QUAERITUR: A regular confessor, anonymity and the Seal

From a reader:

I make frequent use of the Sacrament of Penance and have a regular confessor. It’s always “anonymous,” but not anonymous. It’s awkward. The priest knows it’s me, but when he’s giving counsel he gets caught up on trying come up with a way of saying something act as though he doesn’t know it’s me. I have to fight the temptation to finish his sentences for him. Sometimes he’s slipped up and made vague reference to things I’ve done or said which he witnessed, but I didn’t speak of, or made known. Sometimes he’s caught himself doing so he tried to
cover for it, which just made things more awkward.

I know most confessors will go out of their way to protect anonymity so penitents don’t have to worry about Father knowing who is confessing, but is this extent of preserving anonymity required? I’m not talking about going into names here, etc, but if someone is confessing sins related to, for example work or home, etc, would it not be better for both parties if Father just quit beating around the bush trying to preserve anonymity when both people know it’s not
anonymous and give specific counsel to what that person’s situation is? Is there a way to get around the awkwardness?

Be grateful that the confessor is so diligent and careful!

In my opinion, the confessor is doing just fine and you should be happy that he is so attentive when walking that knife’s edge between using information he knows from a previous confession and giving you what he thinks you need.

In this case, why don’t you just make an appointment for confession on a regular basis (if the priest can do it) so that your confession can be in the context of an easier conversation.

You could, at the beginning of your confession, say when you also say what your state in life is, “Father, this is ‘[your name]’ or ‘[some made up name]’ or ‘Penitent 43′”, to take the priest off the hook. You could during the confession say, “Father, I am coming to you regularly. Could I just call myself “Penitent 43″ so that in the future you don’t have to worry about the Seal and beat around the bush about details which you know from other confessions? Is that okay?” Then go by what he says.

Otherwise, if you are not interested in that format, then you’ll have to bear these awkward moments with a little good humor and gratitude.

Please say a prayer regularly for this confessor, who sounds like he is trying to do right by you and all the people who get into his confessional.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
This entry was posted in GO TO CONFESSION, Liturgy Science Theatre 3000, Priests and Priesthood and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.


  1. acardnal says:

    ” . . . would it not be better for both parties if Father just quit beating around the bush trying to preserve anonymity when both people know it’s not anonymous and give specific counsel to what that person’s situation is? Is there a way to get around the awkwardness?”

    Seems to me the solution is either go face-to-face or find another confessor if you are uncomfortable with the present one. It sounds like Father is doing his best to preserve anonymity.

  2. Banjo pickin girl says:

    That sounds like a super good confessor! Most of our priests say they can’t tell people’s voices, the screen makes them all muffley. But one guy always knew it was me and never pretended he didn’t. I thought that was okay cuz then he could tailor make everything to me. You know you’ve been bad when your penance is to read the first epistle of John in its entirety. [He thought, first, that you could handle that penance and that something in that letter would be helpful for you.]

  3. Choirmaster says:

    Unfortunately there’s no way to get around the awkwardness of confession; it’s always awkward to be your own prosecutor!

    But, quite apart from that, I thought that the reason one would have a regular confessor would be to have a priest that could remember your other confessions. Now that I think of it, I guess it would be prohibited for a priest to use information from past confessions, even in this case.

    Maybe this penitent should say something, even very candidly, like “go on, father, you probably can remember my previous confession.” Or maybe interject a question like “do you mean in relation to the last time I came to confession?” Or, if all of that is too vague, the penitent could make mention of other confessions to which she believes the priest is alluding, thereby “clearing the air” for him to continue: “like the time I had to confess X or fell into Y?”

    All things considered, this is a very good problem to have!

    I can’t agree with acardnal about face-to-face. [From your point of view and for you yourself. Other people have other ways and needs.]
    I go strictly behind the screen and in the box! Even if I’ve made an appointment with the priest and we walk to the box together! Either way, face-to-face doesn’t change the nature of the Seal. The box, to me, is the courtroom, and it just doesn’t seem right to hold court anywhere else. Additionally, I loath eye-contact with the priest while he’s performing his sacramental ministries (grrr… mostly just when they look at you during the consecration, as if they’re telling you a cute story, and during face-to-face confessions, as if they’re your hired therapist).

  4. Bryan Boyle says:

    Had a regular confessor for many years, a priest of unquestioned holiness and discretion, who always, during spiritual direction, would ask if I wanted to receive the sacrament of Penance. Never turned him down; and in fact, as Fr. Z states above, the penance was tailored to fit a lot more precisely than the ‘say three Hail Marys and a Pater’ that a more anonymous confession might produce.

    Always wondered if the good Msgr. remembered past confessions…he assured me he didn’t…but, I’m assuming that the Seal applies to anyone *except* the penitent and confessor. But, it never bothered me that he knew a large part of my life’s sins…and, as a regular confessor, was able to head off, redirect, refocus as needed, what he thought I needed to do to improve.

    I do miss him (R.I.P), and hope he’s in a place to intercede for me, as I offer a daily prayer for his soul.

  5. the_ox says:

    I appreciate what you are describing – and your advise Fr. Z about penitents who prefer to be not anonymous. I prefer anonymity. Our former pastor on two occasions made a point to use my name when I had not given it. Purposefully letting me know that he knew it was me. [Indeed, in my opinion that is something that confessors should never do.]
    I avoided going to confession to him because of that because I like being anonymous. Certainly humbling.

  6. Mary Jane says:

    I don’t mind if the priests I usually confess to can tell who I am … sometimes I prefer it, so they can tailor their advice just for me and my state in life. If I do think “oh, doesn’t seem like they recognize my voice” then I usually will add my age and state in life, so they can better help me.

    I’ve never had either of them mention something that I hadn’t included in *that* specific confession…I can see how it could be awkward if the priest brought up something that happened outside the confessional that I had not mentioned in that session…but the priest does seem like he is doing his best! Plus, I am sure – sure – that you (the original asker) need have no fear that the priest would break the Seal.

  7. Spaniard says:

    In Spain, the custom is that men confess face to face with the priest, through an open side of the box, while women do it through the screen. It is, of course, not obligatory, but it helps me knowing the priest knows who I am, so he can tailor the advice and penitenece

  8. Charles E Flynn says:

    The reference to Penitent 43 gives new meaning to the term “screen name”.

  9. pelerin says:

    Fr Z’s comment that Priests should not give away that they know who it is behind the grille surprised me. On one occasion this happened to me and the Priest referred to me by name in the Confessional. I did not mind at all – in fact I found it made his advice to me even more helpful than usual. I still would not go face to face to him though.

    Incidentally having gone to Confession several times when in Lourdes I have noticed that the Priests first ask you your Christian name . Perhaps it was because they all seem to be American in the English language section – but it does seem to make it easier and more personal in spite of it being face-to-face.

    An American Priest said once that people there often go up to him and thank him for his advice and he admitted that he had no idea what that was, as all Confessions were immediately erased from his memory. If you think about it this must be the way they cope with it otherwise they would be overwhelmed.

  10. Supertradmum says:

    I have been the only American in congregations and gave up on being anonymous. Most priests know who I am when I go to confession. Also, if one has to ask to go to confession, as in many parishes here, the priest already knows. This happens all the time.

    I think that unless one is in a very large parish, the priest will recognize voices. I suggest a regular confessor. Then, both of you are, I would think, more at ease.

  11. digdigby says:

    I treasure the finesse with which my confessor knows it is me and I know it is him but we completely preserve our ‘anonymity’. Does this make sense? It is a sacrament, not an ‘ongoing’ therapy. As soon as I care what ‘he’ (meaning Father so-and-so and not Jesus Christ) thinks about me- my confession is dangerously compromised.

  12. Ben Yanke says:

    Many people say they worry about this sort of thing with the priest knowing you, and it being harder to go to confession the better you know the priest, etc. I must admit I’ve never understood it.

    My pastor knows who I am as soon as I start talking, and openly talks about my family and gives me very specific council, and occasionally even uses names of family and friends.

    I tend to be more comfortable with a priest in confession the better I know him. I just don’t get people’s fear, but I guess I’m different that way.

  13. lizzy17 says:

    There is a very kind but somewhat less than helpful priest in my parish who like to start confession (as in, right after Bless me Father, for I have sinned…) with a cheerful ‘Hello Elizabeth, how are you doing?’ which I always find really unnerving. I know he means it to be friendly, and frankly, since I’m the only 20 something woman in the Confession line most weeks, it must be pretty obvious who I am, but I definitely prefer anonymous confession. Especially as a convert, it’s tough enough to accuse yourself of all your sins, but if you have to work in small talk to (thus destroying the illusion that the priest doesn’t recognize you and definitely won’t be thinking about what you’ve confessed the next time you say hi after Mass), it’s terrifying!

  14. poohbear says:

    When I was blessed to have a regular confessor (he has since been transferred) I found it better to confess face-to-face. It was much less awkward than going behind the screen and telling him who I was. Of course everyone is different, but you may want to try this if you haven’t. Also, I never had the priest looking at me as I confessed, he always kept his head down until he spoke. I have also noticed this posture by the priest when I have gone on the wrong side of the box in an unfamiliar church and ended up in the f2f side by mistake.

  15. lydia says:

    I’ve been doing face to face for sometime now. A few yrs. ago I put off confession until Holy Saturday but got my times screwed up. I went to a church that was locked up and when I was trying to open the door the pastor drove by stopped and asked what I wanted. When I told him confession he said I’ll hear it right here . I said fine and leaned throw the passenger window. He heard my confession gave me penance and absolution and drove away. I think in a way face to face keeps me from repeating bad habits. I’m also sure that there are very few priests that are shocked by anything they hear in the confessional.

  16. Philip Gerard Johnson says:

    If anything, I think most priests would be humbled if you choose to go to confession to them. They have devoted their lives to making the Sacraments available to you. It must be a great joy for the priest to absolve your sins and bring you back into the state of grace. Remember, priests sin and have to go to confession as well.

    I also prefer the confessional when I do not know the priest, but have recently found that it is much easier and less “awkward” (for me, anyway) to have a regular confessor and to make an appointment with him. He knows it is me, he knows my past, and I know that he is gentle. But different things work for different people – the important thing is to go regularly!

  17. It is hard to know when to permit comments when it comes to confession issues.

    So, I will take the safe path right now and switch comments off.

Comments are closed.