A Place for Celebrating Reconciliation

The old ‘confession box’ or ‘confessional’ in not an adequate place for the celebration of the liturgy of reconciliation in its present form.

When a parish decides to take seriously the setting up of a space that is appropriate for celebrating the current form of individual reconciliation, it is often faced with several difficulties.

In some older churches, what was a three-stall confessional has been converted for the purpose. The results of such renovations range from cramped spaces without any windows to rooms so large that  they also serve as areas for storage or other purposes.

As is the case with any other sacred object or area, the reconciliation room should not be used for anything except the celebration of the sacrament. It is a worship space, a place where liturgy takes place.  It is not just an ordinary room such as might be used for counselling or administration.  Hence the appropriate title for this part of the church building is “Reconciliation Chapel”.

The Reconciliation Chapel needs to be designed and arranged as a worthy and comfortable place for the celebration of reconciliation, which includes the reception of the penitent, reading of the word of God, confession of sins, prayer, offering of moral counsel and the imposition of hands.

The chapel should be large enough to hold two or three chairs, a small table, a kneeler and a screen. A full-length opaque curtain or rice paper screen partially dividing the room would serve this latter purpose. A kneeler placed in front of the screen offers anonymity for those who wish it.

The chair for the confessor is placed behind the screen so that he is unable to see the penitent entering the chapel and yet is sufficiently in view for those who choose face-to-face contact. An open lectionary or bible for the proclamation of scripture can be placed on a small table.  A cross, a candle and suitable art work appropriately placed decorate the space.

Windows or glass walls are now required in chapels of reconciliation to protect penitent and confessor. While the reason for this development is a matter of distress and shame, there is a positive aspect to it. A closed room with unknown layout can be disconcerting to some people.  Greater visibility and accessibility may encourage people to approach the sacrament.  They can see if the priest is present and if he is celebrating the rite with another penitent.  No more need for ‘stop – go’ lights or ‘vacant – engaged’ door locks!

More importantly, the openness of such a chapel emphasises the fact that, while it is a private rite that is celebrated there, it is nevertheless an ecclesial, communal event. People in the main worship space are aware of fellow sinners in the reconciliation room and feel empathy with them. Penitents can see, and feel connected with, members of the community and the table of the Eucharist with which they have been reconciled.

Elizabeth Harrington