From Confession Box to Reconciliation Room

Contrary to what some comedy skits (remember Dave Allen) and T.V. ads would indicate, the dark, old “confession box” has disappeared from most Catholic churches and been replaced by what is commonly known as a “reconciliation room”.
Some people seem to believe that confessionals had been around since “the year dot”! In fact, they were a relatively recent phenomenon, only being introduced after the Council of Trent in the 16th century.
In the early church, reconciliation with the church for someone guilty of serious sin (adultery, murder, denying the faith) was a very public, strict and lengthy process. In “canonical penance” as it is known, a baptised christian, having arrived at a moment of conversion, would resolve to change and then confess their sin to a bishop of the church. A penance would be given by the confessor and carried out communally by the sinner in the Order of Penitents. When the community was convinced that spiritual health had been restored, the sinner 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.
The Celtic, or monastic, form of penance which was brought to Europe by Irish monks in the 7th century was private, repeatable and simple. It most often took place in the confessor’s study. It also rearranged the order of the elements so that confession and absolution, the “matter” and “form” of the sacrament, were connected.
For many years both forms of penance were practised, but at the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215 private penance won the day and became the rule in most of Christendom.
The screen separating the confessor and penitent preceded the confession box. It was introduced not to provide anonymity for the penitent but to respect rules of modesty that forbade any private face-to-face encounters between clerics and women. In fact, men were never forced to use the screen and confessed face-to-face, usually in a corner of the sacristy. 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 sins, hence the name, but because matter and form could not be separated, 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. In practice, however, the First Rite (for individual penitents) is rarely celebrated according to the published ritual. Most often a sort of hybrid of the Vatican II and Tridentine rites is used in which confession is the first step, absolution follows and the penance will be lived or prayed at a later time.
The design of a suitable space for the rite is made difficult because most Catholics continue to believe they are “going to confession”. The screen is still preferred by many for this reason.
The liturgical rite of reconciliation for individual penitents has never been a celebrated reality.
Next week: Arranging and Using a Reconciliation Space.


Elizabeth Harrington