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.
Even 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.
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.