins in various languages.

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