ASK FATHER: Do I have to confess everything if people might overhear?

confessional print adjustedFrom a reader…

Hi Fr. X: [I’m sorry.  Fr. X is not available right now.  May I be of help?]

I have a question for an Unreconstructed Ossified Manualist. [You’ve come to the right place.]

I think I read someone where once that it was permitted for a penitent to omit confessing mortal sins during confession if his/her confession could be heard by other people. Is that true? I ask because the church where I confess my sins has one of those open style Italian confessionals and the church being old and small, and formally Anglican, thus not being built with one, anything, even a whisper can be heard from the confessional by anyone else in the church.

First, that situation in that church where confessions, even very quiet confessions, can be heard really ought to be addressed right away.   I don’t believe that “anyone else in the church” can hear even a whisper from across the church, unless the place is a “whisper gallery” which would be silly.

Also, this reminds me of times when I have told penitents to lower their voice and whisper so that no one outside can hear what they say.  Some times kids, others too, come in and it’s,


Do me a favor,” quoth I, whispering.  “Speak very quietly so no one outside can hear you.  I’m right next to you and I can hear you just fine if you whisper.  Can you do that?  Okay?


Alright, go ahead with your confession.”


If there is a situation in which everyone can hear everything, such as in a hospital ward, etc., and there isn’t a way to have even a moment of privacy, a priest can give absolution to a penitent whom he is convinced is truly sorry for her sins and intends to amend her life.  This is a kind of “General Absolution”.  This is particularly done in the case of danger of death.  However, at the earliest opportunity that person should make a regular auricular confession of all mortal sins.

However, in this case where there is no danger of death, but rather just danger of being overheard, I would either go to another place for confession or make arrangements for confession at another time, when there is nobody in church.

You might bring your concerns to the pastor.  Perhaps he can designate a place for the waiting line to halt that is far enough away to preserve privacy.  No one will object to that.

And, to all you sinners out there, if you overhear something in another person’s confession you are BOUND not to reveal it.  DO YOU UNDERSTAND? (Note well that I did not whisper that.)  Also, if you realize that you can hear the content of the confession, then move away or block your ears or something.  OKAY? CAN YOU DO THAT?


GO TO CONFESSION, even if it has to be in some other place for a while.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

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

    One thing I have sen done in these situations is to have one of those “white noise” generators which can mask conversations as long as they are not too loud.

  2. kekeak2008 says:

    JonPatrick has a good point. We play religious music in the waiting area outside of the confessionals. As long as people don’t yell while they’re in there, we can’t hear a thing. Perhaps try that?

  3. Fleeb says:

    What does one do when the priest says “I forgive you” instead of the correct form of absolution? Our parish priest refuses to use the form and says that both mean the same thing…

  4. hwriggles4 says:

    Like Kekeak2008, I have visited parishes where religious music was played, because there wasn’t much insulation, and it is a way to secure privacy. My parish (and other parishes) mark a place for a starting point, so Catholics coming to the Sacrament will be far enough away.

    I have also seen someone get confused and accidentally walk inside too early, and the priest will politely say “someone is in here”.

  5. APX says:

    And then there’s someone actually eaves dropping in on someone’s confession.

    Not too long ago our choir director caught someone’s kid actually listening in (ear pressed up against the door) on someone’s confession (presumably his parent’s). I’m assuming this is one of the few grave sins a child would actually commit and proof that young children can indeed commit mortal sins.

  6. My pastor always turns on the “Monks” before he steps into the Confessional. Unless someone is yelling, no one can hear them at all.

  7. BenjaminiPeregrinus says:

    Usually in these resonate churches, turning on an ordinary oscillating fan is enough to obscure the clarity of a confession.

  8. Pingback: TUESDAY EXTRA | Big Pulpit

  9. Moro says:

    @Fleeb – If you have addressed your concerns to the priest and he doesn’t change. I’d inform the bishop in writing with a copy sent to the priest. ASAP. There is zero excuse for his behavior. Not only is that an invalid form, it’s not pastoral to use it as it leaves doubt in the minds of many penitents and they can go on to become scrupulous, doubtful of God’s mercy, etc. It’s probably one of the worst forms of liturgical abuse out there. I’m sorry you and your fellow parishioners have to put up with such a confessor. Hopefully, there is someone else nearby you can confess to that knows what he is doing.

  10. frival says:

    I can think of only one time when I’ve heard a confession over the chant that is normally played during Confession at most of the churches around here. To be honest, however, I don’t think it was a confession so much as using that time to get a one-on-one with the priest when he couldn’t see this woman coming. It was up one side and down the other of this poor priest, at the top of her lungs. The other ten or so of us in line just stood there looking nervously at each other. I felt so terribly bad for that man and can only wonder what must have transpired to get her to do such a thing.

  11. Joseph-Mary says:

    The last conference I went to, I was next in line when another priest came by and said he had time to hear a confession and everyone looked at me! So he took me to the hallway with all sorts of people passing by. I accepted this as a needful humiliation recalling that there were some saints who would pin a list of their sins on their backs so that everyone could see. He did raise his voice to me to tell me not to beat myself up and not to block the Holy Spirit. But if this were ever to happen again I think I would gently say that I would prefer the confessional area proper…

  12. iamlucky13 says:

    Our parish has the formerly common split confessionals – the priest sits in the middle, and on either side are doors so that one penitent can enter and continue his examination of conscience while Father hears the confession of another.

    At least, that’s the theory as I understand it. Despite the screen that Father closes before turning to the other side, anything above the faintest whisper is heard. It simply destroys my ability to concentrate on preparing myself for the sacrament. Sure, I plug my ears, but I still have to listen for that screen to be opened.

    I deeply dislike this style of confessional. I also think I’ve seen people leave the line when they realize that there’s two people in the confessional (albeit opposite sides) at once.

    Still, I tell myself to trust others to make the same effort I do not to overhear my confession, or at least not to disclose anything. Also, if I know the person ahead of me in line, I let somebody else go ahead of me.

  13. Fleeb says:

    @Moro.. Thanks, been addressed with the Chancery but no action yet, and souls are in jeopardy. The priest was sent out against his will by our outgoing bishop and has dragged the parish leftwards ever since to the sadness of many parishioners. Many families have left too. It’s a mess and you can track the travails of this small parish at

  14. patrick wells says:

    Considering that the Sacrament of Confession used to be PUBLIC and made before the entire congregation of the Church, having a person or two overhear your various murders, rapes, adulteries, fornications, porn or drug usages, and wife-beatings is pretty small potatoes. Embarrassing yes, but small potatoes.

    [No, it is NOT small potatoes. Anonymity is important.]

  15. HealingRose says:

    I find there is such thing as too quiet, too. I am not hard of hearing, but find a whisper can get lost easily. I found it frustrating to go to the split confessionals when the priest rushed through it in a fast whisper and moved on before I had a chance to ask him to repeat my penance. It didn’t help that I had a sinus infection, but it would help to articulate and slow down when giving out the penance at least. I ended up making up my own penance so I felt ready to receive Communion during Mass afterwards and added a bit more later for good measure. Although, I still had my doubts and ended up confessing the sins and situation at a different style confessional soon after.

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