If Confessor Doesn't Know Penitent's Language

Author: Father Edward McNamara


If Confessor Doesn't Know Penitent's Language


Answered by Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum Pontifical University.

Q: There are three to four Polish seamen in my town awaiting repatriation. They have been to confession with our priest who does not speak Polish and they do not speak English. Is the confession and absolution valid? — K.D., Gibraltar

A: There are several aspects to be considered here. The first situation is the general obligation of confessing grave sins. This is addressed in Canon Law, No. 960:

"Individual and integral confession and absolution constitute the only ordinary means by which a member of the faithful conscious of grave sin is reconciled with God and the Church. Only physical or moral impossibility excuses from confession of this type; in such a case reconciliation can be obtained by other means."

The lack of a common language between penitent and confessor would enter into the category of a "physical or moral impossibility" which would excuse either the obligation of confession or its integrity, and allow for reconciliation to be obtained by other means.

In the present case we would be dealing with the confessor making a prudential judgment that the penitent is excused in virtue of a physical and moral impossibility and presuming the latter's sincerity in manifesting those sins confessed in his native language.

Thus in this particular situation the sacrament would be valid.

However, canon law does foresee the possibility of confessing by using an interpreter, although the penitent may not be obliged to do so. To wit: "Canon 990: No one is prohibited from confessing through an interpreter as long as abuses and scandals are avoided and without prejudice to the prescript of can. 983, §2."

Canon 983, §2, requires absolute secrecy on the part of the interpreter analogous to the priest's sacramental seal: "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."

The violation of the secrecy of confession by an interpreter may be punished by the imposition of a canonical penalty not excluding excommunication (see Canon 1388, §2).

An interpreter need have only a sufficient command of the two languages involved and requires no official certificates of competence. ZE05032223

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Follow-up: If Confessor Doesn't Know Penitent's Language [04-12-2005]

Subsequent to our piece on confession with the aid of an interpreter (March 22) a priest from Los Angeles asks: "Is it required that the interpreter be in the state of grace in order to participate this way in the celebration of the sacrament of reconciliation?"

We would hope that everybody should always be in the state of grace and especially someone chosen to carry out such a delicate act as interpreting for another's confession.

However, since this is an intimate matter, there is no way of knowing, and it does not appear to be a requirement for acting as an interpreter. Indeed, it appears that the only requirements are competence in the two languages, and satisfaction on the part of priest and penitent that the interpreter understands and accepts the grave bond of secrecy regarding all that he hears.

The interpreter should be a Catholic, however, as suggested by the fact that canon law (in Canon 1388.2) establishes a just punishment for violating the secret, "not excluding excommunication." Such a disposition would be useless in the case of a non-Catholic.

Meanwhile, a priest from Ohio asks "whether or not it is permissible to have confessions taking place during a period of Eucharistic adoration. It seems to me that it is a mixing of two liturgical rites. Perhaps it depends on how one phrases the question: Can one have exposition during a communal celebration of the sacrament of penance? Or: Is it appropriate to have priests available in a side chapel during Eucharistic adoration for those who want to confess?"

There is no official document on this specific question. But the Holy See did officially answer a related question regarding confession during Mass published in the Congregation of Divine Worship's bulletin, Notitiae, of June-July 2001.

In its response the congregation affirmed the preference for celebrating reconciliation outside of Mass. But in virtue of the canonical norm that "Reconciliatio penitentium omni tempore ac die celebrari potest" (Reconciliation may be carried out at any time and day, "Ordo Paenitetentiæ," 13) it specifically allows the hearing of confessions during Mass and even recommends that, during large concelebrations attended by numerous faithful, some priests refrain from concelebrating so as to be available for confession.

Following the logic of the above document I would say that, at least in principle, having reconciliation during a period of adoration is not forbidden. Whether it is the best option is a pastoral decision that has to be decided in accordance with local conditions, traditions and customs.

A lay person from Canberra in Australia comments: "A priest who hears confessions at my Church does not ask penitents to make an act of contrition during the confession itself. Instead, he asks the penitent to make an act of contrition privately, after the confession is over, when doing the penance. Having given the penance and having told the penitent to make the act of contrition, he then pronounces the words of absolution. Does this practice invalidate the sacrament?"

Of course, one should be grateful for having a priest who so readily makes himself available for hearing confessions even though he may have picked up an odd foible. Perhaps he has passed some time in territories where confession lines are still long and he acquired the habit of shortening the rite so as to confess as many people as possible.

In principle he should not only wait for the act of contrition but actually invite the penitent to manifest his contrition through an act of prayer. The ritual for reconciliation allows the penitent to make a traditional act of contrition or recite a short Scriptural phrase such as "Lord, have mercy on me a sinner." Our reader could adopt this solution if he fails to persuade his priest to change his habits.

Although the practice is incorrect it does not invalidate the sacrament because the act of contrition is not an essential or indispensable element of reconciliation. It is important, however, as it manifests externally the essential interior attitudes for a valid confession.

Those attitudes are repentance, purpose of amendment, and acceptance of the penance. The essential exterior elements are confession of one's sins and the priest's absolution.

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