ASK FATHER: Confession line very slow and Father looks out at people waiting

Artgate_Fondazione_Cariplo_-_Molteni_Giuseppe,_La_confessione 945From a reader…


In our parish, when our Associate Pastor is hearing Confessions, he comes from behind the screen, opens the door and “greets” each person, in view of all waiting in line, then is very insistent upon hearing Confession face-to-face. This sometimes makes me very uncomfortable, and my husband refuses to go to him. Also, before he gives a Penance, he “counsels” for a significant amount of time. This past Saturday, he heard the Confessions of 8 penitents in the 40 minutes left, turning away another 7. Are these legitimate grounds for complaint to our Pastor, and if so, do you have recommendations as to how I might structure / word my comments? Thanks and God bless!

First, it sounds as if the Associate is trying to be personable and welcoming and that he isn’t trying to do something intimidating or confusing.

The pastor should help this priest by giving him some big-brotherly counsel cum directives.

The associate should NOT get out of the confessional or greet anyone outside the confessional.  He should not make eye contact with people outside the confessional or even look toward them.   In fact, if he is a little behind schedule, he should not even raise his eyes or look up from the floor as he walks to the confessional!  He should, if at all possible, pass by people who are in line without the slightest idea of who is there.  If he should recognize anyone, he should make no sign of recognition or greeting or anything else.

If the confessional is one of these horrid rooms that has a screen that people can go around so they make their confession “face to face”, then the penitent herself has complete control of her anonymity.   The penitent must have complete control of anonymity!

If might happen that, if there is a gap or break in the stream of penitents, a priest with a Mass coming up or another appointment will momentarily get out or look out to see if there is anyone else waiting.  That’s a different matter.  Even then he should engage at the lowest possible level.

As far as the “counsels” are concerned, they should be brief… brief.  There are few things more awkward than having to listen to the priest confessor drone on and on in what he thinks is a tone that is simultaneously fatherly and nice with one pious platitude after another.  Beyond awkward, it is frustrating for penitents in line who want to be able to make their confession before Father has to get out and say Mass.

Fathers, please be brief.  I implore you.

At the same time, let’s not always blame the priest for the length of a confession!   Some penitents have no idea what they are going to say because they haven’t examined their consciences before getting into the confessional.  Also, some penitents overwhelm even themselves with unnecessary details.

Sinners, please be brief.  I implore you.

I think that you could bring your concerns to the pastor, but don’t do so in a mean or angry way.  While what the priest says or doesn’t say in the confessional is entirely off limits for the pastor to bring up, he can bring up the observable fact that the priest isn’t allowing for his penitents anonymity.   The pastor could gently remind the associate to pick up the pace without compromising the integrity of confessions by shortening his counsels.

Otherwise, depending on the temperament of the associate, and your familiarity with him and involvement in the parish, one could drop him a line with an explanation of how uncomfortable his reviewing people in line makes you feel, and that it is sometimes frustrating not to be able to make a good confession in the scheduled time allotted because the line moves slowly.  Again, there should be no anger in the letter.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

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  1. Bthompson says:

    As a current associate, I have a request on behalf of my well meaning brother mentioned above: please take the Lord’s own advice from Matthew 18:15ff. If you gently confront him personally, sharing that while you appreciate his desire to be gentle and personable he just ends up feeling invasive, not only will the problem hopefully be solved, but he won’t have an “issue” for the pastor to invoke at evaluations and the like.

    It is very discouraging to be called to account for something one did not know disturbed or harmed someone. [Fair enough, but this is not a matter of being “called to account”. It is a matter of gaining experience as one learns his “priestcraft” (without the unfortunate negative connotation, of course).]

  2. Dr. Edward Peters says:

    Pater dixit: “At the same time, let’s not always blame the priest for the length of a confession! Some penitents have no idea what they are going to say because they haven’t examined their consciences before getting into the confessional. Also, some penitents overwhelm even themselves with unnecessary details.”

    Okay, sure. Not ALL the time. But between their own unfocused remarks and their inability/unwillingness to steer badly-formed Catholics into anything like conciseness, I still blame priests A WHOLE LOT of the glacier slow confession lines. Seen it over too many decades, in too many different kinds of places, to conclude otherwise.

    [Quod scripsi, scripsi.]

  3. Mark says:

    I will take a different position than most here, I think. Sometimes I go to confession and sometimes I go face to face. I actually enjoy face to face, and I enjoy some discussion with the priest. [Confession is not chat time.] I guess I (and those waiting in line) would prefer to get this in more of a half hour spiritual direction sort of thing, but most priests don’t seem available when I am, which is at night because I work during the day. And those who are usually best at spiritual direction [Scheduled confession time with people in line is not time for spiritual direction.] and most helpful when confessing face to face are also usually the ones most busy because so many people recognize this and they are pulled in so many different directions it is hard to meet with them regularly. For these reasons I actually like face to face confession from time to time. Just thought I would add a counter thought here.

  4. Mark says:

    I meant to say some times I go to confession behind the screen and some times I go face to face.

  5. anilwang says:

    WRT running out of time, sure you could try to get the pastor to speed up, but is that really the issue? I noticed that you said the confession was on Saturday. If it’s like any other parish with Saturday confessions I’ve seen, confessions only happen once a week on Saturdays and only an hour is allotted. If that’s the case, the problem can be solved by either extending the time from 1 hour to 2 hours, or better yet, adding an additional hour or two on other days of the week or other times on Saturday.

    WRT the anonymity, I’d simply speak to the pastor and say two things:

    (1) Some people are shy or ashamed of their sins. If denied the option of speaking anonymously they may never go to confession. Do you want that on your conscience?

    (2) Many courts are putting pressure on priests to break the seal of confession. If most of your confessions are anonymous, you can truthfully say that you are forbidden from breaking the seal of confession but even if you were allowed to, your confessions are anonymous so you couldn’t possibly reveal what’s being confessed by an individual because you don’t know who confessed what. If most of your confessions are face to face, you’re on your own. Expect to be tied up in court for a while, waste parish funds on legal defense, and possibly spend some jail time. Not exactly a prudent thing.

  6. tominrichmond says:

    “Confession is not chat time”– BINGO!

    Number and kind, that’s pretty much it. Very frustrating to be waiting behind some very nice lady who is face to face with the very nice priest, and hear the laughter bleeding out from the “reconciliation room” during the 5-10 minute “confession.” Please, for the love of St. Pete, leave the “spiritual direction,” chit chat, and small talk to some other time. People are waiting while you’re yukking it up with the priest!

    /end rant.

  7. thomas tucker says:

    Agree with tominrichmond 100%. Go in, confess your sins, say your act of contrition, and get out. Bada bing. I have asked our priests to please preach in their homily at least once per year on how to go to Confession.

  8. xavierabraham says:

    How do I ask a question for “ASK FATHER” section ? Should I just post it as a comment here ?

  9. VeritasVereVincet says:

    As Fr. Z once said: Be brief, be blunt, be gone.

  10. Dr. Edward Peters says:

    oh, I meant to say that, sometimes, on my way out of Confession, I say something like “btw, there are eight people in line behind me.” just a little fyi. fwiw.

    [That can be helpful sometimes.]

  11. Joe in Canada says:

    If necessary I will suggest to the penitent [As a priest, which isn’t evident from your handle here.] that something might be worth discussing with a spiritual director outside of the Sacrament, and I distinguish between the effects of the Sacrament and the good that might come from the discussion.
    I don’t look out, I look at my watch and when necessary I ask the penitent to tell those in line, if there is anyone, that I have to leave to start Mass.

  12. mpmaron says:

    Sage advice Dr. Peters. I’ve done that myself. Not sure how effective it is, but I feel I’ve done my little bit.

  13. Dr. Edward Peters says:

    Be brief, be blunt, be gone, be good. :)

  14. First, let me say that I thank God I have priests available to hear my confession. I also appreciate the occasional question which helps both priest and confessor do a better and more thorough job of things, but that works only if both parties come right to the point. I am deeply bothered when a priest launches into a lengthy question & answer period, with psychoanalysis / counseling afterwards. For some of us, it’s tough enough to get up the nerve to confess to begin with. Adding the third degree to the procedure is the last thing we need.

    BTW both priests at my usual parish will – if Mass time is approaching – ask the penitent as they are leaving to glance at the line and tell them about how many are waiting. That way they get the information they need without having to see who is there.

  15. Stephanus83 says:

    I used to be uncomfortable when the Priest looked at those in line for confession. I also used to avoid going to a confessional room with a chair at all costs because it made me uncomfortable. I met a Russian Orthodox friend and my opinion changed. Confessions in the Orthodox Church are always face to face. They’re almost always in the church in front of all to see. Orthodox confessions are out of earshot of others so the seal of confession isn’t broken, but they’re very public. Now, I don’t care if the Priest knows it’s me or not. The most important thing is that I’ve confessed my sins to Our Lord and have been given absolution. It doesn’t matter if the Priest recognizes me or not, because I’ve heard that most Priests suffer from “holy amnesia” during confession anyway.

    [I am not concerned with what the Orthodox do. I am only a little concerned about what Eastern Catholics do. This is in response to a situation in a Latin parish. Also, whatever your personal preferences might be, the priests should nevertheless maintain the anonymity of all the other penitents present.]

  16. cl00bie says:

    Another concern that might want to make priests eliminate the “face-to-face” option if possible, is the shakeup of that poor priest in New Orleans who was jailed because he would not reveal the contents of a penitent’s confession. [I don’t think he was jailed. But I think it is a good idea to phase out face-to-face confessionals.]

    If you do not know who confesses, you cannot be made to reveal what was confessed. If your penitents are always anonymous, you cannot be even made to acknowledge that there WAS a confession.

  17. frjim4321 says:

    Maybe the penitent was busily confessing the sins of OTHER people and the associate was having difficulty bringing it to a conclusion. [LOL! Right. Thus Tip # 8!]

  18. iamlucky13 says:

    8 confessions in 40 minutes? I wish I had that problem at most of the local parishes that scheduling challenges often lead me to. At some parishes, a single confession taking over 20 minutes is as common as confessions less than 5 minutes long. Two such long confessions in a row is not a unique experience to me while waiting in line.

    The worst was at my college chapel. More than once, I arrived near the start of hour-long scheduled confessions, saw nobody else in line, confirmed indistinct mutters were coming through the confessional door, and waited until the end of the scheduled time without anyone ever emerging, and it depended on the priest hearing confessions that day whether or not he continued hearing confessions past the scheduled time.

  19. jhayes says:

    Cloobie, the courts ruled that the priest did not have to reveal what was said:

    Baton Rouge, La., Aug 4, 2016 / 12:52 am (CNA/EWTN News).- A state appeals court in Louisiana reaffirmed that Catholic priests cannot be forced by law to violate the seal of the confessional.

    According to local news station WBRZ, the court ruled on Friday that Father Jeff Bayh does not have to disclose any discussion that took place during the Sacrament of Confession.

    Catholic priests are bound to observe the seal of confession and cannot reveal to anyone the contents of a confession or whether a confession took place. Priests who violate the seal are automatically excommunicated.


    I don’t recall that Fr. Bayh ever went to jail.

  20. PhilipNeri says:

    When training our transitional deacons to hear confessions after their priestly ordinations, I always emphasize the following:

    1). Gently but firmly redirect chatty penitents to *their* sins.
    2). Resist the urge to lengthen confessions by turning them into lectures on moral theology.
    3). When there’s a line, ask each penitent how many people are in line. That makes them conscious of the clock.
    4). Gently but firmly redirect penitents away from explanations, excuses, euphemisms, etc. Name the sin by its proper name and move to the next one.
    5). Don’t be afraid of “laundry list” confessions. Confessors need to get over the need to hear about “struggles” and “challenges.” We hear sins in the confessional. . .not the events leading to sin.
    6). With the possibility of false accusations, it might be a good idea to consider discouraging “face-to-face” confessions. (I think of this every time I hear 8th grade confessions.)
    7). Never force a penitent to confess “face-to-face.” Doing so is more about your comfort or ideology than it is about their rights as a Catholic.

    Fr. Philip Neri, OP

    [Well done. These points resonate with my Tips.]

    Fr. Z's Gold Star Award

  21. clarinetist04 says:

    Living in western Europe, I am often confronted with the situation where I don’t have confessions available to me for weeks at a time. I usually have 3 Saturday options (9:30am, 4:30pm and 5:00 pm at 3 different churches within about a 25 mile radius) alternating on a very irregular schedule.

    Only one of them actually uses the confessionals to preserve any sense of anonymity (a church run by a wonderful, holy priest who hears confessions in 4 langauges). Even our cathedral in this archdiocese has a “confession room” where you sit across from the priest. It’s unnerving. Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris doesn’t even use the big, beautiful (and anonymous) confessionals they have, nor do any of the 20 or so cathedrals throughout France I’ve been to. I don’t understand why they don’t use the tools already at their disposal. The vast majority of the parishes in my archdiocese do not have ANY scheduled confessions.

  22. Kathleen10 says:

    Tangential comment here.
    I just want to observe that one of the saddest things, and it happens often at our church, is to go to Confession and there is nobody else there the entire time. Not one person. And there sits Father, waiting, and often waiting in vain. I feel very sad on those days.
    And what does it say, as many have observed at other times, everybody goes up for Holy Communion, but almost nobody is going to Confession. We need proper catechesis about the need for Confession for the soul, repeated often, because clearly people have not been taught.
    It is an excellent feeling, to go to Confession. When you leave, you feel clean as a whistle. The longer it’s been, the better the feeling.

  23. Marysann says:

    Dr. Peters tells the priest how many people are waiting when he leaves the confessional. I do it the other way. If I am going into the confessional of a priest who I know likes to give a lot of advice, even though I know it will be good advice, I say, “I will try to be quick, Father, because there are ten people behind me.” It seems to work. [Not bad!]

  24. JimRB says:

    This is not the first time I have seen posts with similar content – especially in regard to lengthy confessions. I must say while I don’t “blame” the priests or the penitents, I do find it enormously and ridiculously frustrating. It is often an occasion of sin to be in such a line, and I have even witnessed a parishioner yell at another parishioner leaving the confessional that “14 minutes is too long!!!!”

    Obviously not the right thing to do, but the parishioner was correct. This is an issue at a large number of parishes and it is truly frustrating – a frustration which could be relieved by more scheduled confessions.

    As an addendum: the most frustrating confessional experience is showing up for scheduled confessions and the priest is not there, followed closely by scheduling confession with a pastor whose bulletin says confessions by appointment only and the pastor is vocally annoyed by the inconvenience.

  25. Maelwys says:

    People need to ask themselves if their need for spiritual direction is more important that the immediate soul peril of penitents waiting behind them with mortal sin on their hearts and their loss of an opportunity to receive the Eucharist. This should be easy.

  26. Mike says:

    This summer I went to confession at a parish which during all day Adoration has a priest in the confessional at the top of each hour. There were two kids in front of me. When it was my turn, the whole thing took about 2 minutes. Sure, if you need more time, go for it. But brevity can be the soul of grace, so to speak.

  27. Viaticum says:

    JimRB, that happened at my parish this summer. The 8 a.m. Mass concluded at 8:30 and Confessions commenced immediately. The first two penitents lined up for the Confessional immediately after receiving Communion; the rest joined them after the dismissal. Penitent number 1 took 10 minutes and the second, a young man, took 20. Several people gave up and left. As he emerged, number 4 in line made a very audible note of his displeasure. To be charitable, maybe it was a General Confession, but why not do everyone a favor and schedule that privately?

    Amusing side note: After 10 minutes, one would-be penitent had said “This is my penance.” After another 10 minutes, another said, “This is my Purgatory!”

  28. un-ionized says:

    marysann, i do the same thing, telling the priest if there is a big line. especially at my former parish where the average person takes maybe 10 minutes in the confessional. for the 4-5pm saturday confession, people start arriving at 3:30 when the building opens. you can still be “left behind” if you arrive at 4pm. there are some who confess weekly and they take lots of time so i wondered if they were doing counseling instead of confession, as the priests are very hard to get hold of. but that’s okay, God has his plans. we do what we can and if it doesn’t work out according to our plans, we figure He has something else in mind.

  29. GAK says:

    If a letter is written to the associate pastor, I agree wholeheartedly that it should have zero anger in it.

    I also think it best if it has ZERO extraneous adjectives, phrases, etc.

    I can’t tell you how many times someone has said to me, “I wrote Father X” — “I did it out of profound love ” — I said in my letter, “Dear Father X, in all humility I want to tell you you I would like you to change Y. In deep and abiding love and concern I want to tell you that I need Z.” Blah. Blaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaah.

    People, if whatever you are saying might be hard for Father to hear, just floopin’ spit it out. He will be able to tell by your kind tone and lack of insults/passive aggressive digs that you wish him well. It’s MUCH better to keep it short.

    While many of us are tempted to write such flowery, poesy prosey letters, to show our good will, nobody on God’s green earth wants to have to read those letters. Save the poor man something and just skip it.

  30. un-ionized says:

    GAK, great advice on letter writing, especially about passive aggressive digs which are always insults.

  31. Filipino Catholic says:

    From the sorry state of Confession a quip could perhaps be made that the Catholic Church now only has six sacraments instead of its usual seven. Five, if one notes how rare Extreme Unction is in this day and age.

  32. hwriggles4 says:

    While it’s good to see long lines for Reconciliation (this is common in the South, where we have many converts and reverts), I do think it’s good to be respectful of a priests time. I have seen signs near confessional so politely asking parishioners to do Examination of Conscience prior to entering, and there’s been a few times due to the lines the priest will absolve me, but ask me to say the Act of Contrition outside in order for the priest to hear more confessions.

    Also in the South, there are Catholics who want to go to Confession en Español. Some priests will note on their confessional if they are able se habla Español. I am able to politely lead them to the line con El Padre habla Español y Ingles, since I speak a little Spanish myself.

  33. rwintercpa says:

    One thing I have noticed in several parishes where I live is that the Priest is always late to hear confessions. Sometimes as much as 20 minutes. I realize things come up but this seems to be the norm.

  34. bobk says:

    I’m an Orthodox layman so have never known the anonymous confession. I simply can’t imagine it. Would you go to a doctor anonymously? Do we imagine God somehow “knows” our sins less if a barrier is between layman and confessor? I think it just makes a sacrament inhuman to think a priest should not even look at people outside the enclosure. It’s not an execution. There’s already one religion that requires a burkha for some people, that’s one too many. Shouldn’t a priest, who bears the weighty responsibility of who he communes also know who he absolves, or doesn’t? One doesn’t commune anonymously. Sorry if I give any offense.


  35. APX says:


    Anonymous confession exists for the protection of both the penitent and the priest. It’s like talking to someone on the phone rather than in person.

  36. robtbrown says:

    bobk says:

    I’m an Orthodox layman so have never known the anonymous confession. I simply can’t imagine it. Would you go to a doctor anonymously? Do we imagine God somehow “knows” our sins less if a barrier is between layman and confessor? I think it just makes a sacrament inhuman to think a priest should not even look at people outside the enclosure. It’s not an execution. There’s already one religion that requires a burkha for some people, that’s one too many. Shouldn’t a priest, who bears the weighty responsibility of who he communes also know who he absolves, or doesn’t? One doesn’t commune anonymously. Sorry if I give any offense.

    The Confessor is told the Penitent’s sins. Isn’t that enough? I don’t know about you, but I don’t go to Confession to ask the priest to write a letter of recommendation for me.

    BTW, I go to the VA for my health care, and every time I get a new physician or PA. So it’s almost going anonymously.

  37. un-ionized says:

    bobk, it helps too if you are really super embarrassed about something you have done. there are people who will avoid confession and remain in mortal sin out of embarrassment. though to me the embarrassment is part of the penance.

  38. Imrahil says:

    Dear bobk,

    the point is not here “would we prefer the Sacrament of Penance celebrated anonymously”, but “would we prefer to burden some other sinner not ourselves, who wishes his sins done with, with non-anonymity”. And yes, compared to the other thing, it is a burden.

    Shouldn’t a priest, who bears the weighty responsibility of who he communes, also know who he absolves?

    If he does, he had better forget it (and I am told many do, apart, I guess, from the moral state of a parish in general terms): He must not, in no way, make use of his knowledge from the Sacrament in his decision whom “he communes” as you put it (neutral statement: I did not know that terminology before).

  39. While brevity is important, it is perhaps the lest important virtue for hearing or making a good confession. However, this is not so say that it isn’t a virtue that should be honed by both priest and penitent. Some confessions are brief, some are not. Some are brief for good reasons, some are brief for not-so-good reasons. Likewise, some confessions necessarily take a long time for good reason, some not-so-much. Both priests and penitents need to better exercise the virtue of patience in this Sacrament so that one does not get confused with the other.

    To flip the image used by the earlier Orthodox commentator, Confession is an encounter with the divine physician where the dead are brought back to life, and the near-dead are restored to full health. But this is rightly balanced with the Sacrament’s other natural sign, viz., an elocution of one’s sins before the tribunal of God’s mercy. But irrespective of the sign being waiting room or court room, some confessions take time and not due to any defect on the part of the priest or the penitent. Penitents waiting in line ought not presume the worst, even if they hear laughter. Sometimes, that is what happens when people unburden their soul which has been afflicted with the chains of sin, or simply when they finally realize the absurdity of their behavior. Instead of shifting fitfully in the confession line counting time, perhaps one’s energies could be better spent examining one’s own conscience or that already completed, praying for those penitent souls and the priest who hears their confessions instead of compounding one’s own sins.

    My point: brevity, yes; but, not to the exclusion of other higher goods.

  40. The Masked Chicken says:

    Well said, Fr. Gabriel.

    It is a sad fact that many people do not know how to make a good confession, nor the basic theology underlying it. There is a desperate need for catechesis after all of these years of neglect. I wish more parishes had adult education classes with some real meat to them.

    The Chicken

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