ASK FATHER: Enervating, paralyzing shame and going to confession

confession childrenI have occasionally exhorted you to …


I shall continue to do so. I take seriously my duty to try to keep as many of you out of Hell as I can and get as many as possible into heaven with as little time of purification as possible.

Hence, matters of the confessional are of critical importance. We must revive this sacrament. It must be revived FIRST AMONG PRIESTS THEMSELVES. Simultaneously it must be revived by priests among the flocks in their care.

Fathers (this includes you, you bishops out there), when you die – and you will die – you will be judged by the High Priest on how well you carried this, one of you most sacred duties: receive confessions and absolve sins. If you have been negligent or dismissive for whatever reason, you still have time now to get to work.

In my 20 Tips I say:

11) …never be afraid to say something “embarrassing”… just say it;
12) …never worry that the priest thinks we are jerks…. he is usually impressed by our courage;
13) …never fear that the priest will not keep our confession secret… he is bound by the Seal;
20) …remember that priests must go to confession too … they know what we are going through.

I have received some questions about something that appeared at CNA on confession.

QUAERITUR: What if a person is simply too ashamed to make a confession?  The point of the piece addresses the point and the advice given is sound.

Here is the piece with my emphases and comments.

Madrid, Spain, Dec 28, 2016 / 10:16 am (CNA/EWTN News).- While Reconciliation is intended to allow Christ’s victory to overcome sin in our lives, what happens when shame over one’s sins is so great that it keeps people away from the sacrament?

The famous Spanish theologian Father José Antonio Fortea [Kudos!] discussed this phenomenon and practical solutions to it in a blog post.

Normally, a sense of Christ’s mercy should be enough to help people overcome their shame and go to Confession, in order to receive forgiveness and healing.

However, in some cases, Fr. Fortea acknowledged, people are overwhelmed by their sins, and this shame becomes “a wall” keeping them away from Reconciliation.

“They would rather make a 100-mile pilgrimage than have to confess face-to-face certain things they did that are terribly and frightfully humiliating to them,” he said, reflecting on the torment that faces some penitents who struggle approaching the sacrament.

The Spanish priest first pointed out the importance of priests offering fatherly compassion on those who have “these burdens on their consciences.”

[NB] He also noted the importance of ensuring truly anonymous confessions. In each city, he said, “there ought to be at least one confessional where instead of a grill, there is a metal sheet with small holes, making it totally impossible to see the person making their confession.”  [Frankly, I think it should be the other way around: there might be one confessional which doesn’t have a fixed grill.  The grill, or grate, should be the norm, not the exception.]

The person confessing should not be visible to the priest as they approach or leave, he continued. [In the past I have written that, coming and going from the confessional priests should keep their eyes downcast and not make eye contact with anyone.  Fathers, you are not anyone’s ‘pal’ when you are going to and from the Tribunal.] If there is a window on the priest’s door, it should not be transparent. [Practice here is mixed… think of Italian confessionals which can have open front windows. In the main, however, he is right.]

“With these measures, the vast majority of the faithful can resolve the problem of shame,” Fr. Fortea said.

But for those “truly very rare” cases where shame is still a major obstacle, even with anonymous confessionals, additional steps can be taken.

[We move now into really rare stuff.] In these instances of extreme shame, the person can “make an anonymous phone call to a priest in the city and tell him about this problem.” [NB] Confession itself cannot take place over the phone, but “in many cases, the phone conversation will be enough so the penitent can get up his confidence and can approach the kind of above-mentioned confessional.” [Getting it out once could help the person to get it out in sacramental confession.  Call it a “trial run”.  Also, absolution cannot be given validly over telephone, internet chat, etc.  The penitent must be present, physically, even if at some distance.]

If the penitent still finds that the shame of mentioning his sins is too great to bear, he can arrange for a written confession with the priest. [Again, this is an extremely rare situation.  The NORM is that confession of sins is make orally.  This is also called “auricular” confession.  However, if a person cannot speak, signs or writing is possible.  That’s a physical impediment.  If a person is morally blocked by shame or some other reason, a person could write it down and the priest could read it in the presence of the penitent.]

Fr. Fortea said that in several of the confessionals in his city of Alcalá de Henares, Spain, “it’s possible for the penitent to move the screen slightly, just a fraction of an inch, and slip in a piece of paper.” [Some old confessionals had little slots beneath the grate.  Fathers, when you build new confessionals, remember this option.]

He offered guidelines for such written confessions: they should generally not be longer than one page, sins should be written “in a clear and concise manner,” or if possible, should be typed for clarity in reading. [And they should be destroyed immediately.]

“The priest will give his counsel, the penance and absolution without needing to bring up any questions for the penitent. In this case asking questions would be counterproductive,” he reflected. [According to individual circumstances, of course.]

While the general rule is that confession should be vocal, it can be done through writing in some cases, the priest said. He noted that those who are deaf or mute have always been permitted to make written confessions.

And in the case of insurmountable shame, this would also be licit, he said. “A psychological inability can be just as real as a physical one.”

So, that is a discussion of the role of shame to the degree that you simply cannot do it.

However, remember another important point: God cannot be deceived.  Don’t look for easy excuses for yourself.


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, Hard-Identity Catholicism, Liturgy Science Theatre 3000, Mail from priests, Priests and Priesthood and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.


  1. yatzer says:

    I cannot imagine confessing the theft of a cookie except behind a screen. It just wouldn’t happen. I don’t get why the forcing of face-to-face.

  2. albizzi says:

    The modern(ist) way of hearing confessions, this new custom established since the council times, eyes into eyes, sitting at a table, is detestable. In my opinion it was the main cause of many people giving up with confession forever.
    Born in the preconciliar times, I remember the good ol’ confessional boxes where anonimity was saved, though sometimes I feared our aged and deaf parish priest would speak too loud. By the sixties, in many churches the priests removed or destroyed them though sometimes they were beautiful pieces of art carved in precious wood.
    Having left my Faith for years, I had to struggle going anew to confession in this very disturbing manner.

  3. Thomas Sweeney says:

    Father you are preaching to the choir. Confession has been down graded by the powers that be, in most parishes it is a 45 minute time slot, once a week. Our priest, can’t wait to get out of the confessional, we even have to say our Act of Contrition in the pew. Confession, like mass, can only reflect upon the priest who says mass, or the priest who hears confession. If he is just doing his job in a pro forma way, the people will react in the same way.
    Years ago making a good confession was the subject of many sermons. The four last things were drummed into everybody’s head. With the exception of priests like yourself, no one seems to take any of our sacraments seriously.

  4. ChesterFrank says:

    If the Priest can exhort parishioners to “go to confession!”, can those parishioners also exhort the priests to build proper confessionals? I have often seen before and after pictures of churches and the sanctuary and altars, but few of before-after confessionals. There are few online resources giving blueprints and diagrams detailing the specifics of a proper confessional either. In some places they simply do not exist.

  5. Nan says:

    One priest tried to make people say the act of contrition in the pew. Didn’t last long. I must not have been the only one to challenge that. Then he posted signs in the confessional with the short act. It takes no longer to say that than for him to tell us to say the act of contrition once out of the confessional.

  6. Kerry says:

    The wooden grate at St. Wenceslaus’ confessional, (built by this writer) is backed with Japanese shoji paper on the Priest’s side. It is translucent, and anonymous. Father asked though that it be hinged if face to face is preferred, an option he wanted, having experienced a preference for face to face on visit to Steubenville. (This writer was received into the Church this past Gaudete Sunday; scary going into the confessional, terrific coming out.)

  7. Elizium23 says:

    Canon 964 details the requirements for confessionals. It provides that confessions must use them “except for a just reason” and that a fixed grille is required. I feel that the abuses regarding the grille are particularly grave and impinge on the inalienable right of the faithful to have the sacraments properly celebrated. I absolutely loathe confessions without my grille. I have often seen them improperly provided. A grille serves at least two purposes: anonymity and prevents physical contact. Any grille arrangement that does not afford both is a violation of our rights. I have seen “reconciliation rooms” where the priest hides behind a half-wall and merely reaching around is possible. I have even seen, quite often, confessions heard in the open, with two chairs and a floating grille that accords neither anonymity nor isolation.

    Priests should be especially sensitive to these requirements in light of the sexual abuse scandal. Any hint or suggestion of impropriety inside the confessional must be scrupulously avoided, especially when the confessor is essentially unable to defend himself in disputes.

  8. jameeka says:

    Congratulations, Kerry. Thank you, we need you!

  9. Nan says:

    Kerry, welcome home!

  10. Worm-120 says:

    We don’t have a confessional, we have a chair and a kneeler in the crying room. I’ve looked at the layout and I can’t figure out where you would put a real confessional. Everyone can see you, your basically in a glass fish tank. The acoustics are a mystery too, you can hear confessions out side of it, but can’t hear mass from inside it.

  11. Fr. Vincent Fitzpatrick says:

    Re-instate the grille. I cannot imagine anything more perfectly calculated to cause the collapse of the sacrament than the removal of the grille.

    And abolish the kneeler. For a huge number of people, kneeling is physically impossible or painful. For an additional number of people, kneeling is stressful.

  12. Clinton R. says:

    Yes, it can be very nerve wracking to confess one’s sins. However, I have found praying before the Blessed Sacrament before Confession to be a great help in preparing myself for the Sacrament. God will indeed help us make a good Confession and aid us to calm our nerves. May none of us ever fear to confess all of our sins and also, let us keep in mind the love Our Lord has for us and be thankful He has given to His Holy Church the means for us to be cleansed and free of sin.

    Thank you Father for caring so deeply for our souls. Thank you to all priests who help to guide us in the Confessional in the ways of holiness. May St. John Vianney pray for each of you. +JMJ+

  13. Zapf Grakul Akmodan says:

    Our confessional’s grille is made out of a couple sheets of a yellowed hazy plastic that look like they came out of the home of a heavy smoker. It is dotted with pinholes and has a nice blurring effect.

  14. Pingback: ASK FATHER: Enervating, paralyzing shame and going to confession | Trump:The American Years

  15. APX says:

    I’ve often wondered what options were out there for Catholics who have social anxiety disorder/social phobia, especially of a severe nature. Confession is basically the antithesis to SAD and SP. This is the same thing I came up with when I learned deaf mute people can confess their sins by writing them down.

    When I returned to the Church I convinced myself that I could make it through confession “just one time” and vowed to never commit another mortal sin so that I would never have to go to confession again (it worked, but now I go to confession weekly. It does get easier by going frequently). I really don’t do confession without a screen, even though I know the priest knows it’s me. It just takes less stress off of the possibility of seeing the priest’s involuntary reactions to what I confess and the the over-analyzing fallout afterwards.

  16. Cornelius says:

    I went to confession at the parish church of St. John Vianney once. The priest spoke no English and I spoke no French. So, accustomed to hearing confessions from many Catholic tourists, they improvised thus: you were given a paper divided down the middle with sins listed in English on one side, the French translation of it on the other.

    So I went down the list and checked off my sins and handed it back to the priest. Oddly enough, this priest proceeded to counsel me in French and I couldn’t understand a word. But I understood the absolution.

    But it worked (I suppose). I even recall the sins were grouped by type, i.e., sins of the flesh, sins of the tongue, sins of pride, etc. You just had to find your sins in the list.

    And I recall the priest checked off my penance from another bilingual list.

    They had these bilingual sin lists for many languages. It really gave me joy to see how the Church is so accommodating and practical for the sake of sinners.

  17. Andrew says:

    Perhaps the example of St. Fabiola might be an inspiration (whom Fr. Z. mentioned in a post recently) about whom St. Jerome writes in his letter 77 no 4:

    After the death of her second husband … she put on a sackcloth to publicly confess her ways and in the presence of all Rome the day before Easter (in the basilica which formerly belonged to that Lateranus who perished by the sword of Caesar) she stood in the ranks of the penitents and exposed before the bishop, the presbyters, and all the people her disheveled hair, pale features, soiled hands and unkempt appearance.

    Or from the life of St. Damien: another priest was in a boat off the beach but couldn’t come on shore because of leprosy and so St. Damien shouted out his confession to the priest on the boat and received absolution.

    These days, movie “stars” and other “celebrities” have no qualms about airing their dirty laundry in public through interviews, articles and books revealing various perversions in minute detail.

  18. comedyeye says:

    At a parish I frequent the pastor plugs in this small box type thing and sets it on the floor outside the confessional door. It creates a “white noise” which prevents anyone on the outside from hearing what is being said on the inside of the confessional room. This is good because people line up right outside the confessional door.

  19. Semper Gumby says:

    Congratulations Kerry!

  20. Phil_NL says:

    Other piece of advice: make that 100 mile pilgrimage. A confession tends to be easier, especially if it’s a first in a long time/ever, if you go yo a place whete you know no-one knows you anyway.
    Fathers, just mention your confession times on the site as well! (And have some fixed time as well, solely “by appointment” will be dreaded by reluctant people).

  21. un-ionized says:

    JohnMa, I’ve been both yelled at and laughed at. Laughing is better.

  22. @unionized and JohnMa,
    I was once told, rightfully so, “well, you’ve been a whole lotta fun to be around this week haven’t you?” After the initial ating it did me good really. I have been scolded and laughed at, being laughed at is better that is true. Even if it does hurt my pride a bit but that can’t be a bad thing.
    Overall, this is a good list even though I don’t think some priests can help nor would I blame them thinking we’re a bunch of jerks every once in a while.

    We have been greatly blessed with good and faithful priests in our parish. They are good and steady examples of living charity.Thank God, and we pray for them everyday.

  23. Spade says:

    The four (yup, and sometimes they’re all occupied) at the Parish I go to is nicely set up. It’s a ’70s style church (our last Pastor did what he could). The confessionals are next to the pews on one side, and are off a short hallway. So there’s a door in the wall of the church and then they’re down that. The lights are outside on the church wall. The priests and people have their own doors, and there’s a screen that can be moved if you want (funny story, a friend of ours went in to a priest she knew well, pulled back the screen, and found him with his feet up on the wall leaning back in his chair quite relaxed. He almost fell out of the chair). It’s a really nice set up. Our priests talk up confession, and we have it regularly and a lot of folks show up.

  24. hwriggles4 says:

    Here are some highlights:

    1. Elizium23 brought up the safe environment. Like classrooms, quite a few “Reconciliation Rooms” have a window. Make sure not to enter the room when the light is red – green is fine.

    2. About noise – as a courtesy, line up further away. Good priests insist on this to secure privacy, and I know a few who will play Gregorian chant (or soft religious music) to help secure privacy, particularly if confessionals aren’t well insulated (I agree with others that proper review in design must be taken before approval).

    3. Due to long lines, occasionally I have had a priest ask me to say the Act of Contrition outside the confessional. This is so the priest can get to as many people in line before the 5 pm Mass begins Saturday evening. This parish often has a line, and confessions begin 90 minutes prior to the Saturday Mass. I will also in busy times alert the priest (he asked me once to do this at the end of Confession) how many people are left in line.

    4. It’s possible to go behind the screen without the priest noticing your face – I normally go to Confession this way. The last time I went face to face was during the spring at a men’s conference, where some priests were hearing confessions in individual classrooms. It worked fine under the circumstances, but I prefer to go behind the screen.

    5. Be glad the 70s and 80s are over. Several children of that Era received first communion before first confession (no, that’s not a joke), and as an 80s high schooler, Confession was taught to us like “oh, that was prior to 1965, we don’t do that anymore.”

  25. Peter Stuart says:

    When I went to confession in 2011 it was the first time after about 20 years in SSA-land. I’d got myself in a deep enough jam that I didn’t particularly which priest knew it or what they did with it. Nor was I sure whether I’d get a slap on the back or a kick in the behind–the Church’s unpredictability was no incentive for me to come back. Anyhow, it took a while in the rectory, face to face, but I got it done and started getting my life straightened out. Still a work in progress.

    I now have a traditional priest as my director. He insists on confession in the confessional behind the screen, while we untangle the gnarlier knots (in my case, occasions of sin) during monthly sessions in his office. In between, I’m OK with face-to-face if there isn’t a long line. It kind of forces me to dig a little deeper, not at great length, but enough to be sure I’m keeping myself honest. In a diocese that encourages confession, that means a lot to me, and I bless all priests who make themselves available for the Sacrament and to straighten up reprobates like me.

  26. boxerpaws63 says:

    just take a deep breathe and go.

  27. MitisVis says:

    In the 70’s through the 90’s a concerted effort was enacted to promote the aura of a merciful God as well as the idea of mortal sin as a rarity. To promote these attitudes the confessional was targeted in order to reduce the sacrament for only the hardened sinner or the returning and new catholics. Many ideas on how to accomplish this change were published and promoted in various parish empowerment books and seminars for parish and chancery staff. Anything reducing privacy and convenience was introduced in order to discourage the sacrament, specifically open confessionals, table and chair setups where the priest and everyone else watched you confess, kneeler or table choices with the priest more in a meeting room, removal of chairs or places to wait and most common, chairs or lines right outside the confessional where the confession can be heard. We even had parish staff threaten to have us removed from the property for fetching chairs for the elderly waiting in a long line.
    The pastors I believe have been hoodwinked into thinking the laity want these situations. I and my own will go to confession no matter what the circumstances, but I can see where in many cases they have succeeded with the plan. Until pastors take over their parishes or the powers that be clean out the parish offices and chancery I think we will see more creative ways to discourage confessions in the future now that we are in the mercy age. And for the good priests who have to wrestle with all this, you have my eternal gratitude.

  28. APX says:

    5. Be glad the 70s and 80s are over. Several children of that Era received first communion before first confession (no, that’s not a joke),

    This is still the norm in my parish. First Confession happens in grade four and First Communion is in 2nd grade. This was the norm even when the pastor of the parish was a Canon Lawyer and therefore had zero excuse for not knowing what Canon Law had to say about that.

  29. NancyP says:

    I would love to know whether any of you (priests, especially) have been successful in re-introducing traditional confessionals in your parish churches. The parish where I go to confession has heavy (but not heavy enough) draperies instead of doors on the confessionals, making it all too easy to hear what is being said. The penitents waiting for their turns do line up far away from the confessionals, but we had an awkward moment last week with a penitent whose hearing issues caused him to speak loudly.

    Is there a polite way to suggest fundraising for thicker walls, doors and grilles? Or a way to request music so that we don’t accidentally overhear a conversation that is meant to be very private?

    On the good side, this parish offered confessions three days and evenings a week throughout Advent…a true blessing for all of us seeking God’s mercy. May Our Lord reward all of His faithful priests for their selfless service!

    [Where I am on weekends, the parish priest had a new old confessional constructed. He sacrificed – well worth it – a couple pews. We often have confessions during Masses and it goes well.]

  30. Mike says:

    I made an Ignatian retreat a few years ago of which a part was everyone making a general confession. The modern chapel’s confessional had noise-insulation issues, which we retreatants spontaneously resolved by praying a continual Rosary in the pews, not so loud as to impede Father and penitent but just loud enough to obscure the sound leak from the confessional. (Such a resolution obviously wouldn’t be practicable during Mass, but should work fine on Saturday afternoons, weekday evenings, etc.)


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