Face to face confession came later

By Fr. John Girotti | The Compass | November 11, 2020

When did the church institute face-to-face confession (reconciliation)? — Valders 

It may come as a surprise that the sacrament of penance used to be celebrated publicly. In the early church, confession in front of the community at Mass was the norm. 

By the sixth century, beginning in Ireland, private confession of sins to a priest became prevalent. It is this same practice of private confession and individual absolution practiced today in the celebration of the sacrament of penance.

Over the centuries, the practice developed of celebrating the sacrament in a confessional, a small area or room connected to a church. Confessionals had a fixed barrier between priest and penitent for anonymity as well as propriety. These varied in size and shape, but were often small and somewhat confining.  

After the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), the Roman Ritual (1969) urged that the sacrament of penance be celebrated in “a place more suitable for the celebration according to the regulations of the conference of bishops, so that the entire celebration may be enriching and effective.” Reflecting this, in 1974, the Catholic bishops of the United States stated that it is “considered desirable that small chapels or rooms of reconciliation be provided in which penitents might choose to confess their sins through an informal face-to-face exchange with the priest with the opportunity for appropriate spiritual counsel. It would also be regarded as desirable that such chapels or rooms be designed to afford the option of the penitents kneeling at the fixed confession grille in the usual way.” 

The intent was that the sacrament be celebrated in a deliberate, liturgical way that a more spacious and dedicated room might provide. Then, the 1983 Code of Canon Law was published. It included a canon on confessionals: “The proper place to hear sacramental confessions is a church or oratory” and, “that the conference of bishops is to establish norms regarding the confessional.” The code also required a confessional with a fixed screen between the penitent and confessor, so that the option of anonymous confession was always possible.

Thus, the practice today is to have a confessional (reconciliation room) that allows either face-to-face or anonymous confessions. Both methods are valid and permitted. Advocates for face-to-face confession believe it allows greater pastoral interchange between the priest and penitent and a more human celebration of the sacrament. Those who prefer confession behind the screen state that it protects anonymity, promotes celebration of the sacrament for those who are embarrassed and affords greater protection for both the penitent and priest from misbehavior.

In 1998, the Holy See issued a clarifying statement indicating that a priest may choose to hear confessions exclusively behind the screen. This, along with the Code of Canon Law, seems to indicate that confessions behind the screen remain the standard practice and face-to-face confessions are permitted, but can never be required.   

The sacrament of penance is such a powerful gift. It is the very forgiveness of the Lord Jesus. Whether face-to-face or behind the screen, we should make use of the healing gift that it offers. Go to confession! You’ll be glad that you did.

Fr. Girotti is vicar for canonical services and associate moderator of the curia for the Diocese of Green Bay.

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