QUAERITUR: Confession – interpreters, eavesdroppers, secrecy and you

From a reader:

Father, I spend a lot of time in Finland which has Europe’s smallest Catholic Church, [not to mention one of Europe’s oddest languages…] both in terms of absolute numbers and in terms of percentage of the population. Nearly all the priests are non-Finns and often we don’t have a common language between us. I went to confession on one occasion and although the priest did his best and even read the prayer of absolution in English [Father should just use Latin.  Sheesh!] I am certain he did not understand everything I said.  [He doesn’t need to understand you perfectly.] Although the seal of the confessional is absolute on the part of the priest could a penitent voluntarily ask a trusted friend or family member to act as an interpreter?

Yes, an interpreter is permitted. However, the interpreter who would consent to do this would then be bound to preserve secrecy about the penitent and content of the confession in a way similar to that of priests.

In the Latin Church’s 1983 Code of Canon Law we find:

can. 983 §1. The sacramental seal is inviolable; therefore it is absolutely forbidden for a confessor to betray in any way a penitent in words or in any manner and for any reason.
§2. The interpreter, if there is one, and all others who in any way have knowledge of sins from confession are also obliged to observe secrecy.

And also:

can 1388 §1. A confessor who directly violates the sacramental seal incurs a latae sententiae excommunication reserved to the Apostolic See; one who does so only indirectly is to be punished according to the gravity of the delict.
§2. An interpreter and the others mentioned in can. 983, §2 who violate the secret are to be punished with a just penalty, not excluding excommunication.

So, an interpreter who helps someone make a sacramental confession or… and PAY ATTENTION EVERYONE… anyone who gains knowledge of a confession (for example, overhears a confession) is obliged to preserve secrecy (can. 983§2). If an interpreter or “over-hearer” knowingly and willingly violates the secrecy of another person’s confession she commits is a mortal sin. Proper authority can impose on her “a just penalty, not excluding excommunication” (can. 1388§2).

Not only that, a person who falsely accuses a priest of breaking the Seal of confession commits a mortal sin and canonical penalties, including excommunication are imposed.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
This entry was posted in "How To..." - Practical Notes, ASK FATHER Question Box, GO TO CONFESSION, Liturgy Science Theatre 3000, Our Catholic Identity and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.


  1. mike cliffson says:

    I’ve seen films of pope john paul secon d where where infomrers with the kgb listen to recorded confessions. I would expect no less of these people, but has anything been published regarding bugging confessions and confessionals ? UTe

  2. The Astronomer says:

    This is a real, related problem at our NO parish here in NJ, where some of the elderly penitents insist on telling Father their sins in a LOUD voice. We have only ‘kneeler screens,’ not proper confessionals and I find myself having to resort to plugging my ears, bringing earplugs or mentally forcing myself to play a loud song ‘in my head,’ or else I’d go home hearing a boatload of other people’s sins without any desire on my part to do so.

  3. Venerator Sti Lot says:

    I once saw in a museum an aid to confession in several languages for the Papal ‘Zouaves’ in the nineteenth century, and more recently read of one which people of conquered lands compelled to work in Nazi Germany during World War II (in the Arbeiteinsatz) could avail themselves of to confess in German.

    Are such things still available – or even (in some places or circumstances) not uncommon?

  4. Gail F says:

    I’ve always wondered about what happens to a person who wants to confess and can’t find a priest who speaks his/her language — maybe a prisoner of war or something. In that case can the person just go ahead and confess? Can the priest grant absolution, or conditional absolution, or something? I know the Scholastics must have figured it out. The scholastic mind’s favorite question (or one of htem) was “What if????”

  5. bwfackler says:

    i always just use a dictionary, wikipedia and google translate and write it out to read to the priest. then, i tear the paper up into small pieces depositing each piece in a different trash can in accordance with my paranoia after i leave the church

  6. boko fittleworth says:

    What is the difference between direct and indirect violation of the seal?

  7. Charles E Flynn says:

    I once went to confession in Boston at my favorite chapel, which happened to be staffed in August by an older priest whose native language was Italian. While I suspect he understood everything I said, I had trouble following some of his comments. The one word of his that came through most clearly was “gratitude”. For a minute or so after leaving the chapel, I thought the confession had been not up to the usual standards, and then it dawned on me that the Holy Spirit wanted me to focus on “gratitude”.

    While there are certainly many things to regret about today’s world, consider how difficult it would have been for this visitor to Finland to get a prompt and authoritative answer to this question twenty years ago.

  8. Panterina says:

    Venerator Sti Lot, there is such an aid: I remember this old post of Fr. Z’s: https://wdtprs.com/2011/07/old-book-for-confessors-examination-of-conscience-in-different-languages/.

    I have a question of my own: Why the double standard for confessors and interpreters? The former incur latae sententiae excomminication, but the latter could get a lesser penalty?

  9. Venerator Sti Lot says:


    Thank you for linking the splendid post (and Fr Z for making it, and to the interesting commenters, when posted)!

    ‘Examen Conscientiae’ – I had no idea, based on what I had seen and read ,what to search for (having only a vernacular term including the equivalent of ‘speculum’, which was not getting me very far in searching).

    Now so well provided, I see, for instance, Amazon facilitates getting second-hand copies of Fr. Ersing’s book.

  10. Imrahil says:

    I think it might also be in place to say (if it is correct, which I am convinced it is) that the original confession (without interpreter) was a valid one. Of course, efforts to make oneself finely understood are still good.

    Dear @Gail F, I read in a book (to wit, the “Moral Lexicon” by Rev. Prof. Hörmann) that it suffices if the penitent makes sufficiently clear that he is a sinner (which is not difficult in the situation, no matter which languages they speak) – going so far that in a real need with really pressing time, “I confess that I am a sinner, I repent, God forgive me” suffices for the confession. Is that correct, then? I guess it is.

  11. John Nolan says:

    Since 1989 Finnish Radio has broadcast a weekly news bulletin in Latin, ‘Nuntii Latini’, which has some 75,000 regular listeners. The fact that no-one can really call himself educated unless he be Latin-literate seems to have prevailed in that country. The three English universities (Oxford, Cambridge, Durham) dropped their Latin entrance requirement some forty years ago.

    Unfortunately the Finns have made their own translations of modern terms, which differ from those in the Vatican dictionary.

  12. Mariana2 says:

    “The fact that no-one can really call himself educated unless he be Latin-literate seems to have prevailed in that country.”

    I’m happy to report this is true. Also, if anyone in Finland needs a confessor who speaks perfect, nuanced, English, Fr Strykowski’s the one.

Comments are closed.