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June 15, 2015 by  
Filed under Fr. Bartunek, Penance/Confession, Sacraments


Dear Father John, During the sacrament of reconciliation, they say that the priest is “in persona Christi”, meaning, if I understand correctly, that it is really Christ that is acting through him. If so, how come the priest cannot understand if I say my sins in my own language that he doesn’t know? Surely Christ knows every language, since prayers are translated.

Thank you for your interesting and astute question. God’s action through the sacraments is, without a doubt, mysterious. That means we can never understand it fully. But a couple observations may help give some clarity to the specific issue you raise.

What In Persona Christi Really Means

PriestMirrorYes, the validly ordained priest acts in persona Christi when he celebrates the sacraments. That phrase is Latin for “in the person of Christ.” The full theological phrase is actually in persona Christi Capitis, which translates “in the person of Christ the head” – meaning the head of the Church. Let’s begin by simply recalling what the Catechism explains about the meaning of this reality, and then we can attempt to answer your question:

In the ecclesial service of the ordained minister, it is Christ himself who is present to his Church as Head of his Body, Shepherd of his flock, high priest of the redemptive sacrifice, Teacher of Truth. This is what the Church means by saying that the priest, by virtue of the sacrament of Holy Orders, acts in persona Christi Capitis… Through the ordained ministry, especially that of bishops and priests, the presence of Christ as head of the Church is made visible in the midst of the community of believers… (Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC), paragraphs 1548, 1549)

In other words, through ordination a priest is united to Christ in a special way so that all the Catholic faithful can be guaranteed objective access to God’s grace through the priest’s ministry. In a sense, God chooses to continue the mystery of the Incarnation through the sacrament of the priesthood. By the incarnation of the second person of the Holy Trinity, God ministered to the world inside time and space, by means of Christ’s human nature. Jesus continues that ministry now through the human nature of the priest. In this choice, God shows that he yearns to meet us where we are, to enter into a real relationship with us, to redeem our human nature through his grace, not to get rid of or substitute for that human nature. He respects the human nature that he has given us, and reaches out to us through the continual mediation of that human nature, including the human nature of ordained ministers.

Priests vs. Zombies

And yet, God doesn’t take over the human nature of the priest. He doesn’t possess it in such a way that the priest’s own personality and consciousness are suspended. If he did, then the priest would simply be a kind of robot or zombie, an inanimate channel of God’s grace rather than a true partner of Christ and a conscious, free sharer in Christ’s mission. God doesn’t work that way. He doesn’t override our human nature. Instead, he calls and chooses every Christian to enter into a relationship with him, and those who accept the call become partners in God’s work of salvation. The New Testament calls this, among other things, becoming “co-workers in the truth” (3 John 1:8). God refuses to violate our freedom, but works through us, and in a sacramental way through his priests, respecting our freedom. This manifests his love and respect for us, as well as our dignity from being created in his image. The Catechism explains this in terms of the priest’s human weakness, which isn’t obliterated by the sacrament of Holy Orders:

This presence of Christ in the minister is not to be understood as if the latter were preserved from all human weaknesses, the spirit of domination, error, even sin. The power of the Holy Spirit does not guarantee all acts of ministers in the same way. While this guarantee extends to the sacraments, so that even the minister’s sin cannot impede the fruit of grace, in many other acts the minister leaves human traces that are not always signs of fidelity to the Gospel and consequently can harm the apostolic fruitfulness of the Church. (CCC 1550)

The Priest’s Role in Confession

JeanAlphonseRoehnInteriorScene371367PenanceConfessionReconciliationNow we are ready to answer your question. In the sacrament of reconciliation, God’s grace reaches us through the priest no matter what, as long as the matter and form of the sacrament are respected, regardless of the wisdom, attention, or comprehension of the priest. Of course, the more responsibly a priest engages in this ministry, the more helpful will be his mediation. His advice and his manner can contribute to or detract from the penitent’s experience of God in the sacrament, but they don’t increase or decrease the sacramental grace itself. And so, even if you confess to a priest who doesn’t know your language, as long as you can understand the penance that he gives you the sacrament is still valid. Christ’s grace reaches you through the priest who is acting in persona Christi. But Christ’s grace doesn’t override the priest’s human nature and limitations (like language), rather it works mysteriously through them.

I hope this helps answer your question, at least a little bit. God bless you!


Art: Mirror detail of Clerical Clothing, KF, 11 September 2005; Interior Scene [Confession], Jean Alphonse Roehn (1799-1864), unknown date; both PD-Worldwide, Wikimedia Commons.

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About Fr. John Bartunek, LC

Fr. John Bartunek, LC, S.Th.D, received his BA in History from Stanford University in 1990. He comes from an evangelical Christian background and became a member of the Catholic Church in 1991. After college, he worked as a high school history teacher, drama director, and baseball coach. He then spent a year as a professional actor in Chicago before entering the religious Congregation of the Legionaries of Christ in 1993. He was ordained a Catholic priest in 2003 and earned his doctorate in moral theology in 2010. He provided spiritual support on the set of Mel Gibson’s "The Passion of the Christ" while researching the 2005 Catholic best seller, "Inside the Passion"--the only authorized, behind-the-scene explanation of the film. Fr. John has contributed news commentary regarding religious issues on NBC, CNN, Fox, and the BBC. He also served as the English-language press liaison for the Vatican’s 2005 Synod of Bishops on the Eucharist. His most widely known book is called: "The Better Part: A Christ-Centered Resource for Personal Prayer". His most recent books are "Spring Meditations", "Seeking First the Kingdom: 30 Meditations on How to Love God with All Your Heart, Soul, Mind and Strength", and "Answers: Catholic Advice for Your Spiritual Questions". Fr. John currently splits his time between Michigan (where he continues his writing apostolate and serves as a confessor and spiritual director at the Queen of the Family Retreat Center) and Rome, where he teaches theology at Regina Apostolorum. His online, do-it-yourself retreats are available at, and he answers questions about the spiritual life at

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  • Sad Wee

    Fr. John Bartunek, LC, S.Th.D, exudes such peace and clear understanding in his thoughts and words, it is difficult not to love such a gentle, knowledgeable and lovable Man of God in persona Christi Capitis.

  • BlueMit11

    Dear Fr Bartunek,
    You have inspired me to make a movie called “Priests vs Zombies.” I’d like your help as a technical advisor.

  • Patrick

    If the priest doesn’t understand a pennant’s sins he could decide not to forgive. Not all sins are within all priest facility to forgive. The question this lady should ask herself is why she wants to know this? If you find yourself in a foreign country and need confession then it would be a valid reason. If you are just too prideful to share your sins, then you are in trouble.

  • Pingback: RECONCILIATION: They say that the priest is “in persona Christi” |

  • jcsmitty

    I’ve often wondered about this question also. Both St. Theresa of Avila and St. Faustina experienced great frustration in the confessional when the confessor seemed unable to understand what they were sharing. They both begged Jesus to send them spiritual directors and confessors who could guide them properly. The Diary of St. Faustina, however, relates Jesus’ assurance that He was working through the priest, even as He also promised Faustina that He would arrange for a spiritual director who would understand her. In my own humble case, I’ve been frustrated at times myself in the confessional when the priest totally misunderstood me. I appreciate the explanation here very much. One big tip is to pray to the Holy Spirit before every confession that the priest be enlightened along with the penitent.

  • Kathy Smith

    This article is really on time for me, it is a struggle to be understood in confession at times for many reasons. It would be impossible for the priest to have all the inner knowledge needed to completly understand my situation. Sometimes I’m received with gentle advice and at other times I come away feeling judged. I accept all as it is Christ who forgives and heals my sins. I realize the priest is doing his best and that sitting in a confessional listening to sins can be an overwhelming task. No matter what – I have come to accept and truly believe. Going to communion without going to confession is like going to the birthday party without 1st having the friendship! We so miss out on the beautiful friendship/ relationship we so need and is ready to embrace us.

  • Judy Silhan

    Fr. Bartunek, once again, you have given a simple explanation for one of the great mysteries in our Catholic church, how our priests act in persona Christi. Because of your ability to speak about often misunderstood aspects or mysteries of our faith in such a way that almost anyone can grasp their meanings, I have referred many people to you, your books, and your retreats, and your website –

  • MariaGo

    Even if a priest doesn’t understand your language, the sacrament is still valid? That’s good to know!

    When we were on our pilgrimage in Italy it was hard to find a priest who spoke English. So I asked an Italian priest for confession. I tried to name the commandments I broke so that we could understand each other better, that and my rusty meager Spanish. He gave me absolution. I don’t think he gave me a penance though. If he told me what to pray in Latin I think I would understood. Was my confession still valid then?

    I went to confession again shortly after in Assisi with an English-speaking priest. So I guess that makes up for it?

  • Pingback: Can I confess in a foreign language? | thehonanchapelnewsletter()

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