QUAERITUR: Kissing the priest’s stole after receiving absolution

From a reader:

I’ve encountered the custom of the penitent kissing the sole of the priest after he is given absolution. I have been unable to find any information about the origins or the application of this practice.

I have heard of this too, though I haven’t experienced it. In fact, I doubt I will. Except in special cases, I hear confessions only in a confessional with a fixed barrier.  In Europe you will find confessionals with an open front, from which the stole could extend.  I suppose it would be easier to do that way.

confessionalEven in the USA in some older churches which haven’t been entirely crucified by liturgists you can still find some older confessional with a curtain over the opening of the priest’s door.

The priest should, when one is available, put on a stole to hear confessions. Nevertheless, if he doesn’t have a stole handy, his absolution would still be valid, all things being equal.

In the Eastern Churches, however, I believe it is the practice for the priest to drape his stole on the head of the penitent while hearing the confession.

Perhaps some reader out there can dig this up.

The idea behind the gesture is pretty clear: the stole is the symbol of the priest’s power (from Christ) and authority (from the Church) to forgive sins. That is a rather awesome thing to contemplate. You can understand how such a custom would arise.

UPDATE:

Pondering this a bit, I wonder if there isn’t a connection between this custom and the woman in Mark 5 who was healed by touching the hem of Christ’s garment.

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28 Responses to QUAERITUR: Kissing the priest’s stole after receiving absolution

  1. Nan says:

    Confession is face-to-face and takes place in public in my natural parish (Byzantine-Ruthenian); the Priest stands at the side of the iconostasis, in front of one of the side doors with the penitent standing before him. He puts his stole over the head of the penitent at the end of the Confession.

  2. Jana says:

    I am Czech and born in 1974. When I was child, the priests used to lift up a little the stole when one was leaving the confession box, so one could easily kiss it. Lately I have not experienced this, but some priests (older ones) let the stole hang out from the confession box, so one can choose to kiss or not to kiss while leaving.

  3. tech_pilgrim says:

    In movies I’ve seen this. I think the movie of JP2 when JP2 was in confession in Poland during the war, maybe another, I’m sorry I can’t remember witch, but I’ve seen this in film. In the movie the confessional was against the was in the back of the church, with the priests stall in the middle and two penitent stalls on each side, one facing towards the sanctuary, one the vestibule. The priest was in the confessional with his back to the Epistle side of the church, against the wall, facing towards the pews. The priest’s stall had a half door from the floor to about 3 feet, and a heavy velvet curtain to cover the rest of the door way. The penitent stalls had a floor length curtain of heavy velvet. The priest had one end of his stole out of the half door so that after confession the penitent could kiss it.

    I think it’s a beautiful custom and I wish confessionals were still made like this and this practice was still done.

  4. Jana says:

    I should have pointed out in my previous comment, I am Roman Catholic, so I was speaking about a Catholic, Central European custom.

  5. David Nowaczewski says:

    The kissing of the stole after leaving the confessional is fairly universal in Poland.

  6. digdigby says:

    I only know confession in a classic grilled confessional. For myself, I say NO, absolutely not, no contact between the physical person of the priest or his garments and the penitent. The gesture ‘personalizes’ the priest in a very disconcerting way. There is a physical ‘give and take’ – the presentation of the stole and the response ‘expected’ that ‘shrinks’ the sacrament to an act of reverence. No.

  7. AAJD says:

    Among Byzantine Christians this is a fairly common custom. The priest often hears confessions in front of the icon of Christ on the iconostasis, and during absolution the penitent may kneel down and the epitrachil/stole is placed on his/her head for absolution, after which the penitent kisses the stole and the priest’s hand.

  8. Speravi says:

    Please excuse my ignorance, but I have been in the habit of wearing a surplice for confessions (with stole obviously). I have, however, noticed that the illustrations of priests in the confessional (as above) usually show them wearing the stole alone. Is it more in keeping with the tradition of the Church to wear only the stole (without surplice) for confessions?

  9. Boniface says:

    Though I am a Roman Catholic, I once went to confession to a Byzantine Rite priest out of necessity (yes, I know it is valid and licit according to Latin Rite discipline). He did use the stole in the manner Fr. Z described.

  10. pjthom81 says:

    Likewise, I am also Roman Catholic, but a friend of mine is a Byzantine Catholic priest. On one occasion I went to confession to him, and he did walk me up to the iconostasis, to the figure of Christ holding the book closed. It was explained to me that this symbolized Christ, sitting in judgment, on the last day. After confession while looking into the eyes of the icon of Christ….I will leave to the reader to judge for himself the effect…the stole was wrapped around my head and absolution was given to me while the sign of the cross was traced by the priest on the stole covering my head.

  11. priests wife says:

    Nan- We Romanian Byzantine Catholics kneel down in front of the icon screen (Jesus side) and the priest will usually sit in a chair- the stole covers our head for the entire confession- we speak directly in the ear of the priest- all other people will be at the very back of the church so they can’t hear.

    Of course, sometimes my husband will need to hear confessions in the sacristy in this style if other things are happening in the church. At a Westernized church (or if we are borrowing a Latin-rite church for Liturgy), my husband might hear confessions in the box. While it is not our Eastern tradition, it is very important that people go to confession however it happens.

  12. priests wife says:

    kissing the stole of a priest- kissing the ring of a bishop or Abbot- we are respecting the office and his ‘in persona Christi’ nature- it does NOT humanize the priest, but rather reminds him and us who he really is- our way to the Holy Sacraments

  13. Because the office comes directly from Christ (or in the case of the priest, through the bishop but from Christ). So kissing a ring, or a stole, or even a priest’s anointed hands, is kissing the office and thus kissing Christ. People don’t gotta do it, but it’s good to understand what other people are doing.

    Of course, it’s not that long ago when a parent’s office (in many countries) included having adult children kneel, kiss their hands, and ask their blessing. Kissing a lady’s hand was polite and formal because a gentleman kissed every lady’s hand who permitted him, not just specific ones he liked. Etc.

  14. Subdeacon Joseph says:

    I am a Carpatho-Russian priest in an old parish in NYC. The custom HERE is for the people to come into the sacristy and settle on a Roman Rite kneel-er which sits in front of a table with the gospel, cross, and icons of our Lady and Saviour. When I hear Russian or Ukrainian peoples confessions I bring an analoy in front of the iconostasis and place the gospel and cross on it. When I confess a Greek or Arab I simply do it without the analoy in front of the iconostasis. In all cases I absolve with stole over the head, but I do not place it over them during their confession. All kiss the stole, but the Ukrainians and Russians usually ask for a blessing and kiss my hand too.

  15. Precentrix says:

    @ Speravi:

    Father, I’m not an expert on this but several of the priests I know (FSSP and others) would routinely be in surplice (and stole) for confessions. They also use the biretta in a manner akin to the judge’s black cap – because the granting of absolution is in some respects a juridical act and the judge wears his cap when passing sentence. I have no idea whether this is/was prescribed. Outside of scheduled times, those same priests won’t necessarily go and find a surplice and biretta, or even stole, just because someone has asked for confession!

    The Curé d’Ars is always shown in surplice and stole.

  16. digdigby says:

    priests wife-
    The stole, the gesture of the kiss… are all meaningful, tremendous and beautiful. But for me this is a sacrament. The priest is sitting there like Jesus often sat among us. He is waiting for me to come. I hear my voice in a mysterious intimate way I never hear it when I’m thinking or speaking to anyone else or anywhere else. I prefer the traditional Roman grilled confessional as it has evolved under the guidance of the Holy Spirit over generations. I think there is nothing more ‘Catholic’ and beautiful and I don’t need to physically embellish ‘the experience’ in any way. It is perfect in its simplicity.

  17. Subdeacon Joseph says:

    digdigby,

    The “rubrics” in the Roman Rite of Confession are different then the “rubrics” in the Byzantine Rite of Confession in which the priest’s wife husband hears confessions. In no way is it an “embellishment” to kiss a priests hand after confession because it is supposed to be done in the Byzantine Rite. One way is not better than the other.

  18. digdigby says:

    Subdeacon Joseph -
    One way is not ‘more efficacious’ than the other, of course. I am expressing an aesthetic preference! I am ‘delighting’ in the sacrament I have as it is given to me. I hope you did not misunderstand my use of the word ‘embellishment’. I was only saying its absence does not leave any gaps or voids in the fullness of the sacrament of the Roman Rite. Aesthetically I prefer the Roman Rite for its simplicity and transcendental beauty. Its not a matter of ‘rite’ or wrong.

  19. ReginaMarie says:

    While attending the Divine Liturgy this past weekend at a Greek Melkite parish in VA, I noticed that as the priest is making the great entrance (he processes around the inside of the sanctuary with the gifts, chanting the names of those whom this Liturgy is offered for, before him go the altar severs, deacons & other priests — with candles, ripidions [ripidia?] & carrying the Gospel book)…as the priest comes down the center aisle of the sanctuary before the Eucharist, some reach out to touch them hem of his vestments as Father passes, then kiss their fingertips.

  20. Alice says:

    digdigby,
    “But for me this is a sacrament.” I’m glad it’s a sacrament for you, but what do you think it is for those poor benighted people who kiss the priests stole? A free and Grandma-approved counselling session? “I think there is nothing more ‘Catholic’ and beautiful and I don’t need to physically embellish ‘the experience’ in any way.” And the East is, then, less ‘Catholic’ and less beautiful because it delights more in the physical experience? I appreciate the noble simplicity of my rite as well; however, I reject the claim that it is more Catholic than the other rites of the Church.

    Also, it sounds as if this is done after the confession is over, so I don’t see how it is “embellishing” the rite any more than saying the St. Michael Prayer after Final Blessing is “embellishing” the Mass.

  21. digdigby says:

    Alice-
    Did you read my second post? I make it clear its an aesthetic preference. No offense intended. Catholic I use in the sense of ‘universal’ .

  22. Mamma B says:

    The question refers to “kissing the sole of the priest” and I had a confused impression of kissing the bottom of Father’s foot before I realized it was a typo!

  23. Jael says:

    When going to confession in our local Antiochian Orthodox parish, the penitent stands and faces an icon of Jesus while confessing. It is only during absolution that the priest puts his stole on the penitent’s head. The penitent does not kiss the stole.

  24. PaterAugustinus says:

    The Orthodox custom, with which I’m familiar, is: speak your confession to the priest; when the time comes for absolution, you will kneel before the icons and the priest will cover your head with his stole; when he has finished the prayer, you will kiss the cross on his stole and kiss his hand.

    The stole is the symbol of the priest’s deputization as a steward of the Sacraments; it is a naturally Christian gesture to reverence such symbols, and I don’t think any particular explanation for the origin of the custom is necessary, beyond this; it’s the most natural gesture in the world.

  25. Centristian says:

    @Speravi:

    “Please excuse my ignorance, but I have been in the habit of wearing a surplice for confessions (with stole obviously). I have, however, noticed that the illustrations of priests in the confessional (as above) usually show them wearing the stole alone.”

    From my experience, traditionalist priests and other priests having something of a “high church” bent will typically wear the surplice and the violet stole over the cassock, although I have also seen such priests vest for Mass up to the stole (amice, alb, cincture, stole) if they are hearing confessions just before they say Mass during Lent or Advent. The image above notwithstanding, I’ve never seen a priest pop in or out of the box in just cassock, with no surplice on.

    The alb and stole in Lent or Advent rule often applies to priests hearing confession before celebrating Mass in the Ordinary Form, too (it just makes sense). Otherwise, since they mostly never wear a cassock, they wear no surplice; just the small confessional stole over their clericals.

    @Precentrix:
    “They also use the biretta in a manner akin to the judge’s black cap – because the granting of absolution is in some respects a juridical act and the judge wears his cap when passing sentence.”

    That’s interesting and surprisingly true. Apparently it was once upon a time required of priests to wear the biretta when hearing confessions.

  26. Jael says:

    PaterAugustinus: I’m wondering which jurisdiction you’re describing?

  27. ByzCath08 says:

    My wife & I went to the local latin rite parish for confession a few weeks before Christmas. Since we are used to the Byzantine method of confession, we both went face to face. When we got back to the car, I commented to her how different it is going to a latin rite parish for confession in that I’m used to the priest placing the stole over my head and kissing the stole afterwards.

    She laughed and said that after receiving absolution, she didn’t know what to do so she got up and kissed the back of the priests hand. I had to laugh. He probably thought, the first guy comes in here and crosses himself backwards. The second lady comes in, crosses herself backwards and kissed my hands!

  28. Oleg-Michael says:

    Here in Moscow we don’t kiss the priest’s stole, but in St. Petersburg this is routinely done at least in one of the parishes. And I think I’ve seen the same in Kyiv (Ukraine). There is a wide opening in the door of the confessional through which the end of the stole hangs.