I'll be running reruns this week. This post is a rerun from May 2006.
+ + +
Rich Leonardi on the trend of face-to-face confession:
The decline in the popularity of Confession roughly coincides with the rise of the face-to-face confessional. (Whoops, I'm sorry; I of course mean "Reconciliation Room.") The intention of this innovation was to create a more welcoming, less intimidating environment than was offered by the supposedly cold, dark, screen-divided little room of tradition. Yet I suspect most people of parenting age have not-so-fond memories of sitting in a padded chair in a "Reconciliation Room" across from their parish or school priest and embarrassedly baring their souls. Or not baring -- far better to mumble a sin or two, say an act of contrition, and clear out of there.
It has always flummoxed me --- what on earth made pastors and church architects think that people would feel MORE comfortable confessing their sins face to face with their parish priest, than anonymously? The RCIA teachers years ago couldn't explain it to me either, back in that university parish with no confessionals at all --- confession was only by appointment in the priests' private offices.
What was the idea? That putting a "wall" between the minister of the sacrament and the recipient damaged the character of the sacrament, somehow? But the wall is porous --- the only blocked sense is vision. On the penitent's side of the wall hangs the crucifix --- and it's Jesus who ultimately absolves. Isn't it possible that the image of Fr. Joe or Fr. Mike might itself be a wall that obscures? Aren't we often freer and safer behind closed doors?
This is rather cynical, but maybe the sex-abuse scandal will help bring back the confessional. I'm sure that many people by now , whether rightly or wrongly, don't feel very comfortable sending their nine-year-old into the priest's private office for ten minutes. That unwelcoming "wall" between priest and penitent is probably starting to look like a better idea.
Duncan Stroik, a professor of architecture at the University of Notre Dame who specializes in churches, told Our Sunday Visitor that he knows priests who were so concerned about their safety and/or their reputations that they have had windows or stained glass installed in reconciliation rooms. Some even have installed exit doors, alarms or telephones. Stroik noted that the traditional confessional with separate rooms had probably come about for good reason....
Rolf Rohn of Rolf R. Rohn & Associates in Pittsburgh told Our Sunday Visitor that he has had requests for more observable confessionals [note: I think he's using this term to mean "reconciliation place" in general -- E.] because of the safety issue. He related a story about a disturbed woman who began screaming at the priest in the reconciliation room and blocked the door. Indeed, news reports indicate that priests have been attacked and/or robbed in confessionals. Hence, Rohn likes to design reconciliation rooms with a second door emergency exit.
How very welcoming and conducive to spiritual peace! Instead of that pesky wall, we've installed panic buttons and emergency exits. Oh, and by the way, now it's not just the priest who can see you --- anyone can see you through the window. Have a Kleenex. Feel free to open up.
My big beef with the OSV reporter is that she let architects be the experts about what a confessional issupposed to look like and feel like:
"One thing is for sure," Rohn said, "the guidelines for building a confessional are that it should be very, very open, inviting, with all kinds of imagery of reconciliation. Whether it’s the woman at the well, or the prodigal son, or the woman with the coin, there should always be a space in front that allows people to pray and meditate to some kind of theme. So it isn’t just a box anymore. It has to have an environment."
James McCrery of Franck Lohsen McCrery Architects in Washington, D.C., and New York, emphasized that the setting for the sacrament should be inspiring.
Are these guys even Catholics? Have they ever experienced the sacrament themselves? Doesn't say. Seriously: considering the nature of Confession, what is wrong with a small private room, a place to kneel, and a crucifix on the wall? Isn't it weird that while the architectural trend for the church as a whole has been to remove decoration and beauty, stripping it bare and creating a "place of emptiness," suddenly the confessional (the ONE place where the attention of the worshipper is meant to be INWARD) has to have lots and lots of imagery?
"There should always be a space in front" ---outside the box? --- "that allows people to pray and meditate... [I]t has to have an environment." Duh. We used to have those. Very elaborate, they were, with lots of imagery. We called it the sanctuary.
Related: a good post from 2003 by Fr. Rob Johansen about the confession in general, and also this oneabout face-to-face confession in specific. Incidentally, canon law requires that confessionals with grilles be made freely available, and permits either priest or penitent to insist on anonymous (behind the screen) confessions.