Do you have to speak your sins in the confessional?

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Question: I read that a penitent can go to the Sacrament of Reconciliation with a confession in hand. Why is this not mentioned as an option? I have great difficulty with the usual format. I have not received the Eucharist for about a year because of difficulty with making a good confession. What are your thoughts on this matter? Thank you for your time. 

Name, location withheld

Answer: It is puzzling how you got the impression that you must enter a confessional without notes or an outline of the ritual. This is a routine way in which many go. Sometimes they have written notes, sometimes they refer to their phone for notes or aspects of the ritual. At any rate, such approaches are common, even encouraged for those who struggle to remember everything. 

If, perchance, you refer to writing out your sins and asking the priest to read it instead of you speaking it, that is unusual but not utterly forbidden. Sometimes there are language barriers or deafness that require this. Even if the confessional is a traditional one with a grill, there is usually a way to slip a note through or under the grill. As a general norm however, we refer to confession as “auricular confession” since the very word “confess” means to make a declaration, i.e. to speak in a way that someone else can hear. So, to write out the sins and just ask the priest to read them is less than ideal, but not utterly forbidden. This would explain why it is “not mentioned as an option.” It is not per se an option, but rather, something that can be tolerated for a just reason. One of the reasons, other than those listed above, could be that one is embarrassed to speak of their sins, and this would help them receive the sacrament. However, the normal mode involves a kind of conversation wherein the priest hears the confession and asks, if necessary, for clarifications and gives some encouragement or advice prior to the absolution. Hence, even if a priest were to read a written confession, he might find it necessary to ask for clarifications and should give at least minimal advice. 

Don’t stay away from confession and Communion. Your concerns can surely be accommodated, and as you become more comfortable, perhaps you will be able to confess audibly in the usual way. 

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 Send questions to