ASK FATHER: Confession by checklist because of no common language

From a reader…


Fr, I went to confession at a Catholic church in France that gets pilgrims from around the world. Because of the many languages of the penitents there was a checklist in the confessional with a wide variety of sins translated across many languages. You checked off your sins and handed the sheet to the priest, who would then absolve you in French.

Because the confession was not auricular was it still valid? I’m honestly unsure. . .

There are couple of issues here.  Firstly, we are obliged to confess our sins in kind (the type of sin) and in number (how many times or an indication of frequency even if approximated).   A checklist would have kind but did it have number?  I’m guessing not.  That’s the first problem.

Next, no indication of a penance?

There are, perhaps, some holes in the background information in the question, above.

Since we are Unreconstructed Ossified Manualists, we turn to our manuals for guidance.

We find that those who are not able to speak, but who nevertheless have to make a confession are permitted to write their confession.  This must be done with great care because, as the phrase goes scripta manent, written things last.  Hence, whatever is written ought to be destroyed as soon as possible.

So, we know that it is possible to provide the matter for the sacrament without speaking.  The revelation of the sins in writing or by some signs (sign language, for example) is possible.

We find also that if the penitent and confessor do not share any common language, then, again, the sins can be communicated through sins of some kind, at least in a general way.  Perhaps that could be done by pointing to the numbers of commandments on a picture.  Perhaps that could be done with a checklist in the penitents native tongue which corresponds with a list that the confessor has.  The check list should be retained by the penitent and then destroyed.  In this case the checklist serves as a kind of interpreter.  And it is possible to make a confession through a living interpreter, though with great caution.  Should the interpreter then be destroyed?  Probably not.

Provided you made a sincere revelation of your sins that absolution was probablyvalid, provided that he said the valid form.  There is the problem of number and kind.  There is the problem of perhaps not assigning a penance.

This was an “extraordinary” circumstance, for sure.  This should not be anyone’s regular experience.


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 and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.


  1. BaltDeacon says:

    When I went to Rome, one of the large Cathedrals/Basilicas (I forgot which one) had many priests in confessionals available for confession; I think it was a Saturday or something. Anyway, taped to the outside of each confessional was a paper with a typed list of languages that the priest in that confessional could hear confessions in – in the native tongue. For example:


    So it was easy to find the right priest to go to! This seems like a much better system.

  2. mitdub says:

    In the case of an interpreter being utilized, does the interpreter have the same inviolable duty to secrecy that the priest does? How would that be defended in an unfriendly court?

  3. ajf1984 says:

    Father, thank you for this informative post and for slipping in the hilarious “Should the interpreter then be destroyed? Probably not.” line. I am grateful not to have been drinking my coffee when I came across that gem!

    My curiosity now piqued and my imagination jump-started, I am trying to envision scenarios in which the question of destroying the interpreter moves from “Probably not” to “Perhaps,” or even “Probably”!

  4. Nighthawk says:

    I’m surprised there wasn’t a space for indicating a number for each sin in the checklist, since that would have been more than easy enough to do from a design standpoint. I would think Arabic numerals are universal enough to fit this purpose even across a wide range of languages. The checklist wouldn’t even need actual check boxes just write a 0 or leave blank those sins which you are not confessing.

  5. Son of Saint Alphonsus says:

    I once had in my possession a pocket sized multi language Rituale with a chart in the back from the 1920s or 1930s put out by the Archdiocese of New York. It was meant to aid priests attending the sick and hearing confessions of penitents whose language they didn’t understand. There were several columns in different languages that listed grave sins in each language. The penitent could point to the sin in his own language and the priest could then refer across the chart horizontally until he got to the same sin in a language he understood. The first row instructed the penitent to indicate with his fingers the number of times the sin was committed. The last row instructed the priest to give a penance of Pater nosters and/or Ave Marias and indicate the number with his fingers. In those days just about every Catholic would know what a Pater Noster or an Ave Maria is. The drawbacks I see to this system are it couldn’t be used in most confessionals and it limited the prayers assigned as penance. Something similar could be greatly helpful today at international shrines, places of pilgrimage, and other situations where there are people of many different nationalities the confessor doesn’t understand.

  6. Rob83 says:

    Number presents a problem for a checklist because there’s no neat way to cover all bases. If doing checkboxes for it, do they list exact numbers (1, 2, 3, …, 10+), ranges (1-3, 4-5, etc.), descriptors (once, occasionally, frequently, daily, hourly), thermometers, or fill-in-the-blank?

    Each carries problems – the guy who hasn’t been in 30 years and has missed church 1560 Sundays and Holy Days, the woman who bears false witness when the moon is full the Zodiac is in Taurus and the wind blows from the East, people who do not use the standard numerals 0-9.

    If I was designing such a checklist, I’d probably opt for “once, a few times, occasionally, frequently, constantly” for the number and leave room on the back for the penance choices (1-15 boxes for the Pater Noster, Ave Maria, Gloria Patri, or Rosary decades, since this covers 95%+ of all penances I have ever been given).

  7. maternalView says:

    Interesting question and answer.

    Honestly, I probably wouldn’t have gone to confession if I saw I had to fill out a checklist. It would’ve seemed too odd to me.

  8. Jacques says:

    I biked for a month the “Camino” in 2013 from Arles (France) to Compostella (abt 1500 kms).
    Before attending the pilgrims’ mass in the cathedral of Compostella on Sunday, I wanted to confess my sins: There are many confessionals with priests of different languages. Unfortunately there was none speaking french. The spanish confessor I went to then handed me a list in french with many and accurately described sins, some of which were very shameful and disgusting.
    After my confession I could receive Christ during a very crowded mass but I suspect a part of the attendants were there to watch the huge silver thurible “Botafumeiro” in action.

  9. The Masked Chicken says:

    This thinking is so last century. I was on a bus sitting next to a man whose only language was Spanish. I do not speak Spanish (although, I might be able to work out written Spanish, with a dictionary). I pulled out my cell phone, fired up Google Translate, and we had a nice conversation. We passed the phone back and forth.

    Granted, sins should not be put online for Google to have access to, but a standalone, offline translation program using AI should be easy to make. ChatGPT, the most powerful natural language AI available can be downloaded, at least the slimmed-down version, at a size of 1 gigabyte for the program.

    In principle, this is like having a virtual translator and as a bonus, you can kill it when you are done without feeling guilty or violating the Fifth Commandment.

    The Chicken

Comments are closed.