ASK FATHER: Priest berated me for confessing venial sins and then used the wrong form of absolution. What should I do?

From a reader…


I recently attempted to make a good confession. Aside from the fact that the priest literally berated me for confessing “venial sins” which he said “have no place in the confessional”, after my act of contrition he said “your sins are forgiven”. He did not say “I absolve you of your sins in the name for the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost”. Does this failure to obey the proper form make my confession invalid and should I repeat my confession? Thank you in advance for your help.

Okay, I have now calmed down.  No longer do I see before my eyes a field of burning hot red.

Bad confessional experiences are truly horrible.  I’ve had them myself.  Sometimes they happen because the priest is having a bad day, or something is wrong with him.  However, most of them would be avoided were the priest to decide not to be a total jackass and remember how vulnerable people can be.  As a matter of fact, such treatment in the confessional suggests to me that perhaps the priest hasn’t made his own confession very recerntly.

For consolation for you and for any young priests reading this, I’ll offer a personal note.  As a confessor, when a penitent gets into the confessional, the first thing I do is bless the person whether they say “Bless me, Father” or not and I also ask our angels to keep away any interference of demons, fallen angels, who might attempt to distract or hinder the person from making a good confession and me from giving any advice which my 30+ years of experience and guidance of the Holy Spirit might prompt.   Also, during confession, I try to keep track at least in a general way what penances I gave so that I, myself, can do them for the people I absolved, in case they forget or neglect to do them.  I keep my penances rather consistent anyway, so it is fairly easy to remember based on the number of penitents, that way the special ones stick in my head even though – and priests will tell you this – it is amazing how fast you forget the sins you just heard.  It’s a grace.  And I scrupulously, punctiliously, say the words of absolution in Latin exactly according to the form, without any deviation.

So, you young priests out there.  Bless and bind demons.  Be willing to do penance for your penitents.  Say The Black and Do The Red.

That was my advice to confessors, especially younger guys.

Here’s advice for penitents.

First, review

Also, dear dear dear readers, for the love of all that is holy, do not ramble.  Keep it short and just spit it out. Examine your conscience before getting into the box. Be clear, be brief, be gone.

Enough of the digression.

If, friend, what you have related here is accurate, not embellished, and if you did not go on and on with venial sins for 20 minutes or so, then here is what I, calmly now, have to say.

So, venial sins “have no place in the confessional”, you say?  Is that so!

Let’s look at the 1983 Code of Canon Law:

Can. 988 §1. A member of the Christian faithful is obliged to confess in kind and number all grave sins committed after baptism and not yet remitted directly through the keys of the Church nor acknowledged in individual confession, of which the person has knowledge after diligent examination of conscience.

§2. It is recommended to the Christian faithful that they also confess venial sins.

Venial sins merit temporal punishment and, if repeated and not dealt with, dispose a person to sin mortally (CCC 1863).  That sounds like confessional material to me.

If there is adequate time, it is entirely proper to confess venial sins, at least those which are most concerning.  You might say, “Father, I have two bothersome venial sins, which are [say them], and several others if there is time.”

Nevertheless, the Code of Canon Law makes it clear that a person has the right (not an absolute right, of course) to confess also venial sins, when circumstances allow.  You are not obliged to confession venial sins, but it is a good thing to do when you can.

As far as what you say the priest said for the words of absolution: NO.  “Your sins are forgiven”, is NOT a valid form of absolution.

I recommend that you go to another confessor, make your good confession of mortal sins in kind and number, and major venial sins, while checking with the priest about time, as I mention above.

A couple other things.

If what you have related here is accurate, if the priest is the pastor of the parish, I would communicate this experience to the local diocesan bishop.  Write to him what you wrote to me.   Don’t editorialize… unless, perhaps, you can honestly say that you were, indeed, rambling.

If the priest really didn’t use the proper form of absolution, you can and should let the bishop know.   If he “berated you”, you should let him know.

The Instruction Redemptionis Sacramentum says that we all have a responsibility to make sure that the liturgical rites of the Church are celebrated properly and without abuses.  What happened in that confessional was an abuse of the rite and of you as a penitent.   RS says with my emphasis:

[184.] Any Catholic, whether Priest or Deacon or lay member of Christ’s faithful, has the right to lodge a complaint regarding a liturgical abuse to the diocesan Bishop or the competent Ordinary equivalent to him in law, or to the Apostolic See on account of the primacy of the Roman Pontiff.  It is fitting, however, insofar as possible, that the report or complaint be submitted first to the diocesan Bishop. This is naturally to be done in truth and charity.

In fact, this goes to the very heart of what that parish priest’s role is in the Church and to the promises me made at his ordination, which he renews at the Chrism Mass.  Again, Redemptionis Sacramentum:

[31.] In keeping with the solemn promises that they have made in the rite of Sacred Ordination and renewed each year in the Mass of the Chrism, let Priests celebrate “devoutly and faithfully the mysteries of Christ for the praise of God and the sanctification of the Christian people, according to the tradition of the Church, especially in the Eucharistic Sacrifice and in the Sacrament of Reconciliation”.  They ought not to detract from the profound meaning of their own ministry by corrupting the liturgical celebration either through alteration or omission, or through arbitrary additions.  For as St. Ambrose said, “It is not in herself . . . but in us that the Church is injured. Let us take care so that our own failure may not cause injury to the Church”.  Let the Church of God not be injured, then, by Priests who have so solemnly dedicated themselves to the ministry. Indeed, under the Bishop’s authority let them faithfully seek to prevent others as well from committing this type of distortion.

Mind you, you could also go to the priest himself, and maybe that could be warranted.  But you should remember that the priest will be at a disadvantage, because he is bound by the Seal of Confession.  He cannot, must not, say anything about what happened in the confessional.  Even if you give him explicit permission to talk about that particular moment in the internal forum of sacramental confession, he should be reticent and circumspect about what he says.

You could, however, simply give him your observations about

  • what can. 988 §2 says
  • what CCC 1863 says
  • what RS 31 says
  • what RS 184 says

Perhaps with those texts on a sheet of paper.

It seems fair also, if you write to the local bishop, to show him what you wrote or, if it was a phone call, a summary of the call.

It also seems appropriate to give him a copy of the proper form of absolution.

God, the Father of mercies, through the death and resurrection of his Son has reconciled the world to himself and sent the Holy Spirit among us for the forgiveness of sins; through the ministry of the Church, may God give you pardon and peace, and I absolve you from your sins in the name of the Father, and of the Son, + and of the Holy Spirit.

Deus, Pater misericordiárum, qui per mortem et resurrectiónem Fílii sui mundum sibi reconciliávit et Spíritum Sanctum effúdit in remissiónem peccatórum, per ministérium Ecclésiæ indulgéntiam tibi tríbuat et pacem. Et ego te absolvo a peccatis tuis in nomine Patris, et Filii,+ et Spiritus Sancti. Amen.

Printable HERE: Form of Absolution English Latin TEXT BOX

Finally, may I suggest that you pray for that priest and take on some mortification for him?  It may be that he needs special prayers.  Take a look at the Daily Prayer for Priests, which is also always on the sidebar of this blog:  HERE


About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

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

    The 3 Be’s, as I was taught:
    Be brief
    Be blunt
    Be gone

    I love to hear the same message coming from you.

    I’m off to confession…

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  3. Fr_Andrew says:

    The situation mentioned is horrible, and I will offer some penances in reparation.

    I might mention, though, an anecdote.

    I typically use the older form of absolution, and was trained to recite it while the penitent is making their act of contrition. This way while they are stating their contrition, the form of absolution is given. Ensuring matter (sorrow) and form occur as close together as possible.

    Some people who are only used to the newer form in which typically a priest waits for the penitent to finish before starting the “God the Father of Mercies…” are a bit shocked by not hearing the words of absolution in the older form. To dismiss them, I usually say, “Our Lord has forgiven your sins, go in peace, and please pray for me.” More than a few times, though, I’ve had people object that this is not a valid form, and had to explain that I had already said the standard form in Latin.

    It has happened enough where I now typically say, “I’ve given you absolution, so your sins are forgiven, go in peace, and please pray for me.” That way, they at least know the absolution was given.

    I don’t think that is the issue here, but it seems worth a mention.

    An to quote Fr Z with Shrove Tuesday upcoming, “GO TO CONFESSION.”

  4. jaykay says:

    “I try to keep track at least in a general way what penances I gave so that I, myself, can do them for the people I absolved, in case they forget or neglect to do them”.

    Father, thank you for doing that. It “blew me away” (sicut dicitur) to think that you, or any Priest, would. It really never occurred to me! I have the privilege, for which I thank God, of confessing to very sound Priests, who don’t mess around. To think they might also do this for me is just another support after the innumerable ones I already get from their well directed, and typically brief and succinct, advice.

  5. Suburbanbanshee says:

    There’s one priest whom I legitimately think was mean and weird to me in the confessional, as a kid, and it turned out that… he had a very bad backstory, and a very bad present too. (Not with us kids in the parish, but with people he knew in the seminary.)

    There’s bad teachers out there who have taught priests badly, but also some very unhappy priests with very guilty consciences or psychological problems.

    Mind you, the other priest in a parish whom it turned out had had similar problems,
    and who eventually left Catholicism and the priesthood, was at least able to do a normal job of hearing confessions. Not great, but at least following the rules. So it doesn’t follow that all people with unhappy consciences will show it.

  6. Dave P. says:

    I believe it was St. Alphonsus who said that priests should be lions in the pulpit and lambs in the confessional.

  7. TRW says:

    The proper form of absolution is so beautiful and concise. Brings me to tears nearly every time I hear it. Truly shocking that a priest would fail to say it(whether intentionally or due to incompetence). Assuming they had knowledge of the proper form of absolution at one time, why and how does a priest willfully “forget”?

  8. tradcat53 says:

    My mother had a similar experience with a priest in the mid 1970s. She was a staunch Polish Catholic and I have her to thank that I remain Catholic to this day. Mom did the first Friday devotions and confession twice a month. That is until one Sunday she encountered a priest who from the pulpit said, “If you are only going to confession to confess venial sins you are wasting the priests time”. After that Sunday mom never went to confession again. This so called priest also caused a domino effect in my mom’s strong Catholic faith causing it to become weak. She began to doubt that even though she did the first Friday devotions she would not have a priest present at death. She blamed it on the shortage of priests. Well guess what, the day before she died in the hospital I got a priest to come in and give her last rites. I also made sure she died wearing a brown scapular, something else she stopped after this priests sermon. She is dead 20 years now but I have never missed a day of those 20 when I mention her on my daily rosary. Hopefully this will offset the damage this priest did to her spiritual life.

  9. Philliesgirl says:

    How would those priests who complain about people confessing their venial sins square their attitude with saints who confessed frequently-some even daily! As I’m pretty sure saints are not in the habit of committing mortal sins on a regular basis.

  10. Simon_GNR says:

    I’m happy to say I’ve never had a bad experience in the confessional. Thankfully, all the priests who have given me sacramental absolution have, as far as I can tell, always used the correct form in English or Latin. With the Latin form, I wouldn’t really know if every word were said correctly, but I fully trust my now regular confessor not to monkey around with the proper, canonical form. I had a conversation with him about confessing venial sins in confession, and was I wasting his time, and he said, with kindness, words to the effect of “Don’t worry about that, if you’ve got something serious on your conscience, even if not strictly a mortal sin, feel free to bring it up, as long as you don’t ramble on with unnecessary detail.” I do have a tendency to ramble on, so I will read Father Z’s “20 Tips” before I next go to confession so that I don’t waste anybody’s time.

  11. redneckpride4ever says:


    I’m surprised such a poorly formed priest even new the distinction or mortal and venial.

    I wonder if he qualified to be what Fr. Z. refers to as Fr. Jack—.

    I’m so sorry for the scandal he brought to your mother. How heartbreaking.

  12. MaterDeicolumbae says:

    I make my confessions short and to the point and make no excuses why I committed my sins-
    AND I don’t want fellow penitents who are in line after me to wait forever for me to get out of the confessional.

  13. moon1234 says:

    It may be coming from something like this:

    – You arrive to Mass 20-30 minutes early hoping to go to confession, because it is necessary to receive communion.
    – There is a short line for confessions.
    – You see a few people in line who usually have a 10-15 minute confession.
    – Your heart sinks as you know you will NOT have your confession heard.

    I am sure some people use confession as a form of talk therapy and not strictly as forgiveness of sins.

    I for one would be VERY happy to have a priest, who is hearing confessions BEFORE Mass, ask a penitent to ONLY confess mortal sins so ALL of the souls waiting can be heard and forgiven.

    The above scenario happens ALL THE TIME when I attend the TLM. It is VERY rare that more than 4 people can have their confessions heard 30 minutes BEFORE Mass. How nice it would be to see a sign outside the confessional that says something like “Confessions BEFORE Mass: Please be brief so your fellow fallen have time to be absolved.” Confessions: AFTER MASS: Please be brief so the fallen have time to be absolved. PLEASE schedule time with father if you need more than forgiveness of your sins.

    It is VERY embarrassing to ask Father to hear a private confession outside a scheduled time when you are the ONLY penitent, especially when the particular sin you need to confess bothers you or may stick out in a Priest’s mind. I have had children tell me that they skip confession because of this issue and the line at Church is TOO LONG to get through before Mass.

    RARELY will Father be in the confessional AFTER Mass unless you ask personally. See embarrassing moment above.

  14. brushmore says:

    I went through a similar experience a couple of years ago. But in my case it was because my last confusion was a mere month before! I asked the priest, politely, isn’t once a month confession what I am supposed to do? He obviously disagreed.

  15. Diana says:

    I am blessed to be able to go to confession weekly. I don’t remember the last time I confessed a mortal sin, but my venial sins are habitual (and not pretty), and I need the graces given to me in the confessional to tackle them. Thanks be to God, my pastor (FSSP) is loving and gracious. But I am in and out of there. I keep track of my sins on a list making app on my phone. I read them quickly and quietly. I answer any questions Father asks, and am generally in and out within a span of 4-5 minutes. We’re not there to chit chat. Sometimes Father offers strategies for tackling especially tough habitual sins, but everything is pretty streamlined. I am grateful for the graces and opportunity to confess regularly. If the line is long, I just come back another day.

  16. tradcat53 says:

    @redneckpride4ever I agree but my first thought was that he must of fallen asleep in his catechism class that explained sacramental grace. I guess he was unaware that one can obtain grace from confessing even venial sins.

  17. Archicantator says:

    A brief note of thanks, Father, for the clear, measured, circumspect, and compassionate responses that you unfailingly give to quaesita of this kind. (After, of course, allowing time for the steam whistles to stop sounding from your ears!)

    I especially appreciate the encouragement you give to your questioners, and to all of us, to pray for those who have hurt us, and to exercise charity by imagining reasons for their bad behaviour that might mitigate their culpability.

    Some years ago, I found myself gripped almost daily by moments of silent rage and physical agitation at the memory of a public humiliation I had endured at the hands of someone in authority over me. (That I had partly deserved it made me even more angry at him. Proprium humani ingenii est odisse quem laeseris!) I eventually realized that the fastest way out of those moments was to pray for the person who had wronged me. Here is the prayer that I used (and still use sometimes), which I share in case it might be of help to someone else:

    Merciful God, I pray for N., who has hurt me.
    Bless him with success in his work,
    contentment in his home,
    and peace in his heart.
    Give me the grace to see him as you see him,
    and to see myself as others see me.

    I imagine that there’s a long tradition of such prayers, and that there are much better ones out there. I would be grateful if other readers shared some of them with me.

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