We’ll take one long post to describe the US bishops’ directives on the sacrament of penance. There is little enough universal guidance on this point. Canon law and the Order of Penance give the briefest foundation:
§ 103 § In the sacrament of penance, God forgives sins and restores broken relationships through the ministry of the Church. The Rite of Penance does not describe the place for the celebration of the sacrament except to say that it be in the space “prescribed by law.”(Rite of Penance 12) The Code of Canon Law designates a church or an oratory as “the proper place” for the celebration of the sacrament of penance (canon 964 § 1) and requires a screen or fixed grille between penitent and confessor to insure the anonymity of those who wish it. (canon 964 § 26) Canon 964 further directs conferences of bishops to issue more specific norms. The bishops of the United States have directed that the place for sacramental confession be visible and accessible, that it contain a fixed grille, and that it allow for confession face-to-face for those who wish to do so.*
*Complementary legislation approved at the November 1999 meeting of the NCCB:
The National Conference of Catholic Bishops, in accord with the prescriptions of canon 964 and the approved liturgical rite, hereby decrees the following norms governing the place for sacramental confessions: Provision must be made for a place for sacramental confessions which is clearly visible, truly accessible, and which provides a fixed grille between the penitent and confessor. Provision must also be made for those instances when the penitent wishes to confess face-to-face.
A wide set of choices would fulfill this intent:
§ 104 § By its design, furnishings, and location within the church building, the place for reconciliation can assist penitents on the path to contrition and sorrow for sin and to proclaim their reconciliation with God and the community of faith.
My own sense is that the place for this rite should be a little more dignified than it is. Traditional confessionals are simply too small. I’m not a fan of most reconciliation “rooms” as they are constituted in parish buildings. Technically they serve as a separate chapel, and should be designated as such. Simple semantics? I think not. The bishops do recognize that the place for reconciliation should be part of the assist for penitents. When the sacrament is not being celebrated, I would envision such a place to be a chapel for reflection and meditation. Something of this is described in BLS 105:
§ 105 § In planning the reconciliation area, parishes will want to provide for a soundproof place with a chair for the priest and a kneeler and chair for the penitent. Since the rite includes the reading of Scripture, the space should also include a bible.(Order of Penance 17) Appropriate artwork, a crucifix symbolic of Christ’s victory over sin and death, icons or images reflective of baptism and the Eucharist, or Scriptural images of God’s reconciling love help to enhance the atmosphere of prayer. Warm, inviting lighting welcomes penitents who seek God’s help and some form of amplification as well as braille signs can aid those with hearing or visual disabilities. Additional rooms or spaces will be needed as confessional areas for communal celebrations of penance, especially in Advent and Lent.
The bishops don’t mention the advisability of including the place for Penance in a relationship with the baptismal font. This connection is important to recall.
In our day, a reconciliation chapel should be designed for the safety of the penitent. It can be a difficult balance between a preferred anonymity with other penitents and the need to restrict the vulnerable from enclosed and private spaces. Your thoughts on this or on other Penance issues?
All texts from Built of Living Stones are copyright © 2000, United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Inc. All rights reserved. Used with permission.
Our ancestors were smart: fixed grille, no physical contact possible between penitent and confessor. Allows for protection of both parties. Looking at the churches being remodeled around here, “reconciliation rooms” are being converted into confessionals as priests hate being vulnerable every time we hear confessions.
Except that the extreme privacy of confessionals remains an opportunity for abuse, touching or not. It’s not like confessionals have been very inspiring for people the past half century. Maybe it’s good we’ve jettisoned them in some places.