Behind the Screen

One of my parishes has a very small (and historic) church. At some point during its nearly 125 years, the old confessional, which I am told used to be on the left side as you walked in the front doors, was removed. I’m not sure why. Fortunately, the deacon who most recently administered the parish before my arrival in July, took care to reinstate a proper area for confessions. The sacristy to the left of the sanctuary now doubles for that purpose.

Just recently, we acquired a screen or grille for that confessional, to make it possible for penitents to exercise their right to anonymity, and for the priest to exercise his right of hearing confessions “behind the screen” (more on these rights in a moment):

Screen donated by a generous benefactor.

Screen donated by a generous benefactor.

Now those who wish to confess “behind the screen” can kneel at this screen when they walk in; those wishing to confess “face to face” can make use of the chair to the right.

Indeed, as I said above, penitents have the right to confess anonymously (within reason – obviously there are situations where that might not be possible). Here is what Canon Law says about it:

Can.  964 §1. The proper place to hear sacramental confessions is a church or oratory. §2. The conference of bishops is to establish norms regarding the confessional; it is to take care, however, that there are always confessionals with a fixed grate between the penitent and the confessor in an open place so that the faithful who wish to can use them freely. §3. Confessions are not to be heard outside a confessional without a just cause.

A 1994 clarification from the Pontifical Council for the Interpretation of Legislative Texts indicates furthermore that the priest can insist on the use of the screen when there is a just cause and outside of cases of necessity (for example, when someone in the hospital requests the sacrament). In other words, even if you prefer to go to confession face-to-face, it is the priest’s prerogative to ask that you go behind the screen instead.

I personally prefer to go “behind the screen” myself, and I encourage others to do so as well. Perhaps in a future post I will explain the reasons why I think the traditional manner is preferable.

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7 Responses to Behind the Screen

  1. Analda Anglin says:

    “Confessions are not to be heard outside a confessional without a just cause.” Interesting. Would you please consider elaborating on that in a future post?

    Disclaimer: Military Chapel with military priest chaplains. We all adapt every day with limited resources and shared spaces.

    • “Just cause” is pretty broad in canonical lingo. The Church wants to uphold the dignity and integrity of the sacrament by having it celebrated properly and in the right sort of setting. At the same time, she understands that it is not always possible to use a proper confessional, and the good of souls is more important than insisting only on one type of place where this sacrament may be celebrated.

      • Analda Anglin says:

        “The good of souls is more important than insisting only on one type of place where this sacrament may be celebrated.”

        Thank you. That echoes what our military priest chaplains have said when they are asked why they hear confessions in odd places.

        “Dignity and integrity” also reinforces what they say under normal circumstances for the sacrament. They are always faced with a balancing act, and they’re carrying it out with faith and compassion.

  2. I know its not a vote, but I would vote to bring back the traditional practices of the sacrament of confession. That includes a permanent booth and the screen; not a couch in a reconciliation room, or even a room divider and a couple folding chairs. I do appreciate the attempt made by those folding chairs though. It is a step in the right direction.

  3. Chelle Bodart says:

    Father – I enjoy reading your posts and always learn something new. I look forward to reading a future post on why you believe the traditional manner is preferable.

  4. Phyllis Trexler says:

    We just finished “Faith Quest” in the Archdiocese of Washington where we were welcomed as “pilgrims” at various churches in our area. The purpose of the “quest” was to visit the churches to learn about their contributions to the religious history of Maryland. So many of the older churches had the traditional confessionals. At our church, the traditional confessionals were removed years ago and the sacrament is now heard face-to-face or behind a screen in a multipurpose area that is also used by the ushers, a vesting place for the altar servers, and the lost and found. Oh, and it has a door with glass inserts so anyone can see who is in the confessional. I cannot understand why this Sacrament is treated with such casualness.

    • It is not uncommon for confessional doors to have at least a small window in them nowadays – due to youth protection concerns/liability, etc. However, I think it is fair to say that things should be arranged in such a way that people would not line up to closely to the confessional or otherwise have an opportunity to be peering in the little window. In most places this is not an issue; what is a bigger issue, sometimes, is that the door is made entirely of glass or otherwise has a window in it that is really too big.

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