ASK FATHER: Priest asks for name during confession

12_10_04_confessionalFrom a reader…

What should I say when a priest, while in the confessional, wants to know my name? Or a priest that holds the belief that by knowing me personally he, by hearing my confession, will help me be more holy?

My first thought is to say, “Mind your own business, Father.”  Then again, since I’m a priest, and getting a little older, I might say, “Mind your own business, sonny.”, since most older, experienced priests would not do this… unless they are really slow learners.

Fathers, if you are young and you do this… STOP IT.

Penitents need to have the opportunity for anonymity if they choose it.  Anonymity is really important.

This is one reason why I abominate face-to-face confession rooms.  The one’s without windows I call “Law Suit Rooms”.  The tradition of the Church, and the law, from about the time of St. Charles Borromeo onward, was that all confessionals were to have a fixed grate, which would serve the functions a) of protecting the reputation of the priest and b) of at least partially obscuring the penitent from view and recognition.

I don’t hear confessions if there isn’t a fixed grate anymore.  And, according to the law, no priest can be compelled to hear confessions when there is not a fixed barrier. It is up to the individual priest, and not the bishop or the pastor, etc.

Many confessionals in Europe have, in addition to the side confessional spots, which have obscuring grates, a divided door in the center, to the box where the priest sits.  The lower part can be closed, leaving the upper part open for those who wish to talk to the priest face-to-face.

According to Canon Law, can. 964 §2. “The conference of bishops is to establish norms regarding the confessional; it is to take care, however, that there are always confessionals with a fixed grate between the penitent and the confessor in an open place so that the faithful who wish to can use them freely.”

Again, this is to protect the priest, but it is also to preserve the anonymity of the penitents.

What to say, then, about those parishes which have stingy confession schedules and list on the bulletin or website “By appointment”?  It seems to me that that risks the violation of anonymity, particularly if you have to give your name or if Father comes late to church and sees you before getting into the confessional.

So… in the case of the the nosy Fr. Ryan Ficcanaso, who is oozing concern and trying to connect in a priestly fervent bid for an especially compassionate warm and fuzzy experience of mercy, you might either stay silent until he gets the point or you can say, “I believe it is my right to be anonymous.”  You might also try, “…

… no, don’t say that.

In any event, if you don’t want to give your name, don’t.  And the priest presses you, tell him that you will let the bishop know what he is doing.



About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

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

    That’s very unwise of that priest. Besides all you’ve said, legally it’s very imprudent to know the penitents. If pressed by a court to reveal the contents of a confession as has happened in the past, a priest who alway uses anonymous confessions can simply say “I don’t know the identities of any of the penitents and there are so many of them I can’t keep track of them all even if I tried to remember any of them. So I couldn’t help you even if I were allowed to break the seal of confession.”

  2. Saor Alba says:

    This is really interesting. As a penitent I have never been bothered one way or the other if the priest can see me, and have often add face to face confession. I Scotland the convention seems to have been for some time that the confessional has a curtain with can be drawn back to allow confession face to face. I have never availed myself of this facility , but am I to understand that as a priest you prefer if I didn’t remove the curtain/grate etc? Perhaps selfishly, I have never considered that the priest would mind which way we conduct confession? Why is it you don’t like it? I would very much like to know.

    [Speaking for myself, as I think I conveyed above, I’d rather not be able to identify people. That is another aid to keeping the Seal of confession.]

  3. ray from mn says:

    I went to Confession last night at a communal penance service. Small parish. I went face to face to an older priest who never once looked at me after greeting me. I had observed that behavior with the penitent before me and wondered about it. Now I understand. Thank you, FrZ!

  4. Noelle says:

    Fr. Ficcanaso! Love it!

  5. Suburbanbanshee says:

    In some of the Eastern churches, my understanding is that the pastor keeps track of who has gone to Confession, so that he can know if parishioners should be receiving Communion.

    But if that is what a Latin Rite priest is trying to do, he is being nosy. Why? Customs that are different are built on lots of other rationales and circumstances and priorities that are also different. You cannot just pick a custom up and forget the rest.

  6. The Confessional at my Parish is Ft. Knox for the priest and the penitent. The heavy gauge mesh is so tight that you couldn’t stick your pinkie through the small holes. Father has a curtain on his side that he can pull open if requested by the penitent. When a person enters he asks, “English or Español?” I always say, “It is “me”. Only I use my name. Even though he knows me I never ask to go face to face.

    Not only is he my priest, confessor, and spiritual director, he is a dear friend of my family, knows me well, and so he knows how to deal with me, which I like, because he will tell me just how “the cow eats the cabbage.”

  7. Andrew says:

    Interesting also is the Authentic Interpretation: L’Osservatore Romano, 13-14 July 1998, p. 2 (re: Pope’s approval of the answer on 7 July 1998):

    Excluding cases of necessity, can the confessor insist (even if the penitent should wish otherwise) on hearing confessions only in a confessional that has a fixed grate?
    Answer: Affirmative

    Original text:
    Utrum attento praescripto can. 964, § 2, sacramenti minister, justa de causa et excluso casu necessitatis, legitime decernere valeat, etiamsi poenitens forte aliud postulet ut confessio sacramentalis excipiatur in sede confessionali crate fixa instructa.
    R. Affirmative.

  8. A good answer to the confessor would be:

    A. P. Sinner – a poor sinner

  9. APX says:

    I would hate for a priest to ask me my name. I don’t do F2F confession. I’m too sensitive to facial expressions, even the slightest that most people wouldn’t notice, I notice. Good for doing interviews during investigations in telling me where to go deeper, bad for moments such as confession. That being said, I know my confessor knows it’s me, and he knows I know that. We skirt around it. He might use information he already knows when giving counsel, but that doesn’t bother me.

  10. Glennonite says:

    Our former pastor always found a way to observe the Confessional line (in charity, I’ll assume it was unintentional). Show up early, he walks up on time (passed the line). Show up 15 mins. after Confessions start, he walks up late (passed the line). A woman in a wheel chair is pushed into the Confessional room, he pushes her out when finished (and views the line as he does so). I jumped to the next parish for Confession even though I was raised not to do so.

    Since I didn’t go to Confession every week, and this happened each time I went (over a period of about a year), I had to assume it happened as a matter of course. He also spoke in a full voice when giving counsel and I could hear his words when waiting in line. The whole experience was distressing. Since I’m unloading, he usually had a light/jovial demeanor which ran contra to my attitude of the seriousness of my offending God and the need to reconcile.

  11. dans0622 says:

    Maybe due to reverence for the confessor (judge), I’d answer the question honestly and give my name. (As a penitent, I’m in a vulnerable position, after all.) I wouldn’t like doing it, though, that’s for sure. Fortunately, no confessor has ever asked me such a question. I don’t see how such a practice, if known in a community, would ever make it more likely that people will go to Confession.

  12. pelerin says:

    I have noticed that when going to Confession in Lourdes the Priests there have asked me my name. The first time this happened I was quite surprised but soon realised that it was quite comforting to be addressed by name and it helped to take away some of the anxiety which I was feeling. Of course they only want you to tell them your Christian name so there is no danger of identification.

  13. VexillaRegis says:

    Oh, Fr Ficcanaso (wonderful name LOL)! I once encountered him in a semi-face-to-face confessional after a Friday night Mass while on vacation. He didn’t ask for my name, but tried to find out from which parish I came. (I had asked for advise on how to handle a difficult personal situation in my parish.) Fr. Ficcanaso leant forward, beaming with curiosity and sweating like mad. Luckily I know how to handle the most cunning snoops in a very ladylike way, so he didn’t succeed in getting any useful information out of me, ha!

    On the following Sunday, we greeted each other outside his church, and would you believe it, he made a new try to get the information he wanted by introducing “our visitors from – ?” to one of his parishoners!!! I just said “how nice to meet you, blah blah!”.

    [I may have to give Father a partial pass here (not plenary), depending on how he asked about the parish. If a parish is getting lots of visitors for confession from other parishes, that tells him something about the situation in his parish and in the diocese. That said, I would add that it is never wrong for the priest simply not to get into such things in concrete terms. Of course he couldn’t act in anyway on specific information given in a particular confession, but if he learns over time that very many people are coming from other parishes, he may determine that he needs more confession times, and that he may need to bring the issue up with the bishop or dean, or presbyteral council, etc.]

  14. Fr AJ says:

    In my diocese there has been numerous accusations of abuse – some of which allegedly occurred inside these confessional rooms. One confessional was reportedly designed by a notorious abuser to place the priest hearing a face to face confession in a position to block the door of someone trying to escape the confessional. I have talked to some of our men who are planning on doing away with these confessional rooms and bringing back the box style confessionals to limit liability.

    [Do I hear an “Amen!”?]

  15. gracie says:

    The other week the CCD fourth graders at the parish where I teach went to Confession. It’s a once in a year ritual for most of them as their parents don’t take them. The pastor gave a little talk beforehand in which he said he felt it was best for the children to go face to face so he could have a nice chat with them. [GRRRRRRR!] As a result, three of the students in my class refused to go. I told them they didn’t have to if they didn’t want to but there was an option that might work for them; that they could go anonymously – there were three priests hearing Confession and one of the confessionals had an Anonymous side to it. I went into great detail describing the screen and that the priest wouldn’t be able to see them and so wouldn’t know who they were. As a result, two of the children changed their mind and went anonymously; the third child was so freaked out that she continued to adamantly refuse. The Director came over to see what was happening and three times tried to talk her into going – the girl adamantly refused. I have to give the kid a lot of credit – it’s not easy to refuse an adult but whatever the issue was she was freaked out at the thought of a priest being able to link the sin to her. Do we shame-resistant adults forget that children still can be embarrassed by what they’ve done and are mortified at having to tell anyone about it let alone a priest who – in their mind – will be thinking of this sin whenever he sees the child? You can tell a child until you’re blue in the face that the priest won’t remember but kids don’t buy it and why should they – after all, the other adults in their lives don’t forget and why would the priest be any different?

  16. Speravi says:

    There should be no reason for him to ask this and, consequently, if this were to happen to me, I would simply tell him that I am not comfortable giving that information (in fact, the very fact that he asked, ESPECIALLY if the motive was to “[know] me personally,” would make me VERY uncomfortable). Confession is not spiritual direction. [Right. This is something that many lay people must be taught, especially women. Also, young priests, whose instruction about the confessional might have been a little thin and who might have had more of a liberal parish while growing up, need to learn this too.]
    The only caveat would be if the priest needed anonymously to get a faculty to lift a canonical censure. In this case however, he would NOT ASK YOUR REAL NAME at all, but instead ask for a pseudonym. [YES! Or he would make one up. There are classic pseudonyms to use when posing moral problems… Gaius/a, Sempronius/a, etc.] Then after a certain period of time, when he had presumably obtained the necessary faculty, you would again return and give him the psuedonym so that he knows that this is the person for whom he has obtained the faculty and could then lift the censure which he was unable to lift on the previous occasion.

  17. alicewyf says:

    My senior year of high school, I went to confession. It was in a beautiful older church with a traditional confessional with a grate. As soon as I made the sign of the cross and told the priest how long it had been since my last confession, He OPENED THE GRATE. Without asking. I was 17 or 18 and did not have the self confidence to ask him to close it. Some mortal sins went unconfessed that day as I was simply too embarrassed to say them face to face. It was incredibly violating and I didn’t go back to confession for another seven years. I thank God that I did, but I wish he knew how much damage he did in that moment. Well, he knows now, as he passed away some years ago. RIP.

  18. M. K. says:

    I agree that a priest of the Latin Rite shouldn’t be asking the penitent’s name in confession; in the Byzantine Rite, it can sometimes happen because the formula for absolution is meant to include the penitent’s name, but that is founded on the presumption that the penitent has an ongoing relationship with his or her confessor as well as on the reality that in Byzantine practice confessions occur face-to-face (or, more accurately, side-by-side, with both penitent and priest standing before the iconostasis or before a Gospel Book and cross).

  19. anilwang says:

    Suburbanbanshee says: In some of the Eastern churches, my understanding is that the pastor keeps track of who has gone to Confession, so that he can know if parishioners should be receiving Communion

    I doubt it since that would imply that the pastor knows who has sinned and who has confessed to another priest, both of which are unlikely.

    What is the practice of at least some of the Orthodox (and I assume Eastern Catholics) confession is done in the Church in front of everyone with you and the priest both facing the cross as in the following:

    No private confessionals or even face to face in a private room. So in theory someone nearby could hear you. Personally I’m thankful for the private confessionals.

  20. Patikins says:

    I’ve only been asked my name once. I was helping the organizers of a Youth 2000 retreat and they had dozens of priests hearing confessions at one end of a gymnasium. I thought it was odd but I gave him my first name. He then hugged me after giving me absolution. That bothered me more than asking for my name.

    I know the priests at my parish know me by voice, especially after I give my age and state in life, but it doesn’t bother. I still don’t want to go face to face with these same priests.

    We have two traditional confessionals with fixed grates. When we have more than two priests hearing (such as on Good Friday), they set up a kneelers with a screens attached to them in the library or classrooms so penitents can still remain anonymous.

  21. The Egyptian says:

    Ah yes, by appointment,

    penitent-I need to see Father Mod about confession.

    Parish administrator (Mrs Blabberington)- OK John. btw what have you done?

    no way in he double hockey sticks, and yes our parish admin is that brazen at times, a total busy body

  22. Fr. Vincent Fitzpatrick says:

    dans0622 wrote:

    “Maybe due to reverence for the confessor (judge), I’d answer the question honestly and give my name. (As a penitent, I’m in a vulnerable position, after all.)”

    I would like to see this kind of “reverence,” which is misplaced and exaggerated, stamped out, along with the notion that the penitent is “vulnerable.” Or somehow subservient to the confessor.

    Yes, the confessor is a “judge,” but that means only that he has an obligation to exercise judgment, and that he must be obeyed IF he is reasonable, and Catholic.

    In my preaching, I have told the people that if they are ever yelled at, or even scolded, they are to get up and leave, as they have no obligation to put up with any of that. I have always expressed the belief that such behavior by priests is less common that it was 50 years ago.

    In every parish where I have been pastor, I have been told tales of priests yelling at people and talking to them in a voice audible to those in line.

    The “law-suit room” was the invention of priests and bishops intent on the total destruction of the sacrament.

  23. bobbortolin says:

    I’m in a wheelchair and can’t get into a confessional, but my parish priest comes here to hear my confession. This obviously isn’t anonymous, but he does stand behind me while I’m confessing and then gives my penance face-to-face – this seems to be a “comfortable” solution for both of us.

  24. andia says:

    I have no problem with face to face confession, even if I know the priest, however when I go face to face I am the one making the choice for dropping anonymity. I am not sure what I would do if asked my name…good to know I can tell the Bishop about such things.

    I’ve had the touchy, huggy priest that I didn’t know and it felt incredibly violating, especially since I am not touchy and had told him so during that confession!

  25. Nan says:

    Anilwag, many Eastern parishes are tiny. There’s only one priest. However, I’ve never been turned down for communion even though I rarely attend my canonical parish. He knows which parish I belong to and that I have a greater value to him by being in the outside world and explaining the Byzantine Church.

    I wouldn’t worry about people overhearing, first, because confession takes place at the iconostasis and the line is sitting in pews. Second, because anyone overhearing is bound by the seal of confession.

    In my parish, the penitent faces the priest, but his stole, which is more substantial, is between them. There’s a loop for his head to go through, but the two sides are attached to each other and hang down his front. He lifts the stole so I confess beneath it. It’s all done in whispers, like the Church basement that features curtains and whispering.

  26. arcanum_divinae says:

    I’ve done face to face when I was quite nervous and wanted to sit down for some counselling about my sins, anonymous grate, and asking the priest to confess and then walking in either side of the confessional. So I don’t hate the face to face practice (though I wouldn’t do it if there were a line), but I still definitely agree that anonymous confession should be the default, with the others as options available only if confessor and penitent agree.

    And I’ve never had my name asked in any form of confession.

    I’m sure laymen are allowed to say this too: GO TO CONFESSION!

  27. robtbrown says:

    I would suggest that a man who is asked his name by a confessor should reply “Christian”. A woman could say “Christiana”.

  28. I’ve never had that happen to me, and I’ve been to many different priests for confession. I guess I’ve been fortunate. If it did, I would probably just tell him my first name as he probably wouldn’t know me otherwise anyway. I rarely go to confession in my home parish or anywhere else anyone might know me. If he wanted me to sign the register and show photo ID, I think I would politely say that I’ll look elsewhere, thank you, and scratch my head at why a priest would insist on making the process needlessly complicated.

  29. bobk says:

    Orthodox layman here. It’s interesting to read this, I never knew a Catholic confessional was anonymous. I’ve never once been to confession and not had the priest (MY priest!) not know me! The pre confession exhortation includes saying take heed, lest having come to the Physician (Christ) you depart unhealed. I don’t go to a doctor in secret and not let him know *me* and where it hurts. How much more my priest, my spiritual father? I can’t get baptized or married in secret, nor is a secret ordination considered licit. I have (gulp!) nothing to hide from the confessor or something’s wrong. Of course there’s always something wrong so I’ve gone more than once…Anyway, that’s how the East does it, nothing to fear from the confessor. I HOPE he knows me, God does! Have a blessed Lent in every way.

  30. bobk says:

    I misspoke! I should have said that I have never been to confession and had the priest not know me. Sorry, in the above comment in the second sentence I double negatived myself…..Sigh.

  31. Patikins says:

    Fr. Vincent Fitzpatrick wrote: “In my preaching, I have told the people that if they are ever yelled at, or even scolded, they are to get up and leave, as they have no obligation to put up with any of that. ”

    I’ve only once been scolded in the confessional and I never experienced that from him or other priests during subsequent confessions. I figured I probably deserved it. It was by the same priest who heard my first confession after being away from the sacrament for several years and he was very gentle and kind then. I don’t think this priest knew me since I wasn’t very involved in the parish at the time.

    If I had been scolded when I was just returning to the sacrament, I am sure I would have responded differently and left the confessional in tears.

  32. oldconvert says:

    I HATE face-to-face confessions! I’d thought it was being a convert had something to do with it but friends who are cradle Catholics have admitted a distaste for the practice also. I wonder how many people turn away from confession because it is their only option, if they can’t fit into the half-hour-a-week slot that is all that is offered in many parishes now.

  33. letchitsa1 says:

    I have never been asked my name in the confessional. If I were to be asked, I’d probably respond with just my confirmation name or the religious name I took as a lay Dominican. I have, over the years, seem some things that aren’t quite right to the point I have to really watch myself lest my quick with and even quicker tongue get away from me. That happened once, with a priest who was in a mood, as was I. Something I said evoked the response from him, “Are you trying to spend more time in Purgatory?” Before I even realized I had said it, the question was out of my mouth, “Better some time in Purgatory than an eternity in Hell, don’t you think, Father?” I went and found another priest to hear my confession.

  34. Filipino Catholic says:

    Re bobk and the Orthodox manner of doing things

    There is in fact the option for speaking face-to-face with the priest for us Latins (those European confessionals with the divided door). Anonymity is a privilege we choose to take on, very likely because we are afraid of being recognized as we divulge our transgressions. Is not such a desire for privacy, in such a moment as accusing oneself before God and His ordained minister, a respectable one?

    Note also that coming to the Divine Physician in secret does in fact have biblical precedent, though not in the sense of confession. The desire for privacy and the fear of being recognized were there however, when Nicodemus met with Christ in the dead of night.

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