ASK FATHER: Should I tell a noisy penitent that we can hear everything said in the confessional?

From a reader…


There is a young lady who regularly takes a very long time in Confession (25-30 minutes, sometimes longer). She is not making a long confession, and it’s not the priest spending long amounts of time giving her counsel. It’s her repeatedly asking questions about what the priest says and just a whole lot of being loquacious (she’s very loquacious and it’s hard to get a word in if she’s part of a conversation). How do I know all this? She’s also very loud, so everything she says during that half hour is heard by anyone within a 20 foot radius of the confessional (which is pretty well sound resistant). The priest is of a more timid disposition and not going to say anything (if he can even get a word in). Is it ever appropriate for someone in line to knock on the door of the penitent and kindly let them know that everyone in line can hear what the person is saying, or to please wrap it up because the line up is growing exponentially? It’s so frustrating to know that it will take only a few minutes to make my confession, but I’ll be waiting in line for a half hour or longer because said person went straight for the confessional when they got into the church and I opted to Spiritually prepare for a minute beforehand.

Should you knock on the door?

No.  You should not.

However, you can tell the person afterward that people outside could hear everything she said.   Do NOT say what you heard.

You could, as you get into the confessional after that noisy penitent, tell the priest that you could hear everything.

It is the priest’s responsibility to handle the pace and length of the confession.  I wouldn’t get into that with the noisy penitent.

You might also – on another occasion – ask the priest to preach occasionally about how to make a good confession, or to put some instructions in bulletin and to make a pamphlet of some kind available.

And there are my 20 Tips.

Also, I will remind everyone reading this that overhearing something in someone else’s confession places an obligation on you.   You are not to reveal or talk about what you have overheard.  In a sense it is an extension of the Seal that binds the confessor.

The 1983 Code of Canon Law deals with this.

Can. 983 §1. The sacramental seal is inviolable; therefore it is absolutely forbidden for a confessor to betray in any way a penitent in words or in any manner and for any reason.

§2. The interpreter, if there is one, and all others who in any way have knowledge of sins from confession are also obliged to observe secrecy.

Can. 1388 §1. A confessor who directly violates the sacramental seal incurs a latae sententiae excommunication reserved to the Apostolic See; one who does so only indirectly is to be punished according to the gravity of the delict.

§2. An interpreter and the others mentioned in can. 983, §2 who violate the secret are to be punished with a just penalty, not excluding excommunication.

So, anyone who overhears the content of a confession cannot reveal what she has heard to anyone else.  Doing so could incur a censure, if the person is aware that it is wrong to reveal the content of a confession.

NB: A person who is genuinely unaware of the law and the gravity of the situation does not incur a penalty.  You have to know that it is wrong before you can incur the penalty.   This is another thing that priests should explain in their preaching and bulletin notes.

Some might wonder if, having overheard a person’s confession, it would violate the “seal” to go up to the person afterward and tell her that she could be heard.  Isn’t that a way of making use of information learned from someone else’s confession?  Answer: No, that would not violate the law about secrecy.  You would merely be acting on the fact of the volume of sound coming from the confessional, which anyone else nearby could hear, not the content of what was said.  Also, in no way would it be to the detriment of the noisy penitent to be so informed.  It would be a positive benefit so that she knew to correct her noisy practice in the future.  However, under no circumstances should you tell her what you overheard.

All necessary steps should be taken to preserve the secrecy of the confessional.

Confessionals should be adequately sound-proofed.  Penitents should be instructed where to wait for confession so that, over time, good practices take root.  Priests should preach about confession practices and remind people while making their confession to lower their voices if they are loud.  Confessors should help penitents not to ramble aimlessly.

And, it seems appropriate to add here:


About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. Joy65 says:

    Good advice Father Z. I have been quieted by my pastor during confession because I’ve gotten somewhat animated and my voice does carry. I appreciated that correction.

    Now Father once (I don’t know for sure) but a visiting priest may possibly have gone into the confessional with his microphone on. Our confessional is soundproofed probably not 100% but pretty well. It is in the extreme rear of our church. My son was sitting in the very first pew up front. When I came back to the pew he told me that he heard EVERYTHING said in the confessional. I asked oh you heard mumbling voices, he said NO everything that both of you said. It’s never happened gain any other time so that’s why I am assuming that his microphone may have been on. This priest did have very booming voice and he sat in the chair usually reserved for the penitent closer to the door. Regardless now I try to monitor the volume of my voice when going to confession.

    [I really hate those microphones.]

  2. bobbird says:

    I have experienced this problem numerous times. A long confession prevents people from confessing their sins BEFORE Mass commences. I remember, “back in the day”, when Mass was actually delayed because of long lines. Oh, were that so once more.

    Now, the Modernist priests dismiss the line, and suggest coming back next week. Because of loud penitents, my wife often plays sacred music at the organ during confessions, at my request, and it helps. In a visiting parish, I once had both of the problems: a long and LOUD confession. It was embarrassing. I looked around and no one else seemed disturbed. What I did for interminable minutes was to begin flicking and rubbing my outer ear, creating noise to prevent my hearing. I might have otherwise got up and left the Sanctuary but there was a considerable line, and I knew no one who would have held my place. Afterwards I told the priest. His reply was an expected disappointment: “Oh, that was just Mrs. So-and-So, she is always loud.” I don’t think he gave any recommended remedy, and was in a hurry to start Mass on time.

    I have a question for Fr. Z: there is no “The Line Starts Here” mark in our parish, so when there is no music, is it OK to ask people who were arriving for Mass at the pews next to the confessional to sit someplace else? It is VERY close, and the booths here are not sound proof. To ask the priests to do this, as in posting signage or making an announcement, would be useless.

    [And yet that remains the job of the priest, not your job. Recommend it every week if necessary, perhaps with a copy to the bishop. It really is unfair and uncharitable for the priest not to take steps to prevent people from being needlessly put in the position of having to maintain the seal. The priest signed on for that. Bystanders didn’t. It is unkind and avoidable. You can even send the priest this post.]

  3. DeGaulle says:

    Perhaps the lady wishes her utterings to be heard? Might be best not to encourage her. [Not likely.]

  4. tjmurphy says:

    You mention that it is the responsibility of the priest to control the pace and length of the confession.
    I am a catechist in my parish Religious Education program. As a group we bring our students to confession during Advent and Lent. We can easily have 100+ students, if we are lucky 5 priests and less than 90 minutes for everyone to go to confession.
    I understand that this might be the only time the students get to see and talk with a priest, but how can we politely ask the priests to keep the line moving?

    [“Father, thanks for hearing confessions. Tonight we have 100+ penitents and 90 minutes. With 5 priests, that works out to about 4 and half minutes per confession. If we go much beyond there will be irritated parents and bored kids. Just sayin’.”]

  5. hwriggles4 says:

    A few years ago, I was invited by a friend to attend Sunday Mass across town. I noticed this particular parish had some laminated cue cards outside the confessional with some basic and short guidelines. One was to limit confession time to three minutes, and do your examination of conscious first. I realize making an appointment can take away some anonymity, but one of the guidelines listed was an appointment can be made if more time is desired. Another point made was that confession is not “spiritual direction.”

    Two parishes I regularly attend have long lines for confession, and the priests are doing their best to be Accomodating, even if the Act of Contrition has to be said outside the confessional.

  6. lawoski says:

    If, in line, I can hear either the priest or the penitent, I put a finger in each ear and hum quietly to myself. Thankfully, this has always worked to prevent me from hearing and understanding what is being said in the confessional.

  7. Gus Barbarigo says:

    To really be on the safe side, a penitent’s and the priest’s cell phones should probably be turned off, or at least packed into a deep pocket. Besides stories of the government or hackers snooping by using cell phones, etc., there’s always a risk — from the priest or penitent — of a ‘pocket dial’ during a confession.

    Then there’s this gem: “‘Even our communications with our spouses, with our clergy members, with our attorneys are not absolutely private in America,’ Comey declared.”

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  9. I have had to move, plug my ears discreetly and hum to myself. In order to avoids this, I will just reccomened doing what our local holy fool does…cuts in front of everyone, quite literally, and teases and shames folks on the way out of the confessional about being too slow or not knowing that was their place in line. Yep, and you thought your confession lines were eventful!

  10. JesusFreak84 says:

    One of the “joys” of the sensory issues that come with autism is that I can often hear Confessions even if the penitent is using a reasonable volume *sigh*

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