A note to confessors about confessions and keeping your voices QUIET

I have had some encouraging email lately about people returning to the Sacrament of Penance after a long period.  This sort of news makes continuing this blog worth the labor.

Also, some people send concerns about the way the sacrament is celebrated where they are.  One concern I received today bears passing along.  One reader was concerned that perhaps the priest hearing confessions was in danger of violating the Seal of Confession by speaking too loudly and making it possible, inadvertantly of course, for people outside to hear what he, the priest, was saying.  This could indicate to people outside what sort of thing the penitent confessed.  Think about it: “Serial adultery is a serious problem. For your penance….”

Not good.

Fathers, keep your voices down.

Also, while being sensitive to people who are hard of hearing I will often ask penitents to lower their voices.

That said, Penitents, keep your voices down.

Confessionals are not always sound-proofed.

Finally, if you overhear someone’s confession of the confessor’s counsel, you are obliged to keep it secret.  Do not be talking about what you hear.  Ehvvvurrrr.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

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  1. Pater OSB says:

    As a visiting confessor to many parishes, I’ve also noticed that confessionals can be noisy places or situated near noise. A/C that is too loud in the confessional, part of the confessional was take over to become an airhandling rooom, the ‘praise band’ is just outside the door. The re-ordering of churches often communicated in design the idea that ‘no one goes to confession anyway’ and so the confessionals became only visual vestiges of a former sacrament. I’ve known some great parish priests who greatly increased confessions simply by making the confessional and confessional again and reminding people that it is a great place of mercy and honor.

  2. paperclip says:

    I hate being able to hear it, especially when I can’t move away, I just try to pray louder (in my mind). There should be a rule for soundproof confessionals!

  3. JonPatrick says:

    At the chapel where I usually go to confession, the acoustics are such that one can hear what is said in the sacristry where confession is held, so they use one of those white noise generators outside the door which seems to do the trick. It is shut off after the last penitent leaves, so that we can still hear Mass :-)

  4. Phillip says:

    I really dislike being able to hear noise coming from the confessional, especially when you can’t really help but hear a couple of words (usually the priest’s) stand out in the midst of otherwise unintelligible voices. I do my best to block it out, but at the same time I think there’s some innate tendency to try to make sense of indistinct human voices, so I have to make an effort to distract myself, lest I find myself “listening” without actually intending to. I hope that made sense. I’d be mortified if I actually heard what someone confessed or if someone else heard my sins due to carelessness on the part of either penitent or confessor.

    Usually I find if I make sure to WHISPER very close to the grille, my confessor does the same.

  5. Random Friar says:

    While Father should be careful, if there’s real danger of overhearing, I’ve seen lines simply step back. I visited the new Oakland, CA, Cathedral of Christ the Light, and the confessional construction was very poorly thought out — a kind of rounded L-shape chamber, with open entrances on either side (I understand they did rope off the side the priest came in on). Well, smooth concrete being the material, it echoed marvelously out the sides. Folks were very intentional in keeping their distance, and moved folks along that unknowingly were simply looking about there as tourists.

  6. La Mamma says:

    as a penitent with excellent hearing, I find that rubbing ones hands gently over ones ears does the trick – it creates sufficient ‘White noise’ for oneself.

    a question though: I recently took my child to his second confession. beforehand, we obviously prepared well and I reassured re the secrecy of the confessional. However, he stunned me by saying that he thought the teacher who had prepared them for their first confession had listened at the door. I said no, no, of course not, whatever made you think that? he answered that when he came out, the teacher had pointed out to him the prayer he had been given as a penance. I said that perhaps several other children had come out and asked the teacher where to find that particular prayer on the sheet and so the teacher assumed that the confessor had been giving everyone the same penance. That answer seemed to satisfy him, but I’m not convinced of it myself. Should I ask the teacher about it? I don’t want to accuse falsely, on the other hand, if it was a case of involuntary overhearing, the teacher obviously needs to be told to be more discrete. What to do?

  7. MarkJ says:

    The confessionals in our FSSP parish church have walls coated in soundproofing material. No sounds get in or out. Why aren’t all confessionals made this way? There really is no excuse…

  8. Ed the Roman says:

    Of course, sometimes precautions cannot suffice. Once upon a time, I was traveling and confessed in a church where confessions were being held in a side chapel with glass walls. There was adequate distance to deal with being overheard, but not enough to keep some woman (presumably a parish employee) from walking in to ask Father a question. I had not stood up or anything like that: she just walked in while I was talking.

    Of course, it gave me more material.

  9. Dr. Eric says:

    Always make sure your wireless microphone is turned off if you hear confessions after Mass.

    If I note the mic on the collar I make sure the priest checks the switch on the battery pack so my confession remains private.

  10. NoraLee9 says:

    Back in 1981, when Attending confession, I happened to get the very old Monsignor of the parish. Having been catechized in the 70’s, my knowledge of making a good confession was not so great. Father asked me how many times I committed a sin. “I don’t know Father, 2 or 3.”
    “HOW MANY TIMES!!!??”
    “Three times Father. Three times.”
    This was Saturday afternoon before the vigil Mass and as I came out, I noticed a number of heads ratcheted around to gaze on the fool leaving the confessional.
    I still smile about this one….

  11. MJ says:

    The FSSP parish I go to has sound proofing on the inside walls of the confessionals….sometimes when you’re in one side and the priest is hearing the confession of the person on the other side you can hear low mumbling…I always of course try *not* to hear what’s going on…but yes, penitents and priests must speak softly. I’ve even had the priest tell me a couple times, “Please speak more quietly”.

  12. At a parish near my sister’s house, the custom was to play recorded Gregorian chant during confessions. It was never particularly loud, certainly not enough to make a confessor or penitent need to raise his voice to talk over it, but it created enough cover that one could speak frankly without needing to be concerned about who would hear. That also gives Gregorian chant a place to get its foot back in the door–a worthy use of a noble tradition of the Church.

    Apart from that, typically confessions are heard before the late afternoon Mass on Saturday. If one arrives closer to the start of the Mass, the noise of the congregation will provide some cover (although this may not be as it should be). I would feel a bit uncomfortable too in a church where one could hear a pin drop. One advantage of renovated confessionals is that they do tend to be soundproofed with solid doors as opposed to curtains.

  13. JLASchofield says:

    Our confessional has a heavy wooden door which works fairly well for soundproofing purposes. Unfortunately, the door is very hard to close because the skirting board extends just too close to the door frame. This means when less able people make their confessions they face the dilemma of whether to ensure secrecy but risk getting stuck or allow freedom of movement and risk being overheard.

    Fortunately for them, very few people seem to go to confession in my parish, so the risk of being overheard is fairly low.

  14. CatholicDRE says:

    This has happened quite a few times in my life. I remember once there was something a LOT like your “serial adultery” comment echoed by the pastor. Everyone in line sort of looked down awkwardly and I think, like me, might have been rethinking confession on that particular day.

  15. isnowhere says:

    A long time ago… Father accidentally put on the cordless microphone that was used during Mass (OF) before he entered the confessional.

    Thankfully about 4 people jumped up and pounded on the confessional before “bless me father for I have sinned” was even finished.

  16. APX says:

    This isn’t usually an issue at my parish, because my regular confessor speaks so quietly I have to make sure I don’t move or make any noise whatsoever so I can hear what he’s saying. Plus there’s usually so many children running around in the evening that their noise would drown out any such noise.

    However, our priest is on holidays now so we have a visiting priest who’s a little on the loud side. Despite being a good 25-30 feet away from the Confessional, I could still hear what he was saying.

  17. Stephen Matthew says:

    Along these same lines no one should sit anywhere close to the confessional. All too often the first person out of the line plops down in the nearest seat for their penance, or someone is making private devotional prayers annoyingly close to the confessional. Often the line is formed well back from the confessional to avoid the possibility of overhearing, but then someone sits well closer than even the front of the line. Why would any sensible person do this?

  18. Mitchell NY says:

    As an English speaker who is also fluent in Spanish I can attest to the fact that even I know the word “Vosotros”. Latin American schools still teach this word and conjugation to students from the earliest of education as part of the curriculum. It may not be used in everyday speech, but neither is “art thou” in the Lord’s Prayer and people know what it means. Argentina, Spain, Uruguay, some Colombian towns, and Mexican, as well as some in Venezuela continue to speak using this in everyday speech and it is not uncommon to those Spanish speakers listening, harking back to their education what is means. More formal, yes. And in an era when the new US translation has been translated to better conform to the Latin and use a more formalized standard of English, their is no real reason to drop Vosotros for Ustedes. It smacks of more “change for the sake of change”. I mentioned this to a friend from Latin America and all he could say is “that is ridiculous” !

  19. Mitchell NY says:

    My apologies, wrong topic for the above post.

  20. James Joseph says:

    I clasp my ears and hum to myself.

    I can’t bear the sound of a woman weeping with guilt and progressively talking louder and louder.

    I just clasp my ears and hum loudly.

  21. sallyr says:

    Mitchell – I don’t speak Spanish, and so I thought that in the context of this thread the word “Vosotros” must be some terribly embarrassing sin that would be awful to overhear while in line for confession. And, don’t you know it, my mind actually started trying to work out the root parts of the word to figure if it could be some kind of sexual sin. How ridiculous we human beings can be!

  22. LouiseA says:

    Penitents should not be afraid to let the loud priest know that he is too loud before beginning their confession. Perhaps something like this: “Father, when I was waiting in line, I could distinctly hear some of your words to the other penitents, although I tried not to.”

    Priests simply need to be very conscious of this, realizing that most penitents really hesitate to say anything that comes across as “correcting a priest”, and so penitents likely won’t bring this up on their own.

    Perhaps priests can spot-check themselves by occasionally asking a penitent, “I want to be sure I am not speaking too loudly. When you were waiting in line, did you think I was speaking too loudly?” They might be surprised to find out how common this problem is!

  23. sallyr says:

    Slightly off topic, but related to this issue. Some churches hold confession “half an hour before each mass” on the weekend. So on one Saturday evening Mass began and there were still some people in line for confession.

    The priest on the altar made the following announcement at the beginning of Mass – “Can I ask that only those who really NEED confession in order to receive communion stay in that confession line? Everyone else, please be seated for Mass.”

    Which, of course required the penitents in line to either stay there, thus proclaiming by their actions that they were in a state of mortal sin, or sheepishly sit down and perhaps skip going to communion, or just leaving. It was very awkward and the eyes of the assembly did seem to seek out and assess the reactions of those in line.

  24. homeschoolofthree says:

    We have a white noise machine outside of the confessional which seems to work very well at our parish. Not only does it keep those outside of the confessional from hearing confessions, it drowns out the noise so the priest and the penitent can concentrate on the confession. One of the other things I like about it is that before Mass, it makes the church seem quieter while saying prayers before Mass.

  25. JordanH says:

    I’ve put my hands over my ears before. I don’t think I ever actually heard anything, but the sound was getting on the verge of recognizability, so I took precautions.

    I heard somewhere that if you inadvertently overhear a confession that you are under the same rules as a priest with regard to divulging anything you might have heard. Does this mean that a lay person might have to confess this indiscretion to the Holy See?

  26. MikeM says:

    One time I was sitting in church waiting for confession when the penitent in the confessional started outright yelling his confession. I tried not to hear. I even walked to the far corner of the church and covered by ears, but I and everyone there could still hear it loud and clear. Unfortunately for me, what I accidentally heard was pretty unforgettable… the whole thing was very awkward.

    That’s one of the lesser reasons I choose a parish away from where I live or work as my regular spot for Confession. If I accidentally overhear something, or someone else overhears my confession, I can be reasonably assured that we don’t know each other.

  27. chcrix says:

    I hope that the kid in the photo was being admonished about wearing loud Hawaiian shirts in the future.

  28. Imrahil says:

    Dear @Jordan H,

    you are obliged to keep secret what you overheard (can 983). But you are not subject to a latae sententiae penalty if you don’t, “only” “a just punishment not excepting excommunication”, that is ferendae sententiae and without mentioning of any reservation (can 1388 § 2).

  29. Allan S. says:

    An aging priest suffring hearing loss will not only speak too loudly himself, but requires penitents to speak louder as well.

  30. Baron Korf says:

    If I am in danger of over hearing, I practice what I am going to say in my head. It helps me do a better confession, quick and concise, and I really don’t pay attention to what is around me.

    All too often the first thing I hear in the confessional is the squealing feedback of the priest’s hearing aides. He’s a kind old priest, but I can see him still nodding after I’ve finished and it is evident he really doesn’t get what I’ve said.

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