From Confession Box to Reconciliation Room

Contrary to what some comedy shows would have us believe, the dark and disarming ‘confession box’ has disappeared from most Catholic churches and been replaced by what is commonly known as a ‘reconciliation room’.

As with several aspects of the post-Vatican II reforms, some people found it hard to accept this change because they understood that confessionals had been around ‘since the year dot’! In fact, they were a relatively recent phenomenon, being introduced only after the Council of Trent in the 16th century.

In the early years of Christianity, reconciliation with the Church by someone guilty of serious sin (adultery, murder, denying the faith) was a very public, strict and lengthy process. The sinner would confess to a bishop, be enrolled in the ‘Order of Penitents’ (a long period of preparation for readmission to the Church) and carry out an assigned penance with other public sinners.

When the community was convinced that the sinner had shown true contrition and was prepared to commit to living again as a Christian, he or she would be blessed and absolved of sin and welcomed back to the eucharistic table. The celebration of reconciliation took place in the cathedral church with the bishop as presider.

This was the one and only chance for reconciliation with the Church, the ‘one plank’ left to the ‘drowning sinner’ and was sometimes referred to as a second baptism. This penitential system, which evolved gradually over many decades, was called ‘canonical penance’.

A different form of penance was brought to Europe by Irish monks in the 7th century. It was private, repeatable and simple and was known as the Celtic or monastic system. It most often took place in the confessor’s study.  Absolution was given at the time of confession rather than after the penance had been completed.

For many years both forms of penance were practised, but at the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215 private penance was chosen as the form to be followed in most of the Christian world.

At first, penance was held face to face in the church. Later a screen separating the confessor and penitent was introduced to respect rules of modesty that forbade any private face-to-face encounters between clerics and women. Men were never forced to use the screen.

So the confessional was invented and placed in the main worship space of the church for the practical reason of protecting the reputation of confessors and female penitents, not to provide anonymity. It was a place for confessing sin, hence the name ‘confessional’, but the granting of absolution and the celebration of reconciliation also took place in the ‘box’.

After Vatican II the sacrament of penance was revised and three new rites of reconciliation replaced the Tridentine ritual. The old confession box, which was invented for the confession of sin, is not an adequate place for the celebration of the liturgy of reconciliation. The design of a suitable space for the rite presents several challenges which I will discuss in next week’s column.


Elizabeth Harrington