To effectively celebrate the sacrament of penance, the priest and penitent need to be able to converse well together. The priest needs to be able to clearly understand the sins the penitent is confessing. The penitent needs to understand the advice the priest gives and the penance they are to do. When someone has trouble hearing, conversation begins to become difficult. How then can they continue to receive these needed graces for Christian living?
Sometimes, the need is just to be able to speak louder than is prudent in the confessional. In such cases, it’s appropriate to contact the priest and ask to come to his office, or if there are mobility concerns, to invite the priest to your home to celebrate the sacrament there. While the confessional does have some soundproofing, it isn’t completely soundproof. There is a level where sound will begin to leak out, especially to anyone nearby awaiting to receive the sacrament. Going into a different space can mitigate these concerns and works well.
There are also cases where the person’s hearing loss is to the point that speaking louder is not a solution to help them easily receive the sacrament.
When this is the case, the penitent can confess by means of sign language. If the priest doesn’t know sign language, the penitent may invite a licensed interpreter to the confession to translate. The interpreter should be trusted by both the penitent and the priest as someone who is able to interpret well. Additionally, the interpreter must understand the gravity of the sacrament and know that the same seal which binds the priest to silence binds the interpreter as well.
What is said in the confessional is bound by the Seal of Confession. This means that what a priest hears in confession he can never repeat or act on once the confession is complete. Even if someone came in to confess a murder, the priest is bound not to contact the authorities to report the crime. This same seal, and the stringent canonical penalties attached with breaking it, bind in this case not only the priest, but the interpreter as well.
Additionally, sign language interpreters are held to a formal code of professional conduct, which was developed by the National Association of the Deaf and the Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf Inc. Under that code, the number one tenet is maintaining confidentiality of the client with whom the interpreter is working.
If an interpreter is unavailable, the Church does allow the person to go confession through writing. The penitent would come to the priest, explain that they are deaf, and would like to receive confession. They would then go to confession through passing a pad of paper with the confession, advice and penance on it. These pages should be promptly destroyed after the confession.
Father Mayo is pastor of St. Raphael the Archangel Parish in south St. Louis.