A woman writes about her First Confession

12_03_31_confessionIt has been a while since I’ve said it, so I’ll say it now:


There, I said it.  And I mean it.

I was sent a link to a piece at a blog called The Motherlands.  The blogger writes of her First Confession experience as convert through RCIA.  A principle point she makes is that confession shouldn’t be too comfortable.  She says (with my usual and now legendary treatment):

The light at the top of the door turned green, and there I was—walking through the door of a confessional for the first time in my life. Scenes from movies and books were all I had to go on, but I had clear expectations of what the confessional would look like. [Movies never show those awful rooms.  They always show the classic dark booth with a kneeler and a grate.] Instead, I saw a kneeler beneath a frosted glass partition (think shower door) under bright fluorescent lights, and a narrow walkway to the left. “Come on back,” said the confessor, [grrrr] and I thought, “Excuse me?”

On the other side of the partition there were two chairs around a wooden table with fake flowers and a box of Kleenex on it. It looked exactly like a therapist’s office. My nerves settled immediately. I had to remind myself this was supposed to be confession. Instead, I felt like I should be asking if they would bill my insurance.

Here’s why I don’t like it. [Do I hear an “Amen!”?]

I’m there to confess my sins, and the priest is there, standing in for God. Sitting down to chat with a priest like we’re talking over coffee doesn’t provide the proper gravitas. [Do I hear another “Amen!”?] It feels more like I’m betraying my husband to tell another man about my failures, while he holds out a box of tissue so I can dry my tears.

Confession should be different—the only place where I am kneeling, head bowed, giving voice to my public and private sins. Speaking to a priest in the same manner that I would to my husband, my brother, or my landlord makes him seem more like “just a man.” Yet the priest is not a mere confidant but miraculously connected to Christ himself, who over 2,000 years ago “breathed on them; and said to them: Receive ye the Holy Ghost. Whose sins you shall forgive, they are forgiven them; and whose sins you shall retain, they are retained” (Jn 20:22-23).

The mystical nature of confession is lost under those fluorescent lights, with the Office Max chairs and fake roses. And so is our anonymity, which is a privilege in our culture.


She gets it.

Read the rest there.  Then examine your consciences and…


About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. CPT TOM says:

    Oh I agree first time confessee. I am a cradle Catholic, I have never liked the face-to-face confessional or therapy room. She explains the discomfort perfectly. I want, no I deserve “the box” – Dark, with kneeler, and just a slip of light through the grate. I even preferred the Army equivalent, of Helmet to helmet, side to side. I don’t want to look at the priest, I don’t want a chat, I want to confess my sins, even those I am ashamed of and be washed clean. I feel not only uncomfortable, but cheated and betrayed by face to face. Especially when the priest feels the need to be chummy or give his own opinion (usually very unorthodox). I didn’t come to see him, I came to meet Jesus.

    The other thing, these face-to-face booths, play into the worse anti-Catholic myths of Priests attacking women or young boys in the confessional. It seems to me in these times of concern about “Safe places” the face to face confessional would go the way of the felt banners and tie-died vestments.

  2. un-ionized says:

    I have had some good face to face confessions with priests who understand they shouldn’t make eye contact. They sort of lean forward and close their eyes. That is okay for me anyway.

  3. CPT TOM says:

    un-ionized, That sounds just fine, like confession sitting next to Father sideways, with his hand over his face. Sadly, that isn’t what most of priests who do face to face do where I am. Also is that really face-to-face?

  4. happyfsspcatholic says:

    a friend in the novus ordo said they sat on chairs, he and the priest, across from each other holding fast, one each end of a crucifix while he made his confession. it reminded me of a fellow who once told me his parents were fighting over who would get custody and each got a hold of one end of him and began to pull. he felt he would be torn in two. why would anyone do this to a holy crucifix while confessing sin..they have made it into a therapists office.
    i love the quiet mercy, the silence of the darkened confessional. i feel that i am speaking directly to Christ and no matter who that priest is i have noticed that his voice and tone are so beautiful i am amazed. even one priest who has a speech impediment, even he, has an even more indescribably beautiful, kind voice as any i have ever heard..Christ speaks to us through our holy priests. tears come to my eyes at the memory of the knowledge that i may go to Him anytime i fall down. like a child to a stern & merciful Father. oh Father i have fallen and skinned my knee and i love you so

  5. capchoirgirl says:

    I like the box. We have the old school boxes at my parish. However, as someone with a hearing disability, I do wish that the option of having a face to face confession was offered somewhere. When we get new priests, I don’t know their voices, and I don’t understand them. I have no idea what they’re asking me or, even, sometimes what my penance is. This is a problem if I need to go to confession and the only one available is the new priest.
    We are spoiled at my parish–we have confession every day, and before all the weekend Masses. The lines are always long. It’s wonderful. But I wish there was some way to adapt for parishioners who are hearing impaired/Deaf.

  6. happyfsspcatholic says:

    i am hearing impaired as well. i put my ear close to the (opening) & i whisper to the priest would he please speak up if i did not hear him. then he will. dont be afraid to ask him. i noticed that they always go up just one or two decibels louder. dont worry, Christ, speaking through the holy priest, does not yell as many do when one tells them one is hard of hearing!

  7. BenjaminiPeregrinus says:

    capchoirgirl- you should speak or send a note to your pastor about that. There is one particular local confessional that has a phone by the screen for the hearing impaired, they can use it and have amplification without being louder.

  8. Supertradmum says:

    Two quick points: one, some churches in the Midwest have taken out the traditional confessionals. One has no choice but to sit in front of the priest. Two, in these days of horrible and increasing spiritual warfare, we all are going to be tempted more to sin and be weak. Therefore, frequent Confession is even more important.

  9. Nan says:

    I don’t love face to face confession either although I’ve gone both as part of spiritual direction in which case I laughed when Father closed his eyes, at confession offered in conjunction with last chance Mass, the line I went to was for Father’s office, a bit disconcerting but fine. The other one is face to stole at my Byzantine rite parish, which takes getting used to because it’s in front of everyone, standing in front of Father at the corner of the iconostasis. I like the anonymous Church basement with curtains and whispering the best but the box is okay too.

    A few days ago I went to confession with a brand new priest who is a lovely confessor. I wasn’t terribly surprised because one of his ordination cards depicts the prodigal son and his father from Rembrandt’s painting, which I saw a few years ago at the Hermitage.

  10. Imrahil says:

    I confess, pun not intended, that I prefer the more “judging” setting for somewhat more selfish reasons.

    As a point not of virtue but of vanity, I should be less insulted by the title of a murderer than by the title of a homicidal maniac. (G. K. Chesterton)

    I know I am a sinner, and that’s a tough enough nut to crack. I wouldn’t complicate it by having to confess myself a psycho in addition, which, as an aside, other than sinner, not all those around me are.

    I’m ready to humble myself as a sinner to receive judgment for my sin, but oh dear, forgive me, I am not perform the greater humiliation of submitting to therapy.

  11. un-ionized says:

    capchoirgirl, you could get together with your audiologist and priests to come up with a loop mike system. the mike would be on all the time and can be adjusted not to broadcast more than a few feet. I spoke to one of your priests about my deafness and he wasn’t interested at all and responded with disparaging noises but just a few months ago they were discussing looping the nave so maybe there is hope.

  12. Packrraat says:

    During a mission at our parish a few years ago, there were 2 priests hearing confessions, both standing up and the ones wishing to go to confession stood in lines in front of them. One of the priests was our pastor and the other the priest conducting the mission. This was during the time when our church was being wreckovated and the mission was in the parish hall. Our pastor, who was a very touchy-feely, immature priest, would put both of his arms around the person confessing, standing very close, face-to-face, his head very close to the head of the penitent. Too, too weird. I got in the OTHER line.

    Thankfully, he has moved on and so have we. Pity the parish to which he was reassigned.

  13. Bthompson says:

    As a priest, I don’t like hearing confessions face-to-face either.

    It is not the aspect of having someone before me as such, or a lack of anonymity*, it is the danger of the encounter becoming an encounter with Father rather than the Lord. I do my best to prevent Confession becoming counseling session or having any trappings thereof, as if it is the fount of my wisdom that the penitent is seeking rather than the Lord’s mercy. I tend to lower my eyes or close them while the penitent confesses. Only very rarely will I look at the penitent before I give advice and penance (and not always even then).

    Overall, I prefer a screen, and failing that, a penitent sitting or kneeling with bowed head.

    *Though I am fierce about penitents having that right and if I encounter a screenless “reconciliation room” I try to sit with my back to the door so penitents have the option not to be seen.

  14. Sword40 says:

    I have been to confession “face to face” but once in my life. NEVER again. I have sought out several parishes where there is the old fashioned “box” with screen. Normally I go to confession at my FSSP parish but on those occasions where travel prevents it, I have found several OF parishes that do the confessional boxes/screens.

  15. mike cliffson says:

    For what it’s worth:
    The Parish (in Spain )which had a” reconciliation room” sort of institutionally officy, with a desk, Father on the other side of, bad lighting, and uncomfortable plastic chairs, off the side aisle but once you were in it not feeling or looking like part of the church as such, since before we moved here ten years ago , in effect, but with no fanfare, closed it for that use, the room now being used as a store for stacking chairs for overflow, some months after when fixed times for confessions were beefed up to every day and this explained at several sucessive Sunday masses ( and confession easiest but NOT limited to those times being emphasised !) and the impracticability of priests hanging around waiting in a room people most in need of confession can’t find, we were told that much better for the priest to be visible and findable as soon as someone is through the porch , most confessions taking place for the last couple of years side by side in an improvised setting, but within the church, two chairs in the baptistry, or a pew even; as is still the case!( Pews are very awkward places to kneel in sideways for the absolution at least )
    Early this very year a standard revarnished but old wooden confessional has quietly appeared by the baptistry at the back of the church with no announcement that I know of.
    I ‘ve heard of no reaction. There may have been: one of the things one hears of Opus Dei priests, to mark them as hopelessly oldfshioned , is their preference for confessional boxes. There may well be good people who distrust , or were taught to distrust, the humble old confessional – and their use isn’t obligatory yet, its just there- but certainly changes have been made slowly over two years and gently.
    I must say that what has helped me to more frequent confession , rather than where,is the daily regularity :YOU WILL FIND a priest confessing others or ready to confess you at such and such a time EVERY evening, seven days a week , but that room had advantages I suppose, you could smoke, and disadvantages, such as you had to knock and go in possibly interrupting a confession , and saying you wanted confession yourself in the presence of whoever was with Father for whatever other reason ( marriage dates? roof repairs? advantage was taken to conduct such stuff at confession time, despite a separate laystaffed Parish office with a door onto the street) was offputting.
    Would this sort of procedure work with you more combatative cousins , or would you regard it as sneaky ( no lies were told , but.. )and it be pastorally better, stateside, to be openly Anglosaxon , take the bull by the horns, just do it and announce it and get it over with? If you want to of course.

  16. Sonshine135 says:

    I’ve done face to face, kneeling at the partition, and the box. I can say, without a doubt, I prefer the box. I think it is not only more helpful to the penitent in confessing their sins, but I think it is more comfortable for the Priest. It allows each of us to focus on the sin, receive instruction, and receive absolution without it becoming a personal counseling session. I often believe that face to face does give the Priest an impression about that person when they speak outside of the confessional. I know Priests are trained to block that out, but they too are only human.

  17. KT127 says:

    I don’t mind face-to-face. I don’t even mind the would-be therapy session from a kind priest. I can handle the stupid flowers and the bad lighting.

    I hate the chair.

    I cannot sit in it. At best, I can sit on the very edge and act like an antsy child. I’ve never gone to confession and not felt a compulsion to kneel.

    If I am confessing my sins to my Lord and Savior I should be on my knees. Anything else feels arrogant, disrespectful and almost like I am trying to excuse or defend my behavior. I grew up with the Reconciliation rooms and I’ve never confessed “in the box” so it isn’t like I just prefer the confessional.

    I’ve decided I’m just going to kneel from now on even if that means pushing the chair away a bit and kneeling on the floor.

  18. doreilly says:

    This reminds me of an experience I had last week. I had brought my family on a vacation to the Orlando area, while there the most convenient church I could find was the Mary Queen of the Universe basilica. Having read that they had their very own Holy door, and they offered confession 10-5 everyday and Mass in the evening, I thought it would be great for my family, to go through the Holy door, go to confession and Mass.

    I was a little bit astounded when I entered, I saw a priest in an office with a glass wall sitting at a desk doing some kind of clerical work, stuffing brochures or something, with a sign in front of the door that said confession He wasn’t even wearing his clerical collar although he did have a stole on. I inquired of him if he was doing confessions there, I thought maybe their was a room behind or something. No, that was it, no kneeler, just office chairs and a desk and if I chose I could sit there and do confession with a glass window open to the narthex.

    We opted for confession somewhere else. The basilica itself was a new modern multi-million $ monstrosity, I am not even sure if it was equipped with any proper confessionals, none that I could see. We did find the gift shop prominently displayed however and picked up some scapulars and a few other things. While I appreciate confession being offered for those in need, the way it was offered there was very off putting to me. We will probably not be returning to Mary Queen of the Universe. There were parts of the Church that were quite beautiful, but it mostly resonated that modern vibe that is all to coming in postconcilliar churches.

  19. capchoirgirl says:

    unionized, thanks for that. :) I might have to see if we can do that. I’ve thought about personal appointments but then again–you get the whole “oh I know you” thing. But the loop might work–I hope so, because I GREATLY prefer the old school-ness.
    Maybe we need super secret text messaging for the penance part? (I kid, I kid.)

  20. LarryW2LJ says:

    Novus Ordo parish in NJ. Traditional confessionals – no Reconciliation Rooms – no hinky stuff in our parish.

  21. Clinton R. says:

    For it is surely the work of satan that the Sacrament of Confession has been so fiddled with. It is a Confessional, not a “Reconciliation Room”. We are there to confess our sins to God, not to lay on a couch and dab our eyes with tissue and have the priest tell us it’s not our fault. I am grateful to priests who treat this Sacrament with the solemnity it requires.

  22. un-ionized says:

    Cap… They know who you are anyway. I have been told the sound isn’t muffled enough that they can’t tell who you are unless you whisper, which makes it harder for them. After all, you can tell who they are and if you are active there they will certainly have heard your voice. I have seen debates about the licitness and practicality of a teletype-like setup and I know it’s been done.

  23. un-ionized says:

    And the microphone would be there for everybody with a loop receiver. My aids have a gizmo I can buy to allow me to use them with a mike.

  24. oldconvert says:

    Our parish church, thankfully, has kept The Box. Unfortunately there’s only the one, so at Penitential services, with several priests, it’s face-to-face, which I hate, but the only alternative would be to form one long line for the box and take all night.

    As to the experience of confession, I was somewhat disconcerted at my last confession, when Father having heard me out, started making excuses for me! Basically a difficult domestic problem which I am not handling as I should, and he’s saying “I know it’s difficult for you” and stuff like that and giving me a penance of one Our Father – I felt it was more like an interview with Human Resources than a confessional.

  25. capchoirgirl says:

    Oh, I know they know who I am. I have a pretty distinctive voice. :) But still….nice to keep the illusion!

  26. un-ionized says:

    And it’s also cute the way they try to keep custody of the eyes when they walk down there.

  27. Matilda P says:

    I’m probably from the same batch of fresh converts as the author of the linked post, and all my confession experiences thus far have been through the grate. Once when I was in a major metro area in the US, I walked in and right away kneeled down, and found myself experiencing the surprised silence of the priest on the other side. (It was one of those hybrid rooms, with a moodily lit seating area as well as a screen with a kneeler.) ‘Wouldn’t you like to come over here and sit instead?’ he asked. ‘Are you really sure?’

    Mumbling, I could only say that I’d never done it face-to-face, when what I really meant was that I couldn’t imagine confession sitting down casually, and I’m not too sure I want to be able to. Not to unfairly disparage those who choose to confess face to face, but I know that I at least need the physical exercise of humility that one gets kneeling as a child. Same with receiving the Eucharist, I guess.

  28. The Masked Chicken says:

    Dear capchoirgirl,

    The problem with a loop systems for confession is the possibility of having someone else (if they were unscrupulous) tap into the EM signal, if I understand how the loop system works. Your hearing aid is, essentially, a receiver, when equipped with a telecoil and someone else could, potentially, tap into the signal of what the priest is saying to you (not your side of the confession).

    A better solution, which costs about ten dollars, at most, is to get a dynamic amplified mike (lapel or free) for the priest side and leave the plug mounted on the penitent side so that they could plug it into a headset. This is a variation of the telephone set-up someone mentioned, above. In fact, the headset could be already in the penitents side, on a hanger, so that the penitent can simply pick it up and put it on, without having to bring their own. Most box confessionals have electrical outlets for fans or heaters on the priest’s side, so this would take all of five minutes to set up. One could even get a lapel mike that runs off of button type batteries, if no power is available.

    The Chicken

  29. APX says:

    I abhor face2face confession. I just don’t do it. Only in extraordinary circumstances, that have yet to present themselves, would I ever consider doing confession without a screen.

    I don’t care if the priest knows it’s me. It’s actually somewhat preferential, since I don’t have to go through the anxiety of whether or not the priest will mistake me for a man and the awkwardness that ensues when he does. “Uh, no Father, I’ve never considered a vocation to the priesthood, being a woman and all”. “How do you mean, “be a man and man up”? As a woman, how would I do that?” etc etc.

  30. capchoirgirl says:

    Chicken, thanks!
    As always, this comment box is a font of information.

  31. KnitFoole says:

    Remember Renew that Fr. Z posted about earlier? Well, one of the fruits of Renew in my parish in the 1980s was that we were encouraged to go to confession, face to face, with no fear. We abandoned the use of the beautiful confessionals in the church for the use of a fabric screen or face to face. No kneelers. Anywhere. Just sit in a chair and chat! I felt so proud as a pre-teen girl telling my friends how I wasn’t afraid to go to confession face to face with the Priest! Flash forward 20 years. I was no longer Catholic (sort of, once Catholic, always Catholic?) Anyway, flash forward 10 more years. I came back. Face to face communion, sitting in a chair, chatting with the Priest, no problem! Then….something happened. I went to confession at a different parish than usual. They had KNEELERS. I used one, not face to face. I no longer go to confession face to face and I go to confession pretty much at the same parish that has the kneelers. There’s something…..better now when I go to confession. Keep your comfy rooms and Kleenex. Maybe that’s why I left the Church for so long? Too “comfy?”

    Fr. Z's Gold Star Award

  32. un-ionized says:

    Cap… That is a better solution but I was thinking about your particular setup. They may not go for it regardless, just ask whoever is in charge.

  33. un-ionized says:

    APX, I guess that’s why they say to mention your “state in life ” at the beginning of confession.

  34. Eleanor says:

    A simple and relatively inexpensive solution: a portable Confessional Prie Dieu with a folding kneeler & screen can be found online at church goods websites. You can also find vintage Prie Dieus for sale on the web sometimes, or ask a handy parishioner to build one. Ask your pastor if he would use one, and offer to take up a collection to buy one. The faithful have a right to anonymity when confessing their sins.

  35. Fr. Reader says:

    Box, wardrobe, or whatever you want, but please, when you make them, give enough space for priests to extend their legs. The person designing these things should sit for 8 hours in the confessional box he designs to know what it is to be there: uncomfortable chairs, the door in front already touching the knees, lack of ventilation, lack of place to put a book or two, the “area” in the wall to hear the penitent in the wrong position…
    St Jean-Baptiste-Marie Vianney, deliver us from our enemies.

    [Amen, brother.]

    Fr. Z's Gold Star Award

  36. leftycbd says:

    My parish is 10 years old. Our confessionals have the screen but also a second seat behind the screen for face to face. The screens are wood with holes. The confessionals are single rooms, with the priest serving a single queue.

    I prefer the older double confessionals at a nearby parish where the priest handles two confessionals, one on each side of him, thus serving two queues. It eliminates the extra minute between penitents leaving and entering the confessional.

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