PLEASE get rid of “reconciliation rooms”!

At Crisis there is an article which argues for the end of “reconciliation rooms”.  I have always called them “lawsuit rooms”.

I’ve been arguing for this ever since I could argue anything.   I think he over plays a particular issue but, hey!, do I care?  He’s on the right side.

“Face to face” confession should be reduced as much as possible.

Can. 964.2 requires a fixed grate for confessionals.   This is for the penitent, but it is also for the priest confessor’s sake as well.

The writer argues that people should have an option to open the grate, with there still being a clear barrier.   I say, the priest should also have the option to leave his side closed, clear barrier or not.

The author also suggests that the confessionals should be in the nave within view of the sanctuary of Blessed Sacrament.   He thinks that confessionals should have kneelers.

It’s almost as if, once upon a time, the Church knew what she was doing.   Then, in the post-Conciliar springtime – which “beyond question” brought so many benefits for the whole people of God, we developed spiritual Alzheimer’s and forgot almost everything that worked, forcing constant reinventions of basics like fire, the wheel, cups.


Put in, or restore traditional confessionals.



You might tell your priests that you want old-fashioned confessionals.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
This entry was posted in ¡Hagan lío!, "How To..." - Practical Notes, GO TO CONFESSION, Liturgy Science Theatre 3000, Our Catholic Identity and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.


  1. Joy65 says:

    “He thinks that confessionals should have kneelers.”

    Our confessional is a nice size room with the open Confessional area and the screen part of ours does have a kneeler.

  2. I have always thought “reconciliation rooms” are a frontal assault on the Sacrament, because there is no real confidentiality, even where it looks like there is. It’s like they’re set up so that people outside can hear too much. (The European-style kneelers behind curtains, like in the picture, is harrowing but different in that it doesn’t foster the illusion that no one can hear — it encourages you to not talk loudly.). That priest and penitent have physical access to each other inside a closed space in those “reconciliation rooms” is even worse.

    Yep, the old ways are very often the best! Didn’t Plato say that any change that is not made to correct an evil is itself an evil? “Pass not beyond the ancient bounds which thy fathers have set.” Proverbs 22:28. But, in our original-sin-driven mania to make life so much harder than it has to be, we just can’t resist passing beyond those ancient bounds — and learning the hard way why they are where they are!

  3. PetersBarque says:

    Not to mention the temptation and all its implications for sentimental ones to focus less on true confession and contrition and more on being alone and face to face with father. As if our good priests don’t have enough on their plate.

  4. Andrew says:

    Some time ago I visited a beautiful mission church in California. I was pleased to notice decorated confessionals, one on each side of the church. I walked over to peek behind the curtain and to my surprise, the confessionals were used as closet space to store brooms and other cleaning supplies.

    I also found out that there are catholics (in places such as Holland, for example) who don’t know what a confessional is, and when they see one in some old church, they ask: “what was this used for?”

  5. Sword40 says:

    I am Blessed to have an FSSP parish for Mass, confession, and all the other Sacraments. Yes, it’s a two hour drive and both me, the wife and the car are getting old. But I can still make it there every Sunday and Holy Day. Thank you Lord Jesus.

  6. CatholicinCA says:

    Silver lining, at least this present Crisis may be just the thing to bring us back to the traditional way of doing things as people now see the liability of such practices. And also, I’d imagine, face to face confession would protect priests in the cases of the state demanding priests reveal things privately shared in confession as has happened in Australia as they would be less likely to know and later recognize the face behind the confession.

  7. Jacob says:

    With physical barriers between priest and penitent back in the old days, how did deaf people confess? I ask this because I am deaf myself and have often wondered how it would have worked. I do agree the room is not traditional, but it works for my situation.

  8. rdb says:

    Years ago, I had to replace a pastor who was removed due to homosexual predation of a teen. We had a reconciliation room but also two older confessionals that served as storage closets. In less than a day I had the confessionals cleaned out, a nice comfortable chair put in for the long hours, a little refinishing of the screens and we were off to the races. There was no way I was going to be alone in a room with a child (this was in 2002. As a happy byproduct, the number of course confessions increased dramatically.
    The next pastor went right back to the reconciliation room.

  9. Joy65 says:

    I MUST say though as a person with SEVERE claustrophobia I have been in Confessionals that were very small tight closet size and it was very hot and very uncomfortable. I know you aren’t meant to stay in there for a long time but these that were so small were extremely uncomfortable even for a few minutes.
    In one when I knelt to go behind the screen there was a small narrow “shelf/counter” to rest my elbows on and the back of my feet touched the other wall. I mean seriously that Confessional was NOT at all comfortable in any way shape or form. Now the SAME place but the other side that was open was a bit roomier, had a chair and you felt like you could breath.

    Another one seriously to sit on the face to face side I’d have had to crawl over the Priest’s knees. He saw my dilemma and he said wait I’ll move the chair over to right behind the door so I would be comfortable. It was even tighter I think than the other one.

    Ours in our Church is a very nice size room, probably 8′ x 8′ or so. I LIKE IT A LOT. Right as you walk in DIRECTLY across from the entry door you can kneel and there is a 2 1/2 foot wide floor to ceiling wall with a screen which Father is right behind OR you can sit directly across from Father in a rocker type chair. There is a small table with a lamp next to the penitent’s chair, plus a floor standing crucifix on the other side and there are several religious pictures on the wall. It really is a very nice Confessional. NO claustrophobic feeling. Our Confessional stays BUSY. Father is in there at least an hour before most Masses or even longer on weekday mornings before early Mass. Sometimes those going to confession is constant. Our parishioners would be very sad to see our Confessional changed.

  10. Ed the Roman says:

    Ours are set up so you can go either way. I used to go face to face, thinking it elicited greater mortification. But as I spent more time in one parish and got to know the priests as friends, the friendship began to be interposed. I’ve only used the screen for years.

  11. Bthompson says:

    I absolutely loathe face-to-face confession.

    But, funny story: When I was in seminary, my diocese required me to spend a summer in Mexico learning some Spanish. At one point, I went to Confession.

    The confessionals in that church were extremely old: a kneeler before the priest and two fixed screens to either side of him forming a booth, but with all three positions open an visible to passersby. I used the screen. Later, I told the family I was staying with about the experience, and they laughed at me, saying, “screens are for women!”

    While not the case here and now, I thought that interaction funny nevertheless

  12. Chrissin says:

    I’m going back, but I remember my confessor telling me that Benedict (maybe still Cd then? Head of CDF) sent a letter to all priests to hear confessions with a separation between priest and one confessing…like the old -fashioned confessionals I always prefer since my first confession at 7 yrs old. This instruction was sent after the first explosion of sex abuse cases which were in 2002.
    My confessor has since passed, but he led me back to the church, and answered every question I had. I came back to the church through TLM. It seemed that everything had changed during the 30+yrs I was gone. It turned almost nothing did in doctrine. He was very traditional in an order that was not so much. He said TLM on Saturdays and other opportunities.
    I remember he also told me B had sent an instruction that there must be a crucifix on the altar. Can you imagine?
    I miss him….a good priest and a good man.

  13. ChesterFrank says:

    I am going to agree with this ! A traditional confessional is not a larger room with a screened off section, or with a screen one week and without a screen the next. It also has a light to tell when it is occupied. The priest really shouldn’t hold the door open for the penitent, that kind of defeats the purpose of the screen. Real confessionals disappeared decades ago, photographs and blueprints might be helpful.

  14. capchoirgirl says:

    I’m with Jacob. Hard of hearing (really, I use a cochlear implant, I’m basically deaf, but people don’t understand that.) My church has lovely old school confessions but I can’t use them. I can’t understand the priest and I hate “making up ” my penance because I don’t know what the priest said. I PREFER behind the screen, and that’s how I always used to go, but now I can’t understand anything the priest says. There’s no way to figure it out. I have to go face to face, and the only way that happens is either in the parish library, or when the parish sets up a makeshift confessional on Fridays, in a vestibule, where I can sit face to face. The other problem is–people in wheelchairs can’t use our old fashioned confessionals either–they can’t get in!
    So yes, as much as I’d love to be able to use an old school behind the screen confession, I can’t, unless it’s OK if I make up my own penances, which I don’t think it is. :)

  15. WmHesch says:

    What about the boxes of tissues, mints and potted plants?! The confessionals would need to be twice as big!!

  16. Alice says:

    Absolutely bring back the old confessionals! Also, bring back the practice of hearing the confessions of those who are hard of hearing in the sacristy before or after Mass, no appointment necessary!

  17. JesusFreak84 says:

    All that said, do try and make it clear and easy how a disabled person, unable to use the existing Confessionals, can still partake of that Sacrament, like put it in the bulletin, put it on the website, etc. etc. etc. Many of these Confessionals are very poorly lit, practically a darkened room if one is visually impaired, and can be difficult for anyone wheelchair-bound to get into, etc. (I know I’ve harped on this before on here, but it bothers me…)

  18. From my experience with the Ruthenian Greek-Catholics, I personally am in favor of Option C: confessing before the icon of Christ (most of the time the one on the right side of the iconostasis is used, but not always). In this option, there is no box and it is all open air. If you are wondering where the priest is here, he is on the side of you (usually the right side, but can be the left side too) listening in. According to the teaching of Holy Mother Church, icons are windows into heaven. If the take this into consideration during confession (and the fact one is confessing before the icon of Christ here), confession does seem a little more daunting, doesn’t it (and yes, you will hear a different prayer of absolution since Byzantines have their own prayers of absolution, but they are just as equally valid and licit on anyone as the Roman ones are)?

  19. Arthur McGowan says:

    Abolish the “reconciliation room” AND the kneeler. [Absurd.]
    The elderly especially, but many other people also, are unable to kneel.

    [They can stand.]

  20. Red_Shirt_Hero says:

    The best ‘compromise’ I have seen is a fairly roomy confessional room with a glass panelled door. As the penitent walks in, they have two options ahead. 1) kneeler and grill, priest hidden behind, 2) chair/ wheelchair area further back so the penitent can be seen at all times through the glass panel, but allowing someone requiring face-to-face confession (i.e. hard of hearing) can do so.

    Both kneeler and seat pad appeared to have wires from a sensor operating the ‘occupied’ light.

    Priest and penitent are protected and those with disabilities catered for.

  21. Gregg the Obscure says:

    three parishes near where I work offer confession at times that are practical, so they tend to be where I go:
    – closest to the office has reconciliation room, where the screen is a big burlap panel with felt decorations;
    – big parish has reconciliation rooms with glass doors (in mitigation of near occasions of litigation);
    – church that looks like a post office has confessionals that are mostly old-fashioned, but big enough to accommodate wheelchairs – this seems like a good idea.

  22. Bellarmino Vianney says:

    The Crisis writer is spot on. I wrote to my bishop and made the exact same suggestion to my bishop a while ago. My bishop appeared to ignore the suggestion.

    Compartmentalized confessionals should be especially required for those priests and bishops that are “touchy feely”.

  23. Simon_GNR says:

    Fr. Z: You’ll be pleased to learn that when the cathedral (St. Marie’s, Sheffield) of my local diocese (Hallam, England) was refurbished a few years ago the new confessional boxes had fixed grilles on them. It is not possible for the penitent or confessor to see each other. Neither can be sure who the other one is and so there is guaranteed to be a certain degree of anonymity.

    I think that other aspects of the refurbishment would meet with your approval too – it reversed or removed some of the dreadful things done to the church in the wake of Vatican II and the imposition of the 1970 Missal and its abominable 1973 ICEL “translation”. The reserved Blessed Sacrament is still in a side chapel in the liturgical north east corner of the church, though, so you would not like that, I think.

  24. The Egyptian says:

    But as I spent more time in one parish and got to know the priests as friends, the friendship began to be interposed.
    this quote in and of itself exposes the ENTIRE problem with the priest facing the people at mass, plus face to face confessions, he becomes Fr Friendly. Besides the church MANDATED confessional booths centuries ago to protect the priest from accusations of sexual impropriety, ya think maybe past experience is a predictor of future results

    from my belated blog, this is a real confessional,
    yes sadly used for storage now, so narrow even the kneeler was kitty corner to allow us big germans to fit, and Fr actually sat straddling a steam heat radiator, it truly was billy hell cold in there in the winter

  25. William says:

    Have there ever been massive calls by the faithful for more of these “reconciliation rooms”? Have there been crowds clamoring for old confessionals to be turned into bulletin boards? Point me to the movement’s website! I sure would like to know their arguments. Is there a Twitter hashtag? #KeepPotentialAbuseBoxes #OldConfessionalsNewBulletinBoards #AbolishPenitentialPrivacy?

    The worst thing is that I actually expect someone to produce exactly what I’m sarcastically asking for.

  26. vetusta ecclesia says:

    It is always a good idea, before changing something that appears silly and outdated, to have the following, humble, train of thought: the people who did this were not idiots. Why did they set it up this way?

  27. chantgirl says:

    I will not take my children to confession at a church without a traditional confessional, and a room with a portable screen that can be walked around does not count.

    For their safety, and the reputation of the priest, a traditional confessional booth is the only option.

  28. veritas vincit says:

    Even when face-to-face confessions are available, I will use the screen and the kneeler, and have for years. The issue is of course anonymity, which makes the seal of the confessional easier for the priest as well as for me.

    I understand the safety issue and the concerns of others. But frankly, if you can’t trust a priest in the confessional, he shouldn’t be functioning as a priest. I have no problem getting rid of reconciliation rooms, but that is a side issue to getting rid of sexually active priests.

  29. RichR says:

    I was pleasantly surprised to walk into the confessional when our most-recent pastor was installed and find a the foldable screen extended to the length of the room, effectively preventing face-to-face confession. There’s no longer the social concern of rejecting “lonely Father” sitting behind the screen.

  30. jaykay says:

    Vetusta Ecclesia: “It is always a good idea, before changing something that appears silly and outdated, to have the following, humble, train of thought: the people who did this were not idiots. Why did they set it up this way?”

    Exactly: that’s the well-known “parable of Chesterton’s fence”.

    My town has 7 churches, ranging in date from 1840s to early 1990s. Even the three newer ones (1969 to early 90s) have traditional confessionals, and use them, although ironically the only one of the seven to have set up a reconciliation room was one of the older churches (1890s), with 6 perfectly adequate and well-proportioned, roomy, confessionals in the aisles, now just mouldering away. That said, the rec. room isn’t too bad – there is a screen/kneeler with a very opaque grille, as well as the sitting face-to-face option, and I don’t personally mind it, but the funny thing is: it actually is no improvement on the old confessionals, being somewhat poky and even stuffy, with its fully closing door, and as it’s built in a side-corridor there actually is less room to queue than when the aisles were used. A bit of a “fail” overall, I think.

  31. oakdiocesegirl2 says:

    Two weeks ago I visited St. Anne of the Sunset in SF [California]. Although it is a very old church, all the solid doors of the traditional confessionals have been replaced with glass doors—for both penitent and priest. {additionally there is a specially outfitted one for the deaf/HOH}. You cannot hear anything from the outside, but those outside who care to stare can see anything going on in there. There is a traditional screen inside between penitent and priest, and a kneeler, so the priest won’t see the penitent as the confession takes place. This impressed me as an innovative solution that might allay some concerns about being alone with a priest. What do you think?

  32. oakdiocesegirl2 says:

    I should add: at least one confessional @St Anne’s has a chair rather than a kneeler for the penitent. As someone who uses a 4-wheeled walker and a quad cane after 5 spine surgeries, standing is not an option for me. I can still kneel, but once I cannot, I will need that chair!

  33. oakdiocesegirl2 says:

    I should add: at least one confessional @St Anne’s has a chair rather than a kneeler for the penitent. As someone who uses a 4-wheeled walker and a quad cane after 5 spine surgeries, standing is not an option for me. I can still kneel, but once I cannot, I will need that chair!

  34. JohnE says:

    We have a reconciliation room, but it has the option of going face-to-face or behind the screen. There is a small window so you can look into the room. Unfortunately, I once saw a regular visiting priest, mid-70’s, who moved his chair from behind the screen to the side of where you would kneel. Obviously he did not want you doing your confession behind the screen. I had gone to that priest once before, but never again if I can help it. His goal, as with his sermons, seemed to be to get you to laugh — which means don’t take your sins too seriously.

  35. I neither need nor want anonymity: I go to my spiritual director for confession. (Just to make it clear: I make an appointment for SD when I go and we talk. For confession I go when the parish goes, I stand (sit) in the queue and make a confession in about 10 minutes. But face-to-face.)

    In my parish it is set up in a way that you can stay behind a screen and kneel (and Fr. would not see you arriving or leaving, if you wanted anonymity); or you can walk round and sit down opposite Fr. I can imagine committing such an awful sin that I would want anonymity – but so far, thanks be to God, this hasn’t happened; and I have always found confessing face-to-face deeper and more collected – if at times more difficult.

  36. chantgirl says:

    In my opinion, glass doors are a violation of privacy for both the priest and penitent. ( Think about locations like Australia, and probably, China, where there is huge pressure on the Church to force priests to violate the seal. Imagine how much worse it would be if everyone in the church could identify who heard whose confession. Also consider that some people can read lips. And can you imagine some reporter/law enforcement videotaping the confession of a high profile person to try to analyze later? Also some children might be afraid to confess behind glass, thinking their parents or teachers could decipher what they were confessing. I would hope that most priests have a poker face when hearing confessions, but some might not, and might not want their facial reactions to someone’s sins be visible to the whole church.) Where you have standard confessionals with grills and full separation of the priest and penitent, they are also unnecessary.

    Why are we trying to redesign the wheel when standard confessionals work just fine?

    Reconciliation rooms are the problem.

  37. JustaSinner says:

    Why not broadcast confessions on the local cable access channel? Performance art AND any confessions of some illegal activity ready for prosecution. SARC/off

  38. MrsMacD says:

    I’ve used different shaped confessionals;
    There were ones beautifully carved in wood with curtains instead of doors and a curtain over the priest’s open window on his wooden door. It had two sides and sliding windows on either side.
    My first confession was in what looked like an empty closet with a small window. I never saw the priest or knew his name or what he looked like.
    I’ve gone to confession in a confessional with three doors.
    And a confessional that had a door for the priest on one side of the wall and a room the size of a small walk in closet on the other side with a kneeler, a chair and room for a wheelchair.
    I’ve gone to confession in a room that was at the back of the church and beautifully carved like an old confessional but a room with a kneeler for the penitent and a chair for the priest.
    I’ve gone to confession in an old ornate confessional that was made for tiny people and I could hardly squeeze my long skinny legs in to close the door.
    I’ve gone to confession face to face, though I closed my eyes and I think the priest did too.
    I’ve gone to confession while on pilgrimage walking beside the priest.

    I do NOT like the confessionals with two sides for penitents, either with a curtain or with a door. I want my children to know that nobody can hear their confessions so that they hold NOTHING back. I try to wait outside of those confessionals before I go because I don’t want to accidentally hear the other person’s confession and I’m afraid if I plug my ears Father will be talking to me and I won’t be able to hear him.

    I liked the confession with opposite doors for priest and penitent and room for a wheel chair and to sit which I needed after I had a baby. One Good Friday I had determined that I was going to go to confession if I had to bring all my babies in with me. I think my eldest was five and I had five at that time. Fortunately other parishioners came to my rescue noticed me taking the children in and left me with only the smallest baby but I had that option. The downside was that it looked more like an elevator than a confessional.

    I was very uncomfortable in the tiny confessional but I considered that extra penance for my sins. I was in good health at the time.

    I had a very good experience with a very good priest in the beautiful confessional that turned out to be a room with a chair and a kneeler. It was dark which gave a certain veil over the priest and I. I sensed that it was Jesus hearing my confession and Jesus instructing me. I can not judge this confessional fairly because the spiritual experience overwhelms the circumstances.

    On a walking pilgrimage Father had to stop me from walking into things a few times as I had recollected myself, but otherwise I would not like this to be made illegal, there is nothing like going to confession on pilgrimage as a way of saying I am starting out fresh, I am converting, I am being made new.

    Face to face is humbling and I don’t think that I would have done it as a teenager. For the sake of maximum penitents anonymity should definitely be an option.

  39. Erik Bootsma says:

    Fr Z,
    I note that you mention the option for the priest to leave his side closed should be there too.
    I found after I wrote the article a ruling from the Vatican which basically stated that a priest ALSO has a right to hear confessions anonymously.

    Certainly if you design it correctly, with TWO movable screens, with a fixed one between, then this option would be quite easy.

  40. Erik Bootsma says: a priest ALSO has a right to hear confessions anonymously

    Yes, this is important. Also a priest can legitimately decline to hear confessions outside a confessional.

    The grate was for the protection of the priest together with anonymity of the penitent.

  41. Jacques says:

    ….”the post-Conciliar springtime – which “beyond question” brought so many benefits for the whole people of God”…
    – So many “benefits” like these awful confessions, eyes into eyes, sitting at the parish priest’s desk. For me this was an additional penance long even before confessing. Thanks God a reversal to the good ol’ confession boxes looks to be underway.
    – So many “benefits” like the almost immediate discarding of one of the last good preconciliar papal texts, the 1961’s instructions “Religiosorum Institutio”, that never were implemented thanks to the euphoric “spirit of the council”.
    If these instruction had been energically enforced in the seminaries, probably the devilish homosexual infestation into the priesthood would never have been so widespread and the pending crisis much less serious.

  42. Jacques says:

    I went to confession by the end of my pilgrimage on the Camino Francès in the beautiful cathedral of Santiago long before the beginning of the pilgrim’s mass on sunday (with the “botafumeiro”, etc..). There are a lot of old wooden confessional boxes for the purpose of non spanish-speaking people. Unfortunately this day there were only german, portuguese and spanish confessors available, no french, english or italian priests. Then I went to the spanish speaking confessional. The priest smiled at my disappointment and immediately handed me a french leaflet listing ALL possible and imaginable sins, some very, very serious ones which I still cannot remember without blushing.
    This would be a good thing if there were similar leaflets available in all the world’s confessionals with the aim to help people like me who have difficulties for their examinations of conscience.

  43. Charivari Rob says:

    Why are we trying to redesign the wheel when standard confessionals work just fine?
    Reconciliation rooms are the problem.

    As several people here have already described…

    “Standard” confessionals often don’t work just fine for a good number of people
    – they’re not “standard”, they’re widely varied (just like “reconciliation rooms”
    – they can be too small/claustrophobic
    – they can be poorly ventilated/heated/cooled
    – they can be inaccessible or painful/difficult to use for people with assorted physical conditions

    Whereas a reconciliation room can be built/arranged to be roomy/non-claustrophobic, adequately ventilated, accessible to the disable, tastefully appointed, and still setup that anonymity is the first choice.

    Reconciliation rooms are not the problem.

    Things like twenty minutes a week of confession available or confession by appointment are far greater problems.

  44. hwriggles4 says:

    During Advent and Lent, many parishes across the United States conduct large penance services with multiple priests. My parish years ago took the time to construct portable walls for privacy when people are in line. Some priests will sometimes put chairs back to back to give the penitent anonymity. Many Catholics like to go to these to get confession out of the way, and yes, I will sometimes go to a priest that I don’t know when I attend one of these. As I have gotten more an understanding of our faith, I normally do not like to stand in a long line for a quick confession (although my 1st confession in at least 13 years was done this way during Advent) like this when there is not much privacy, but I do like the fact many dioceses (mine included) do a “Leave the Light On” to encourage parishioners to attend Reconciliation.

    I also find when more priests (and permanent deacons) bring it up from the pulpit, more people attend. Saturday afternoon at my parish the lines are long between 1530 and 1650 before Mass at 1700 hours. My other parish has a long line beginning after the Saturday morning 0800 Mass, and two priests will stay until done – at least 90 minutes. Thursday nights at my other parish have a long line too with Holy Hour.

  45. SummerMarigold says:

    I prefer face to face confession – I really do. I find that the advice I receive from priests is more pertinent and valuable to me personally when I confess face to face. This is in large part because I am known socially or through my work to most priests in my diocese.

    With a screen between us it is usually just laundry listing sins, some vague advice, being assigned 3 Hail Marys, absolution, done. I am “random sinner” as opposed to “SummerMarigold”. Even a priest who doesn’t know me personally can look at me and usually know where I work, what I do, what my struggles are currently. When I go to a priest who does know me, he knows my entire family situation, level of religiosity, lifestyle, work, etc. and can address me personally and quickly.

    When I am “random sinner”, the purpose of confession is fulfilled and that’s great and beautiful but the advice is either non existent, generalized, or sometimes downright contrary to my vocation.
    All that being said, if it prevents lawsuits and encourages holiness in our priests and others, I could forego the face to face confession

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