Confession in Sixteen Languages

In my travels I’ve gone to confession in four different languages: English (obviously), Spanish, Italian, and French. And as a priest I’ve heard confessions in various languages. There are some places where I’ve been, however, where I did not speak the language (like Poland), so going to confession, if I needed it, would have been tough – and so would hearing confessions.

Thus my interest was piqued when I recently came across an old book with a Latin title: Prudens sexdecim linguarum confessarius – “The Wise Confessor of 16 Languages”.

It has a strange flimsy textured binding, and is slightly larger than pocket size.

It has a strange flimsy textured binding, and is slightly larger than pocket size.

The purpose of this book is to make it possible for one to go to confession in a place where one does not speak the language, and likewise for a priest to hear confession in a place where he doesn’t know the language. It all depends upon the priest’s knowledge of Latin (which knowledge, unfortunately, many priests do not have nowadays), or at least one of the other languages in the book. (Though it would be a lot harder to use this book if you had to keep handing it to him so that he could turn to the section with the language he knew to understand what you just said. It’s meant to be used where he can read the Latin and you can deal with your own language.)

Here is a shot of the first page of the English section:

"Be of good courage; it will be quite easy with God's grace."

“Be of good courage; it will be quite easy by God’s grace.”

Here is a review of this book, written when it was first published in 1914, which I found in an online archive of the American Ecclesiastical Review:

An ingenious little work, the fruit of intelligent zeal, and one calculated to be of inestimable value to confessor as well as penitent. Few priests that have been long in the vineyard but find themselves at least occasionally in circumstances wherein they could hear an urgent confession had they but some knowledge of the language spoken by the penitent; whereas ignorance of that language annuls the opportunity, to the serious, perhaps eternal, disadvantage of the sinner. Emigrants, moreover, from foreign lands might in countless numbers be saved to the faith could they but find when arriving in their new world a priest understanding their language sufficiently at least to receive their confession. Now with the aid of the present little instrument, confessor and penitent are brought into mutual understanding, even though neither is conversant with the other’s language. A questionary printed in Latin on a cardboard folder is inserted. Corresponding questions in the various languages are found in the text. The confessor holds the cardboard; the penitent reads the parallel text in his own language and simply points to the corresponding questions on the cardboard and answers by a movement of his head affirmatively or negatively, and by his fingers indicates the necessary numbers. The book serves not only for hearing confessions but for administering the last sacraments and marriage. There are also formulae to be affixed in a conspicuous part of the church announcing when and where and by whom confessions in the various languages will be heard. No priest, especially no priest in a port of entrance, should be without this most important auxiliary to his sacred ministry.

Here is a shot of the “cardboard” Latin insert, up close:

Incidentally, the sixteen languages included in it are:

  1. English
  2. Czech
  3. Croatian
  4. Danish
  5. French
  6. German
  7. Modern Greek
  8. Spanish
  9. Hungarian
  10. Italian
  11. Portuguese
  12. Dutch
  13. Polish
  14. Romanian
  15. Russian
  16. Latin

A very practical pastoral aid from a bygone time, but which I think is still relevant and useful today!

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7 Responses to Confession in Sixteen Languages

  1. Kathleen Rickert says:

    Fr. Jerabek,
    You are appreciated and you and your intentions are prayed for.
    Fred & Kathleen Rickert

  2. Seems like a very useful item…I’ll be in Russia and other countries in Eastern Europe…Definitely looking for something similar for penitents.

  3. Brian E. Breslin says:

    Father, it is rather coincidental ot perhaps on purpose that you should post this on the feastday of St. John Neumann, an especial hero of mine. He was a true polyglot who was inspired to learn new languages in order to hear confessions in the native tongues of American immigrants from around Europe. In my 26 years at St. Patrick School in Portsmouth, he has been my inspiration.

    • I have an interest in languages but am not sure if I’ll ever have the time (or energy) to learn another. St. John Neumann is definitely a great saint! I had a 1st class relic of him.

  4. Do you know where we can get copies?
    We have a new Priest from Croatia and I would love to get a copy for him.

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