QUAERITUR: Can you confess in Latin?

From a reader:

I know that the use of Latin is good for large international Masses (and for parish Masses, too…!), but what if, say, a priest and penitent didn’t speak the same language? Could a confession be made in Latin?

Sure!  I have done that many times, as a matter of fact.

The Latin Church’s liturgical language is Latin.  No!  Really!

A flaw in your question: If both the penitent and the confessor know Latin, then they do know the same language.


About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

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  1. Mike says:

    I suppose the question could be rephrased, “if they do not speak the same vernacular language”.

  2. Papabile says:

    I did so once in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. We were correcting eachother’s grammar… fun times.

  3. HighMass says:

    Ego te absolvo….Those beautiful words of absolution in Latin….

  4. LA says:

    Years ago I was in Italy, and didn’t speak the lingo. I decided to confess in Latin to a TLM priest while there, thinking we would both understand each other if I spoke in Latin. However, as soon as I knelt and he heard my American accent, he left the confessional and came back with an examination of conscience book that had English on one side and Italian on the other. I then had to point to the English side while he compared it to the Italian side, and I had to hold up fingers for the numbers. I was very disappointed that he didn’t even give me a chance to confess in Latin! With Latin, I knew my confession would have been more accurate, and I could have done it behind the screen, as I would have preferred.

  5. One of those TNCs says:

    My 93-year-old mother tells the story that her mother had told her: A young couple in South Dakota wished to be married, but the young man’s baptismal certificate was still in his native Mexico. The S.D. priest spoke no Spanish; the parish priest in Mexico knew no English. So the S.D. priest wrote the request in Latin for the certificate; the Mexican priest sent it, along with his greetings, also in Latin. Latin is a great unifier, bridge, and comfort.

  6. PatriciusOenus says:

    During a recent Latin immersion event at Wyoming Catholic College participants were encouraged to confess in Latin (provided they were capable of doing so). The formulae (according to some older Ritualia) were posted on the penitents’ side of the confessional, beginning with “Benedic mihi, Pater, quia peccavi” through the “Actus Contritionis” (“Deus meus ex toto corde paenitet me…”) culminating in “Ego te absolvo, etc.”

    I wish Roman rite priests around the world could do this sort of thing (i.e., *use* Latin) more often, especially those priests hearing Confessions in cathedrals and Basilicas.

  7. Bob B. says:

    Since it’s been some 46 years since I had Latin, is it all right to write everything down and take it into the box? The thought of working this out is intriguing.

  8. vetusta ecclesia says:

    My late brother, as a seminarist, travelled in what was then communist Hungary. He was questioned by the police as to whether he had had conversations with “other people like you”. He replied that of course he couldn’t speak Hungarian and most Hungarians’ only foreign tongue was Russian which he did not speak either. This satisfied them. He had, of course, had numerous conversations with fellow clerics in Latin!

  9. Angie Mcs says:

    ” Latin is a great unifier, bridge and comfort.”

    That moment of absolution, those beautiful words from the priest after one has confessed, always move me to tears. Yet hearing them in Latin, the true language of the church, must be even more moving.

    I am always very impressed that so many people on this blog know Latin. How did you learn? I’m assuming you were probably taught all through your school years, if you are laity, something I was not offered or, sadly, in which I was ever interested. I have recently converted to Catholicism, and hear Latin during mass. I am so touched by its beauty and would like to learn. Perhaps I can start simply by memorizing the Our Father in Latin and by studying the readings before mass, as well as taking classes. It’s quite an accomplishment for those of you who can confess in Latin, and a gift for those who have the opportunity in your parishes or in your travels.

  10. Moro says:

    Angie –

    I know a little Latin – enough for the prayers of the mass that I’ve learned mainly by memorization or from two years of high school Latin. I can read something to get the gist of it, but I can’t translate precisely. Going to a Latin mass (EF or OF) will help you learn some and sometimes such churches also have latin classes for people to learn.

  11. APX says:

    I think the question should be rephrased, “May I confess in Latin?” I think this is a question that should be posed to the priest in the confessional. While a priest may know Latin insofar as he can read, write, and speak in Latin from what he reads, or phrases he knows, depending on how he learned Latin, he may not know conversational Latin. We were taught that because Latin is a dead language, we are not required to be able to converse in Latin, Thus that is not a component of our Latin classes, whereas the other languages require a speaking and conversational component.

  12. rbbadger says:

    ” Latin is a great unifier, bridge and comfort.”

    C.S. Lewis and St. Giovanni Calabria found it to be so. St. Giovanni Calabria had come across an Italian translation of the Screwtape Letters. So impressed was he by it that he wanted to write the author. Unfortunately, he spoke no English and rightly surmised that Lewis spoke no Italian. So, he wrote to him in Latin. They carried on a correspondence that lasted from 1947 until St. Giovanni’s death in 1954. The correspondence continued between Lewis and St. Giovanni’s successor, Fr Luigi Pedrollo.


  13. Palladio says:

    Angie Mcs,
    Catholic folks of a certain generation fell between two chairs: the Church no longer taught them Latin, but they knew it, even from public high schools, as essential to culture (English literature, for instance) as they knew foreign languages were essential to culture, too. That sense of inadequacy, of needing completion, is why I studied classics and other languages. Today’s kids are not raised, they just grow, in a multi-cultural stew, none too fragrant, where they have not the slightest clue what really matters to them as Americans, which in languages would be Latin and French, first and last, especially as regards literature extending back to England. Naturally, Greek and Hebrew, added with Latin at Louvain, Paris (Collège Royal), and in the sixteenth century among other places at Oxbridge, became the trilingual basis of Renaissance education, and then American education at Harvard in 1636. Many, many Bishops were raised up in that tradition.
    Whoever knows Latin today is privileged by birth, one way or another. Given what Latin has brought me, I cannot help but think it is a gift from God.
    Latin chanted or sung or spoken is simply beautiful, whether one understands it or not. I like your idea of learning some by heart for starters. Hard to teach oneself such a language, so keep a look out for the odd course here and there, especially if you are nearby a college or university.

  14. albinus1 says:

    I am always very impressed that so many people on this blog know Latin. How did you learn? I’m assuming you were probably taught all through your school years, if you are laity, something I was not offered or, sadly, in which I was ever interested.

    I became interested when I discovered my parents’ old missals and hymnals in the early 70s, and taught myself a little out of them. I went to a Jesuit high school in the late 70s, which was not teaching Latin at the time! So I taught myself some Latin (and a little Greek, from a bilingual Greek/English New Testament I found in a used book store). The older Jesuits at the school loved me, and one of them gave me a Last Gospel altar card as a graduation present. I still have it.

    I started formally studying Latin in college, and I’ve never looked back. I now have a PhD in Classical Studies and teach on the college level. I was fortunate enough to do Fr. Reggie Foster’s summer program while he was still in Rome.

    But it all started with me as a kid looking through my parents’ old missals.

    C.S. Lewis and St. Giovanni Calabria found it to be so.

    Also Erasmus and St. Thomas More. Since Erasmus didn’t speak English and More didn’t speak Dutch, they corresponded in Latin. Erasmus described More as omnium horarum homo — essentially, “a man for all seasons.”

  15. Precentrix says:

    //I am always very impressed that so many people on this blog know Latin. How did you learn? I’m assuming you were probably taught all through your school years, if you are laity, something I was not offered or, sadly, in which I was ever interested. //

    Nope. I’m 29yo. Our school had a clear-out of the language dept. when I was in the sixth form, and I found *one* book in Latin and read it, not knowing the language at all but extrapolating from the French and Spanish that I knew. It think it was “Camilla”. Then, a bit later, I started attending Mass (OF and later EF) in Latin. Then I got hold of the Liber Usualis and a 1961 Breviary. Knowing the Mass Ordinary and the Psalms well in English, I basically just worked it out – once you know which psalm you’re reading, you pick up a little more vocab each time. Eventually, I decided I ought to learn some grammar, so I bought:

    The Collins Primer of Ecclesiastical Latin.

    I also bought the answer book.

    More recently, for fun, I’ve been studying colloquial Latin – and teaching it. I really don’t know what I’m doing, but I know more than my students so that’s okay ;-)

  16. Precentrix says:

    To clarify: My secondary/high school offered French (compulsory), Spanish, Portuguese, German and Italian…. but not Latin.

  17. Angie Mcs says:

    Many thanks for sharing your learning experiences. I grew up in the Chicago school system, in a solid, family, education-oriented neighborhood, but the high school only offered Spanish and French, and since the French teacher was so horrible, I chose Spanish! My husband, however, grew up in a wealthy suburb, with high taxes for the schools. His public high school offered a wonderful array of languages, including Latin, which he chose. He says the classes were well attended, and he took four years. ( Latin is no longer offered, going the way of so many classics)He was also an altar boy for many years. So he does remember some of his Latin. Before and during mass yesterday, I studied some of the shorter readings and quite a few words are becoming familiar to me. I think the hardest part must be the structure, the cases. I speak German fluently and understand how different cases can change word structure and position. Latin has one more, the Ablative, if I am correct. It’s quite a challenge, but its beauty and logic are worth pursuing. I believe our church may offer classes at various times and will look into them, as well as other possibilities.
    Thank you again.

  18. catholictrad says:

    I recommend “Simplicissimus: An entirely new approach to learning the Latin of the Traditional Roman Missal” from “The Latin Mass Society of England and Wales”. It is very well laid out, easy to follow and focuses on the Missal.


  19. John Nolan says:

    In England you are not allowed to make your wedding vows in Latin as they amount to a public legal declaration which to be valid must be in English. Does the same apply in the USA?

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