QUAERITUR: Hard-of-hearing priest confessor. Was I absolved?

I love the fact that we have a human dimension to Holy Church.  We are a Church of flawed sinners, of weak people susceptible to the attacks and problems of the world the flesh and the devil.  Our Lord gave us sacraments which are administered by fragile human beings.

But it all works.

Here is a question from a reader:

“I went to confession recently, and during which, the (older) priest asked me to speak louder. So I did, and repeated my sins. At the end of my part of the confession, he said “I’m really having trouble hearing you.” I asked him: “OK, what have you heard so far, then?” and he responded “Not a whole lot.” Then I asked him if I should repeat myself, and he said “No,” and continued, “your penance is x…”

Was that a valid confession?”

In my opinion you were validly absolved, provided you confessed all your mortal sins with sincere sorrow.

All sacraments have matter and form. In the Sacrament of Penance, the form is the proper form of absolution and the matter is the telling of the sins. You told your sins. The priest didn’t hear nothing. Even if he heard little, or understood little, he could still absolve you. In a similar way, a confessor can absolve a penitent speaking another language even without an interpreter helping or without pointing to numbers of the commandments, etc.


Since I am an Unreconstructed Ossified Manualist, I check a couple manuals.  Without going into a long explanation of “remote and proximate matter”, it seems to me that there was sufficient matter in this case.   Prümmer puts it succinctly enough:

Cum autem in iudicio paenitentiali ipse Deus, perscrutator cordium, si principalis iudex, et finis istius iudicii sit sententia reconciliatoria et liberativa, non requiritur, ut confessarius perfecte cognoscat delicta paenitentis. [emphases in the original]

But since in penitential judgment God Himself, the thorough examiner of hearts, is the principle judge, and the end of this judgment is a reconciling and freeing judgement, it is not required that the confessor knows perfectly the penitent’s sins.

Furthermore, fear of being overheard is, in part, an excusing factor when it comes to material integrity of the confession.

I think you can be at ease about what happened.

I am sure you don’t want to have to shout and, perhaps, be heard by others who are waiting in line. Thus, in order to avoid this in the future, if this is your only confessor anywhere near you, then you might either make an appointment or even consider writing things down for him to read if he can’t hear.

Either way, keep going to confession regularly.

A little embarrassment from perhaps being in part overheard is better than dying and going to your judgment unshriven!

NOTE TO BISHOPS, PRIESTS, AND TRANSITIONAL DEACONS (lay people, skip over this part  o{];¬)   ): May I suggest, Fathers, that you find an old manual, yes, one of the old Latin manuals, and – if you don’t know Latin getting help from a priest who does – go through the section on the Sacrament of Penance?  Some of the juridical points about faculties and when and when confessions can be received have changed, but the theology is still pertinent.  In my opinion, we need to refresh ourselves on this sacrament.  Pay special attention, dear Fathers, to our obligation to teach people that they must confess all their mortal sins in kind and number.  When you read these old manuals, you find the theological reasons for this as well as the urgency of the necessity. Don’t assume that you have all this down cold.  We all need reviews.  When I pick up one of these old books, I learn or relearn something interesting and useful.

Okay, lay people, you can start reading again.  

Everyone, go to confession.  Even if it has been a long time, or you don’t like the priest, or you have embarrassing things to confession, or you are afraid, or you are lazy… go to confession.

Most parishes offer opportunities for confession on Saturdays.

Make a plan.


About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. yatzer says:

    Oh, all right, already. Even though I went before Easter and can’t think of much to confess.

  2. Tantum Ergo says:

    “In a similar way, a confessor can absolve a penitent speaking another language even without an interpreter helping or without pointing to numbers of the commandments, etc.”

    Fr Z,
    If a “language-impaired” priest is the only one available, must the penitent re-confess these sins at the next confession?

  3. Tantum Ergo: must the penitent re-confess these sins at the next confession?

    It would not be wrong to confess them again, just to be sure or more at ease. Past and absolved material can still be material for a confession. However, I don’t believe one would necessarily have to. However, if the language difficulty prompted the penitent purposely to omit any mortal sins in kind and number, it would be necessary to confess them.

    This is NOT a way to apply for “cheap grace” to borrow Bonhoeffer’s phrase. “I’ll go to the guy who I know cannot understand me in order to make my confession!” That would be dodgy.

  4. contrarian says:

    Ha ha. I get a chuckle out of this.
    Happened to me not too long ago. The priest, God bless ‘im, couldn’t hear worth a lick. He wanted me to repeat what I said in a loud voice, but the particular church where I go to confess is curious in that the line that forms in front of the confessional goes RIGHT UP to the confessional door, and add to that, it’s a quiet, quiet church. Basically, if you talk in a loud voice, you’re going to end up confessing your sins to the whole church, or at the very least, to everyone in line. So I spoke in a low voice again but went so close to the grate that I was rubbing up against it with my mouth like a kid making faces on a car window on the highway. Heh.

    It all worked out fine in the end.

  5. Margaret says:

    My old confessor (old here meaning both “advanced in age” and “previous”) had the humility and common sense to use a hearing aid while hearing confessions. Even through the grill I could see the little light on it. His hearing wasn’t so bad that he needed to use it when out and about (everyone could just speak up a bit) but I think this was his solution to protecting penitents’ access to a truly private confession, and to still be able to provide helpful advice and direction in that context.

  6. Father DiMaria says:

    I recommend to all priests “The Good Confessor” by Fr. Gerald Kelly, S.J. This little book was first published as a series of articles contained in the Emmanuel magazine between 1949 – 1950. While in the seminary I was fortunate enough to obtain a copy of the book which I only recently gave to a seminarian. The book is available in at http://frcoulter.com/books/confessor.html
    I found it to be an invaluable source of practical wisdom which has served me well in the confessional.

    [To purchase, HERE.]

  7. JPH says:

    I am a transitional deacon (of just over a month) and I’m wondering if you could give the authors of a couple of good manuals. Have any been translated to English for those of us less fluent in Latin?

    [Good question. There is this, online, HERE, by Slatter (1925).]

  8. biberin says:

    My favorite confession was to a 90 year old priest filling in for ur pastor while he was on vacation. We had a reconciliation room back then, so I sat down across from him, and he cupped his hands behind his ears and shouted at me, “YOU MAY NOW BEGIN YOUR CONFESSION!”. I kept it short and sweet, and when I finished, he informed me that if I continued to be aware of and confess the little sins, “THEN MAYBE THE BIG ONES WILL NEVER HAPPEN!”

  9. acardnal says:

    Nice article here on Confession and the acceptance of doctrine and the will; written by an attorney and convert.


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