From a reader:
I am trying to figure out what was the rationale to change the rite of confession to allow for face-to-face confessions. I have read the documents of Vatican II, but did not see anything there specifically addressing this, so I assume it was done later. Now it seems like face-to-face is the preferred option, although behind the screen is still “allowed”. I’m looking for ink – actual documents I can read – to understand the current usage.
The Latin Church’s law concerning where confessions can be heard:
Canon 964 §1: The proper place to hear sacramental confessions is in a church or oratory.
§2: The conference of bishops is to issue norms concerning the confessional, seeing to it that confessionals with a fixed grille between penitent and confessor are always located in an open area so that the faithful who wish to make use of them may do so freely. [Nota bene: fixed grill… also called a grate.]
§ 3: Confessions are not to be heard outside the confessional without a just cause. [This is pretty broad. The idea here, however, is also to protect the priest.]
There was a craze for a while to make everything “meaningful”. Therefore, we dumbed our worship down to the vernacular, then dumbed down the translation, started using dumber music, dumbed down catechism which resulted in catholicly dumber Catholics, dumbed down seminary resulting in catholicly dumber priests, etc.
We produced dumber priests, alas. In seminary, one of the dumbest faculty members – quite a distinction in that crowd – actually told us that sacraments takes place when you look into the eyes of the other person.
Talk about dumb. That might have been well-meaning, but that’s just plain stupid.
For a while seminarians and priests were being pushed or told or advised or urged actually to lay their hands on people while giving absolution. Let’s picture this: in an enclosed room, the priest puts his hands on the penitent?!? Again, that might have been well-meaning, but that’s just plain stupid. I hope no priest is still doing that. If there are any, I hope they have good lawyers.
The grate was included in confessionals for a reason: it keeps both people apart. Priests must be protected from accusations.
The form of the grate, with or without a curtain, can help with anonymity too.
In my opinion any priest who gets into one of those enclosed rooms with a door that closes and that has no window of any kind culpably irresponsible.
In the USA we are/were used to the box style confessionals with doors and enclosed booths usually on either side of the priest. In other places, however, we see a form of confessional that allows for people to have a modicum of screening, so that no one can read their lips or easily overhear, and also provides for the possibility of face-to-face confession but with a barrier in place. Here is a shot of a confessional in Rome.
The center part, where the priest sits, also has a set of upper doors which can close. The penitents can stand in front or kneel on either side where there is a grate.
In any event, back in 1994 the Pontifical Council for the Interpretation of Legislative Texts, with the Holy Father’s approval, published a note, responding to an inquiry posed by several conferences of bishops regarding confessionals. He said:
“If, according to Canon 964, paragraph 2, of the Code of Canon Law, the minister of the sacrament, for a just cause and excluding cases of necessity, can legitimately decide, even in the eventuality that the penitent ask for the contrary, that sacramental confession be received in a confessional with a fixed grille.”
So, the priest can refuse to hear a confession if there is no confessional with a fixed grate. Even if the person insists that it be face-to-face, the priest can decline. There may not be many situations wherein a priest would need to do that. What this this response from the Holy See does, however, is underscore that a) confessionals are important and that b) there should be a grill or grate. The Church considers the grate or grill to be important.
Sooooo much of the people’s money was wasted on wrecking churches and on stupid ideas like “reconciliation rooms”, with their ghastly little tables, pastel carpets, and boxes of tissues. I urge all priests with parishes to rethink their rooms and, whatever the cost, to install more traditional confessionals.
Even more, I urge priests to get into the confessional and HEAR CONFESSIONS. One of these days, Fathers, you will stop breathing. Your heart will beat its last beat. You will go to your judgment. If you are pastor of a parish, you will go to your judgment as a priest who had the care of souls. God is going to sort out your life, and God cannot be fooled. If you are not offering reasonable confession times to the people of your parish, if you are not teaching people about mortal sin and the effects of the Sacrament of Penance, you are probably in serious danger of eternal separation from God.
Here is a little thought to brighten your day: Try to imagine what goes through the mind of the damned soul during his first 10 seconds in Hell.
How do you think, Fathers, God will look upon your lack of care for the Sacrament of Penance? Hear confessions and/or get priests to help you with this obligation. Preach about confession. Teach about confession. Hear confessions.
Have a nice day!