QUAERITUR: Is absolution in Latin encouraged?

From a reader:

I went to Confession the other day before a Tridentine Mass, and the confessor said the prayers of absolution in Latin. I know this is permitted, but is it encouraged in the same way as Latin in the liturgy of the Mass? After all, it seems that the prayers in Confession are said to be heard by the penitent as much as by God.

When you say “hear” I assume you mean “understand” the words.

The best part of this was that you got to go to confession!  Wasn’t that great?  HURRAY!  Right?

If this was before Mass in the Extraordinary Form then the priest probably said the words of absolution also in the Extraordinary Form.  If you go to Holy Mass in the Extraordinary Form, it shouldn’t be a surprise that when confessions are heard the priest uses the EF also for the words of absolution… in Latin.

The Latin is so precise.  The Latin is so clear.  The Latin is so… Catholic.

It may be of a certain immediate comfort to “hear” the words of absolution and “understand” them because they are in English, but consider the following.

Because of the way some priests screw around with the form of absolution in English, when you hear Latin your first reaction ought to be “LATIN! Thanks be to God!  I can relax!”  When you hear Latin, you know the priest is dedicated to getting it right and you don’t have to doubt what is going to happen next.

Furthermore, Catholics know that they don’t have to see, hear or feel a sacrament take place. We don’t have to understand everything, we believe.  In one apartment I had in Rome I had radiators.  I never actually felt any heat from them. I assumed the heat was some sort of sacramental heat.  The radiator was the outward sign, the clanking of the radiators a couple times a day was the form, and I, therefore, believed that I was warmer even though I didn’t feel warmer.  I didn’t understand why things in Rome didn’t work the way they ought to, but I had faith and hope, though my love was defective when it came to building maintenance.

Okay, that’s a bad analogy, since the radiators didn’t do what they were supposed to do, which was heat my apartment.  Seriously, sacraments work better than Roman radiators.

The matter of the Sacrament of Penance is the telling of your sins.  The form is the formula of absolution spoken by the validly priest who has faculties.  Even if you can’t hear Father say it, you have been absolved.  If you were deaf, you would still be absolved.  If the priest were speaking in, say, Tamil, you would still be absolved, provided he used the right form.

Even if the priest were to speak in Latin… imagine that, in the Latin Church… you are still absolved!

The fact that God forgives our hideous black sins, each one of which is worthy of eternal damnation and perpetual agony in the deep cinders of Hell, is a great and consoling mystery.  Frankly, I must confess that when I hear the words spoken in English I am incapable of understanding – more than if they were in Latin or in Tamil – the mystery of Jesus’ Sacrifice, or God the Father’s mercy, or the return of the Holy Spirit to the ignominious temple which is my soul.

Let the words of absolution be mysterious.  Let mystery be mystery.  Seek encounters with mystery when our sacred rites are enacted.

I don’t want to underplay the dimension of immediate human comfort we can derive from hearing the words of absolution.  Absolution is one of those moments in life when we are the most exposed and the most hopeful.  Focus, therefore, on the fact of the absolution and the mystery you encounter in the moment.

The use of Latin should put you at ease that the right form was used. In a pinch, you can always follow the English translation.

But you asked “is it encouraged?”

Holy Church does, in fact, encourage the use of Latin.  Latin is the language of our Latin Church.  However, for pastoral reasons, the vernacular can be used as well.  Therefore, I will assert that, yes, the Church encourages Latin, even for the Sacrament of Penance.  That is, the Sacrament of Penance – properly celebrated – is encouraged, and in the Latin Church we Latins use Latin for our sacraments.  Remember that the proper language of the Ordinary Form is unquestionably Latin.

Love the Latin.  Need the Latin.  Request the Latin.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

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

    Ha ha ha ha ha. Is “Sacraments — they work better than Roman radiators” going to be available with the next wave of Z-swag?

  2. dominic1955 says:

    I second that, when you hear it in Latin you can be as morally certain as possible that the priest isn’t going to fudge something that might affect validity. Not saying that most priests do this, but I never even have the slightest doubt of everything being kosher when its old school.

    Secondly, I think the absolution is rather beautiful and explicitly takes care of anything you could have possibly gotten yourself into aside from specifically reserved cases. Get a copy of the form in English just to know what it says and then you will have no problem knowing what is being said. Plus, I think everyone who goes to a Latin Mass picks up “churchy” Latin words and most of the absolution is “churchy” Latin so it shouldn’t be that hard to figure out. Plus, often times those priests will even slow down and put a special emphasis on “Ego te absolvo…” just as an extra emphasis that, yes, you are getting absolved and I’m not just reading a passage from Cicero.

  3. acardnal says:

    I remember going to Confession as a child prior to the 1970 reforms and the priest would always recite the absolution in Latin while I recited concurrently my Act of Contrition in English.

  4. jflare says:

    I’m a little surprised by this question, really. Due to a sleepless night, I discovered I could readily seek confession at a local church operated by FSSP. After asking a few clarifying questions, the priest gave me my penance and informed me that I could begin my act of contrition.
    As I began this, I could hear the priest starting in on a rather long prayer in Latin. I finished my Act of Contrition some moments before he concluded the prayer of absolution. Given that most priests simply listen to my confession, then offer a prayer of absolution in English, one that’s usually not all that long, I was somewhat surprised. I WAS, however, somewhat pleased.
    It seemed to me that this priest was SERIOUS about absolving my sins.
    Yes, the ordinary prayer of absolution in English suffices, as is merely saying “You’re absolved of your sins”. We know this. Even so, I almost had the impression that he took a step further, dotting every “i”, crossing every “t”, checking every period and comma, making certain he left no nooks or crannies in which sin could hide. Almost felt like a minor exorcism, though I don’t really know about that.
    At the very end, he DID tell me in English that I was absolved of my sins, arguably to make sure I knew. He also asked me to pray for him.

    I would like to see/hear more priests do this.

  5. digdigby says:

    ” just as an extra emphasis that, yes, you are getting absolved and I’m not just reading a passage from Cicero…..”
    Or, God forbid! “Kick-er-oh”.

  6. APX says:

    It seems to me that it is actually more difficult to mess up the Latin text than it is the English. I don’t know Latin, but I know that when the priest says Deinde ego te absolvo a peccatis tuis in nomine Patris […] I’ve been absolved. In English there are too many possible errors to make. Is it I absolve you of your sins? I absolve you from your sins? I forgive you of your sins?? Too many possible varieties in English that sound like they could be correct, but might not be. If I happen to go to Confession in the ordinary form, I assume the priest is saying the correct words unless it’s something that really doesn’t sound right.

  7. milhon1 says:

    “Love the Latin. Need the Latin. Request the Latin.”

    That needs to make its way onto a mug.

  8. Bea says:

    Wow Great reply
    Encouraged? Wish it were mandated !!
    Then you know you have been given the correct formula.
    It’s in the English that I am left wondering.

    Fr Z
    A visiting priest, here, loved your reply. He was going to dictate a reply to me but said you said it much better than he ever could.
    He said he has cards posted in the confessional that shows the words of absolution in Latin and in the English translation for those who wonder.

  9. dominic1955 says:

    Yes, the Latin might be easier to “mess up” but its much harder to intentionally say something different. There is a difference w/ stumbling on a pronunciation vs. straight up changing what the form says. Unless you are a fairly proficient Latinist, I have a hard time imagining anyone changing the words to mean something else.

  10. My old confessor always absolved me in Latin, it was awesome :)

  11. wolfeken says:

    If understanding the Latin is someone’s challenge/concern, then take a look at what the priest is saying, from the Roman Ritual:


    The Latin is at the top, with an English translation at the bottom.

  12. Varda says:

    The last two times I have been to confession I have been absolved in Latin. I don’t understand Latin but I knew I was getting the real thing!

  13. cdnpriest says:

    “Love the Latin. Need the Latin. Request the Latin.”

    That needs to make its way onto a mug.


    How about this? :

    Ama latinam
    Indige latinam
    Pete latinam


  14. Trad Dad says:

    Pax et bonum .
    From Our Lady`s Land of the Southern Cross .

  15. acardnal says:

    jflare said: “He also asked me to pray for him.”

    I always tell the priest before I leave the confessional that I will say a prayer for him. I think all penitents should do this. After all, without that priest hearing Confessions you would not have received absolution.

  16. NoraLee9 says:

    I do hope everyone will take a moment to read what is actually said when the priest does the absolution in Latin. I have never heard the part about “whatever good you do,” etc, recited in the New Rite. Furthermore, as in the difference between the Masses, the New Rite has subtracted the Blessed Virgin and the Intercession of the Saints in the New Rite of Penitence.
    Recently it has occurred to me that I, like Simeon waiting for the Consolation of Israel, am waiting and hoping that I will not taste death before the restoration cometh….

  17. irishgirl says:

    I love hearing the absolution formula in Latin, but when the priest is doing that while I’m making my Act of Contrition in English, it’s hard for me to concentrate. I do the best I can, I guess.
    Jflare said, ‘He also asked me to pray for him’. When I go to confession in the traditional rite, I always hear that said before I leave the confessional. And I always tell the priest that I do pray for him!

  18. NoraLee9,

    The prayer, “May the Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ” has not “subtracted” from the new rite. I is here and is one of the three forms of the dismissal. Priests probably don’t use it because it is the longest form — I always use it unless there is a long line of people waiting to confess or there is a penance service (where the lines are also usually long.

    What really bothers me is the failure of priests to use the REQUIRED verse “Give thanks to the Lord for he is good.” that comes between the absolution and the dismissal. I use it, but fine that only one in a hundred lay people know the response (also required) “For his mercy endures forever.” So I end up making the response for them.

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