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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