A place for celebrating reconciliation

As explained in last week’s column, the old confession box was invented for the confession of sin and was never 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 revised form of individual reconciliation, it is often faced with several difficulties.

In many older churches, an old three-stall confessional has been converted for the purpose. The result is often a space no larger than a closet and without any windows. On the other hand, if the room is large, it can be hard to resist the temptation to use it for storage or other purposes. A lady at Mass recently was surprised when told that she could not use the reconciliation room to change her baby’s nappy.

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. It 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.

While it is regrettable that windows or glass walls are now required in chapels of reconciliation to protect both confessor and penitent, there is a positive aspect to this development. A closed room with an unknown layout can be frightening or disconcerting to some people. Greater visibility and accessibility 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 church community and the table of the Eucharist with which they have been reconciled.


Elizabeth Harrington