Do priests remember the sins we confess to them?

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confession
A priest and a penitant demonstrate how a confession is conducted at a Catholic church in Salem, Ore., in this May 3, 2019, file photo. (CNS photo/Chaz Muth)

Question: I am active in my parish. When I go to confession even behind the screen, I know the priest recognizes my voice. This bothers me, as I wonder what the priest thinks of me when we meet outside of confession. Does he remember my sins? How can you, as a priest, separate your opinion or feelings about a person whom you know as both a sinner and a parishioner? 

Name withheld, via email

Answer: You might consider going to another parish if this is possible, given your concerns. However, it helps to know that priests hear many confessions. And the details of who said what blur pretty quickly in our memory. And while some voices are more recognizable than others, it remains true that in most confessions we are not aware of who is speaking to us. Further, it is also true that priests hear just about everything in confession, and very little shocks us or stands out. This is actually a danger for us. We can come to resemble the old country doctor or the emergency room doctor who finds even serious illnesses or injuries a pretty normal fare. Priests can, at times, seem to minimize the serious nature of many sins given the frequency with which we hear things. This is surely helpful in not remembering things but can hinder deep and more serious advice. Remember, too, that serious priests also go to confession, and this helps them remain humble when hearing confessions. Finally, every priest takes very seriously the complete secrecy of the confessional. This is also assisted by grace, I am sure, since I have never, not even once, heard of a violation of it. This is the best I can do to assist you in concluding that your priest, even if he recognizes you in the moment of the confession, is probably not going to remember the specifics of your confessions. It’s a combination of poor memory, volume, routine and grace.

Msgr. Charles Pope

Msgr. Charles Pope is the pastor of Holy Comforter-St. Cyprian in Washington, D.C., and writes for the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C. at blog.adw.org. Send questions to msgrpope@osv.com.