QUAERITUR: confessor without a stole, outside a confessional

From a reader:

Today I was reading “Pardon and Peace” by Fr. Randolph, and he writes “Church law requires that confessions should normally be heard in a proper confessional” and that for hearing confessions “a priest should always wear a purple stole” (page 18). And then I read somewhere else that Canon Law says (964 §3) “Confessions are not to be heard outside a confessional without a just cause.”

Do these criteria affect the validity of the confession? If the priests who heard my confessions didn’t use a confessional even though one was readily available and there wasn’t any reason not to use it (I didn’t insist on using it because I wasn’t aware of this Church law), were my confessions valid?

It is not the confession that needs to be “valid”.  The absolution has to be valid!

It is for the good ordering of the Church, and to protect her priests, that confessions should be heard in a confessional with a fixed grate.   This is also why priests have the right not to hear confessions if there is no confessional with a fixed grate.  However, if a priest hears a confession in some other place, that does not in itself affect validity of the absolution.  He still validly absolves, under the usual conditions, in an airport, or hospital room, or hallway, etc.

The stole is a sign both of the priest’s sacramental power as well as his authority to forgive sins.  It is a liturgical vestment as well and each “celebration” of the sacrament of penance has its liturgical aspect.  The stole should be used if at all possible.   There might be some emergency situation in which a priest doesn’t have a stole.  He can absolve even without a stole.

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  1. Faith says:

    For a few years I use to visit a priest in a nursing home. He was in a wheel chair so he couldn’t celebrate Mass, anymore. But he still had the faculty of hearing confession and giving absolution. So when I visited him, I would ask if he’d hear my confession. It was nice. Without asking, he became my spiritual advisor and we’d begin with confession. It just developed. Then one day, I noticed that his purple stole was rolled up on his night stand. I didn’t know what to say, so I didn’t say anything. I thought I’d embarrass him, if he were doing something wrong. But I checked with my pastor, and he assured me that the absolution was valid without the purple stole.

  2. Magpie says:

    When you say ‘fixed grate’ Father, do you mean an immovable barrier? Or do you mean a grate which is fixed to a movable wooden kneeler? The latter is used often here in Ireland. I think that we need to go back to the fixed grate in a box with a separate entrance for priest and penitent. This would protect both in these dangerous times as well as providing proper confidentiality for the penitent. These reconciliation rooms are no good. Nor are many older fashioned boxes which provide no soundproofing.

  3. Mike says:

    I think this is also a protection for the priest against accusations of abuse, or temptation in regard to the opposite sex. I have had a priest hear my confession while hiking, and even without the stole, but power of absolution is still there! But yes, all things being equal, it is best to do as the Church advises–when possible.

  4. Maltese says:

    A priest recently heard my confession in an airport, when I saw him with priestly collar.

  5. xgenerationcatholic says:

    In or out of a box, my top request is that it be done kneeling. That’s the one bad thing I see as developing from the face to face revolution is that sitting is now seen as the preferred way. (I admit to having not been around before VII and I don’t know what was “always” done or not done.) I’m a little bothered by the guides they publish for children’s first time where on the cover they have the sitting, smiling child facing the sitting, smiling priest.

    I do have to tell you about my first time sitting face to face. I was at Franciscan University and lamenting the fact that due to the heavy business at the two boxes, I’d probably have to go up to one of the two priests sitting openly near the altar. I remarked to someone else that I really wanted behind the screen, I always did that and felt nervous doing it the other way. She responded that she felt the same way, but “with him I don’t care,” referring to Fr. Gus. I went up and went to Fr. Gus and realized exactly what she meant. It wasn’t Fr. Gus at all, it was Our Lord sitting there. Doesn’t have to do with anything, but just an aside.

  6. PS says:

    In fact, if you spend some time in Europe or study old church designs you’ll see that a lot of the confessionals were more or less open air. They still frequently do open-air confessions in Poland, I believe.

  7. ipadre says:

    30,000′ above the atlantic near the rest rooms, no stole at hand.

  8. ikseret says:

    The words of absolution by a priest with jurisdiction are the form of the sacrament. The sins sincerely confessed by a Catholic are the matter. So, is not the confession of sins also necessary for validity?

  9. Sliwka says:

    I received the Sacrament from a young priest (!) on Monday on whom I could see no stole whilst entering the Confession room. On a side note, he offered the most wonderful counsul I have ever received in Confession.

    Re: Room vs Traditional Box
    The Basilica I usually receive Confession at has a room, but a solid kneeler/screen seet up to the side that I opt to use. When the issue of the soundproofing of traditional boxes versus the problem of safety (for both minister and penitent), the best example I’ve seen is essentially a “room” version of the traditional box. Rather than a solid wood structure, the centre and each side are separate rooms built into the back wall of the Nave of the building.

    Re: Face-to-Face
    I know there are some who like to use Eastern practices as an argument to change traditional Western practices (of which this is not an attempt), but face to face, or rather not in a box, confession has continually been practiced in the Eastern Churches. If I had to confess this way (and have on occasion) I still kneel but behind the priest (in the case of pews) or at the arm of the chair.

  10. Prof. Basto says:

    I understand that a fixed grate is also a right of the penitent .

    Confession face to face, without the barrier of the confessional, can be intimidating, and thus the failiure to use confessionals with a fixed grille can lead (unnecessarily) to an additional awkwardness in confessing, and if by chance not all known mortal sins were confessed by shyness, that would lead to the nullity of the sacramental absolution.

    So, the fixed grille of the confessional is for the benefit of both the priest and the penitent. Although Episcopal Conferences have regulatory power in determining the shape and placement of confessionals, there are some universal laws dictated by Rome that need to be followed by all Conferences.

    Among the universal rules dictated by Rome is the right of the penitent, and of the confessor himself, if any of them so wish, to use for the Sacrament of Penance a confessional that has a fixed grille. So all confessionals need to have a fixed grille and they need to be placed in an open space, for easy access. This is what Pope John Paull II Motu Proprio on the celebration of the Sacrament of Penance (the Apostolic Letter Misericordia Dei) sets out:

    “9. Concerning the place and confessional for the celebration of the Sacrament, it should be remembered that:
    a) “the proper place to hear sacramental confessions is a church or an oratory”,(26) though it remains clear that pastoral reasons can justify celebrating the Sacrament in other places.(27)

    b) confessionals are regulated by the norms issued by the respective Episcopal Conferences, who shall ensure that confessionals are located “in an open area” and have “a fixed grille”, so as to permit the faithful and confessors themselves who may wish to make use of them to do so freely“.

    In making reference to the open area where the confessional is placed, and to the necessity of there being a fixed grille, Misericordia Dei quotes a document issued by the Pontifical Council for the Interpretation of Legislative Texts: Responsa ad propositum dubium: de loco excipiendi sacramentales confessiones (7 July 1998): AAS 90 (1998) 711 .

  11. Brian Day says:

    Two weeks ago I had my confession heard at home due to my cancer and compromised immune system. The priest was new to the parish so I no previous experience with him.

    The confession went well. The counseling was sound. The absolution was to the letter. The only thing that bothered me was that he forgot his stole. I’m glad, as Fr Z points out, that the stole is a symbol and not absolutely required for validity.

  12. berenike says:

    It’s not the sins the grace works on, it’s the contrition! (fairly important point!)

  13. pelerin says:

    I am glad too to learn that the absence of a stole did not invalidate a confession. It puts my mind at rest! This happened to me on one occasion when I could not help noticing that the Priest’s stole was folded up on one side and I had since wondered at its validity but telling myself that I was worrying unecessarily.

    Regarding face to face Confession versus kneeling anonymously until visiting Lourdes I had always gone anonymously. However in Lourdes Confessions are heard in small rooms – with glass fronts – and strangely I have no difficulty there although I always do choose to kneel. The Priests often ask you for your name and the resultant ‘ conversation’ and advice given I have found extremely helpful usually ending with the offer of a Kleenex from the boxes always present there. Confessions there are also frequently heard outdoors and it is wonderful to see so many often young people sitting on a bench or wall alone with a Priest (usually with a stole so that one knows not to approach).

  14. Joe in Canada says:

    Father, you say “priests have the right not to hear confessions if there is no confessional with a fixed grate.” Do the faithful have the right to have their confession heard, assuming they are well-disposed and it is not inconvenient to the Priest, even if there is no fixed grate? In other words, would a Priest be within his rights to deny someone confession and absolution because there is no fixed grate?

  15. xgenerationcatholic says:

    I read recently about how Don Bosco went for a walk in the woods and was held up by a robber who said, “Your money or your life.” Don Bosco said neither, and asked who would want to harm him. Then the robber recognized him because he had been to see him in prison. The robber told him he just couldn’t get his life together after getting out of prison and didn’t know what to do. Don Bosco suggested confession and the robber knelt down and did it right then. Did Don Bosco have a stole with him? I don’t think the book I was reading said so, unless he always carried it with him to be prepared for such occurrences.

  16. Allan S. says:

    Related Question: I recently received the Sacrament of the Sick with annointing at a ceremony for those seriously ill at my parish. During the prayers, my Pastor said something about the Sacrament “forgiving sins.” In receiving this Sacrament, were my sins also absolved?

  17. pfreddys says:

    There have actually been times where I have seen a priest walking on the street and had an inclination to pull him aside on the street and ask him to hear my confession. (Particularly this one elderly wise-looking priest I see from time to time}. Would this be licit? Also, would this behaviour on my part be rude?

  18. Random Friar says:

    Yes, sins are forgiven! See: http://www.scborromeo.org/ccc/p2s2c2a5.htm#IV

    It is generally better to do Confession first and then Anointing, not to “cover bases,” but to make a deeper examination and contrition. Confession is the general method for forgiveness of sins after Baptism. One can fall into the danger of evading Confession for Anointing. See also: Individual and integral confession and absolution constitute the sole ordinary means by which a member of the faithful who is conscious of grave sin is reconciled with God and with the Church. Physical or moral impossibility alone excuses from such confession, in which case reconciliation may be attained by other means also. (CIC 960)

  19. wolfeken says:

    This matter also concerns the serious element of the sacrament. To that end, I think the penitent has a responsibility not to allow opportunity to trump seriousness. It’s one thing to ask a priest for absolution within the sacrament of penance in an airport if there is a chance mortal sin is on the soul. But, for crying out loud, there are too many cases where people see a priest in a bar or an airport or a store and instantly ask for the sacrament on the spot. Some restraint is needed — especially when Saturday confessional lines are not too long anymore and more traditional Latin Masses have confessions heard before the Sunday Mass, or even during it.

  20. Random Friar says:

    Wolfeken, I think you make a great point. On the one hand, many of those who approach us at those odd opportunities are also folks who cannot make the regular Confession times (let’s not, as Fr. Z. says, go down the rabbit hole of scheduled times for Confession). Personally, I’d rather have a line of penitents as I’m waiting for the plane — it helps kill the time, and I am not tempted to buy a giant Kit Kat bar to get my sugar fix!

    On the other hand, if I’m in a bar watching a game… could you please wait until commercial break? Unless my team is getting killed, then take me out of my misery and I’ll get you out of yours.

  21. xgenerationcatholic says:

    ” But, for crying out loud, there are too many cases where people see a priest in a bar or an airport or a store and instantly ask for the sacrament on the spot.”

    I’m all smiles now. I had no idea people were this eager for confession. Thanks for brightening my day, Wolfeken!

  22. A Dominican Priest says:

    In the pre-conciliar Dominican rite for penance, the priest traditionally wore the Dominican habit and black cappa — but no stole. The old Dominican Ceremoniale adds this interesting monition to the priests who hear confessions:

    “Whenever the Father Confessors administer the sacrament of Penance to the people in a non-Dominican church, let them suffer to wear a stole, as is done in Rome and in other places where this custom exists; nonetheless, where this custom prevails, let this not cause them to leave off wearing the cappa.”

    I’m all for it: stole AND cappa!

  23. jmvbxx says:

    I have yet to see a traditional confessional in Colombia similar to what is commonly found in Canada. Here you simply walk into the rectory office and sit down at a table with the priest and confess. It is also common for one of the parish priests to hang around before mass and allow people to confess. Both in their office and in the church they appear with regular street clothes.

  24. pelerin says:

    I have just watched a video of an interview with a well known Priest who mentioned that he has often heard confessions while several thousand feet up in an aeroplane. Apparently he is usually given a seat next to him for his books and people can sit there if they wish to avail themselves of the Sacrament. He normally wears a black motor bike jacket covered with badges and has long flowing grey hair so is instantly recognisable at least by those from his own country.

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