Last week, one of my “followers” on Twitter posed an interesting question. She is thinking of moving to a country where English is not the primary language and only speaks English at this time. The question arose: if she went to Confession to a priest who did not know or speak English, would the Sacrament be valid?
I was a bit hesitant to respond via Twitter as it only allows for 140 characters per message and it was clear to me that this question would require a more lengthy response. I also had to spend some time thinking about the proper response to her question because initially my answer was “yes, but …” as well as “yes, and …” Yes, it is valid but I need to say more than just that. I thought this blog would be a good forum in which to engage the question. Let me do so first by treating the Sacrament as a liturgical celebration of the Church and then examine some pertinent sections of the Catechism of the Catholic Church [CCC].
All of the sacraments of the Church are celebrated as a liturgy of the Church. That means that it is an official, public and communal action of the Church celebrated by the Body of Christ, Head and members:
Rightly, then, the liturgy is considered as an exercise of the priestly office of Jesus Christ. In the liturgy the sanctification of the man is signified by signs perceptible to the senses, and is effected in a way which corresponds with each of these signs; in the liturgy the whole public worship is performed by the Mystical Body of Jesus Christ, that is, by the Head and His members.
From this it follows that every liturgical celebration, because it is an action of Christ the priest and of His Body which .s the Church, is a sacred action surpassing all others; no other action of the Church can equal its efficacy by the same title and to the same degree. [Vatican II, Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, 7.2]
The Church earnestly desires that all the faithful should be led to that fully conscious, and active participation in liturgical celebrations which is demanded by the very nature of the liturgy. Such participation by the Christian people as “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a redeemed people” (1 Peter 2:9; cf. 2:4-5), is their right and duty by reason of their baptism.
In the restoration and promotion of the sacred liturgy, this full and active participation by all the people is the aim to be considered before all else; for it is the primary and indispensable source from which the faithful are to derive the true Christian spirit … [Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy 14]
Because the Sacrament of Reconciliation is a liturgical celebration, we are encouraged in the ritual instruction to offer communal celebrations of this Sacrament at various times throughout the year using the form provided in the liturgical books, namely with music, a celebration of the Liturgy of the Word including a homily, and with individual confession, absolution, and penance. While the Church still maintains the familiar form of celebrating the sacrament between an individual penitent and confessor this is still a liturgy of the Church demanding that the celebration involve full, conscious and active participation of all involved. When priest and penitent do not speak or know the language of each other, a concern naturally rises about the quality of full, conscious and active participation. I do contend however, based on the essential elements of the Sacrament of Reconciliation, that the sacramental experience, even in this situation, is valid. Consider the Church’s teaching on the essential elements of this Sacrament as expressed in the Catechism of the Catholic Church.
The Church teaches that the essential elements of the Sacrament of Reconciliation are  a validly ordained bishop or priest,  contrition or sorrow on the part of the penitent for sins they have committed together with the resolution to not sin again,  the actual confession of the sins by the penitent to the priest or bishop,  absolution by the confessor, and  some form of penance or satisfaction given by the confessor to the penitent which is then completed by the penitent.
So in terms of the original question, what do we have? The person is a contrite penitent who confesses to a validly ordained priest (whether the priest understands what it being said or not). She expresses contrition and intends to amend her life. The priest (or bishop) imparts absolution and she will do the penance that is given by the priest. Consequently, the Celebration is valid and the penitent can be at peace knowing she has been sacramentally reconciled to God and the Church.
But where does this leave us with the Church’s concern that sacramental celebrations involve full, conscious and active participation? While this situation validly addresses a short-term pastoral need, this way of celebrating Reconciliation cannot become normative. No doubt, the person will gradually learn the language of her new country, and the situation will be resolved. More importantly, though, all of us need to avoid anything that leads to approaching the sacraments as magic rites composed solely of words, gestures and materials devoid of any inner engagement, understanding and heart by the participants. A conscious attitude of minimalism, settling only for validity cannot be part of our lives. In this situation, language is the obstacle, not a person’s disposition or attitude to avoid or to negate full, conscious, and active participation.
Case closed? Not so fast as the Church has consistently taught the importance of the penance that is part of the Sacrament. The penance the confessor imposes must take into account the penitent’s personal situation and must seek his or her spiritual good. It must correspond as far as possible with the gravity and nature of the sins committed [Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1460]. If the priest does not understand what the penitent is saying, how can he know an appropriate penance to offer the penitent? I suppose he could give the old standby of ‘5 Hail Marys’ but what if we are talking about grave matter like adultery or murder? The concern here is that penance is medicine (unfortunately, many believe the penance given in the Sacrament is to ‘make up for what we did’ or worse still as a punishment for our sins. None of us can make up the damage our sins cause). It is medicine that intends, with the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit in our lives, to help us avoid sin and the near occasions of sin in the future. Like some illness and diseases we suffer, the medicine corresponds to the ailment. In this situation of a language barrier, it would be hard to convey the best possible penance. Acknowledging that celebrating this Sacrament is occasioned by a genuine pastoral need and not a normative way of approaching the Sacrament, I believe that whatever penance imposed in this situation would be sufficient while the person becomes more comfortable with a new language.
My best advice to the person who asked the question is to try and find a confessor out there who does speak English. There are a surprising number of English speakers throughout the world. As you begin to learn the language of your new country, hopefully, you will get to a place where you will be able to converse with the priest. For the time being though, if you have to rely on a non-English speaking confessor in a pinch, do so, know it is a “valid” confession – AND – keep looking for a better situation.