Reconciliation: Part 6 Theological and Pastoral Issues

Chapter r62  The Place for the Sacrament

Preliminary Questions


Historical Survey


Pastoral Reflection

Suggested Questions for Discussion

Preliminary Questions

Does your parish church have an appropriate chapel for the celebration of the sacrament of reconciliation?

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Patrick Holtkamp, "Reconciliation Chapels" Church, Spring 1987, pp 25-30, with floor plans etc.

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Historical Survey

For sixteen centuries there was no special "place" for the celebration of the sacrament of penance.

Canonical penance was celebrated place where the assembly gathered for worship, the cathedral / parish church. It was there in the midst of the assembly that the sinner entered the order of penitents and heard the word, begging the assembly for their prayers. And it was in the church that reconciliation was accomplished and eucharist celebrated.

Tariff penance took place wherever the sinner encountered the holy person with the penitential book.

As tariff penance evolved into the confession, penance returned to the church building. The sinner met with the priest at the priest's house where there was preliminary investigation and examination, and they recited the penitential psalms and other prayers together. Then they went to the church. The priest sat in front of the principal altar and conducted a detailed interrogation of the penitent. This was followed by the absolution and the imposition of a penance.

It was not until the second half of the sixteenth century that the confessional appears. Responding to a pastoral need of the time, Church authorities found it necessary to find some way to protect women from any improper sexual advances from the priest during the act of confessing their sins. The confessional was "a chair equipped with a grille for the confession of women." This definition is found as late as in the Ritual of 1925. This chair with its grille was to be set up in the church in an open place where the priest and penitent could be seen by all, and any danger of any impropriety would be avoided. The bishop St. Charles Borromeo (1538-1584), in his diocesan statutes, forbade his priests to hear the confessions of women "outside of the confessional chair equipped with a screen by which the priest is cut off from all contact with the woman."

Today we think of the confessional as a way to tell our sins without the priest knowing who we are, but this was not its original purpose. The 1917 Code of Canon Law (canon 909) decreed that "the confessional chair for hearing the confessions of women shall always be placed in an open and conspicuous place, and as a rule in a church or public or semi-public oratory appointed for women. The confessional chair must be so constructed that between the penitent and the confessor there is an irremovable grating with small holes." The confessional was prescribed only for the confessions of women; the confessions of men could be heard anywhere, "even in private houses" (canon 910).

It is only in our present 1983 Code of Canon Law that these references to women are omitted, and the function of the confessional shifts from the protection of chastity to the protection of anonymity.

During the period of canonical penance everyone knew who was doing penance, who had seriously sinned. Even in the tariff system someone familiar with the penitential book in use in the area could probably figure out what the sinner had done from the penance that was being done. (If you are waiting to see a doctor and a woman comes out of the doctor's office with her leg in a cast, you can presume something of the illness by seeing the remedy.) However, in the modern system the desire for anonymity became a very important concern on the part of the penitent.

Those who were entrusted with the revision of the rite following the Second Vatican Council found that the concern for anonymity sometimes hindered the fruitfulness of the sacrament. In preparing the Rite of Penance the authors provided for the possibility of "face to face" confession. When the Rite of Penance was published on December 2, 1973, it contained no mention of a confessional or confessional chair.

While individual face to face confession was a welcome change for some of the laity (it had long been the custom for seminarians, clergy, and male religious to confess face to face in the cell or office of their spiritual director), the desire for anonymity was strong.

Shortly after the new rite was published and news of "face to face" confession began to cause some people to fear that the confessionals would disappear from churches, Pope Paul VI, in a general audience on April 3, 1974, assured the faithful that there would always be the possibility of anonymous confession: "You have already heard these things repeatedly and you will hear them again. You will also hear the clarification and correction of certain inaccurate reports that have been circulated regarding the new rite of penance, for example, that confessionals have been eliminated. The confessional must remain: it serves as the protective screen between the minister and the penitent, as a guarantee of the absolute reserve imposed on their communication and proper to it. Remember what Guitton wrote about the Abbe' Guillaume Pouget, an exceptional priest, a master of the spiritual life, and most perceptive thinker. He was a Vincentian, and all kinds of people, many of them famous and highly placed, visited him in his own room -- in Paris, Rue de Sevres 85 -- and ended up going to confession there, because he was blind."

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Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy

26. Liturgical services are not private functions, but are celebrations of the Church, which is the "sacrament of unity," namely, the holy people united and ordered under their bishops [33]

Therefore liturgical services pertain to the whole body of the Church; they manifest it and have effects upon it; but they concern the individual members of the Church in different ways, according to their differing rank, office, and actual participation.

27. It is to be stressed that whenever rites, according to their specific nature, make provision for communal celebration involving the presence and active participation of the faithful, this way of celebrating them is to be preferred, so far as possible, to a celebration that is individual and quasi-private.

This applies with especial force to the celebration of Mass and the administration of the sacraments, even though every Mass has of itself a public and social nature.

Rite of Penance

10d. Conscious that he has come to know the secrets of another's conscience only because he is God's minister, the confessor is bound by the obligation of preserving the seal of confession absolutely unbroken.

12. The locations for the ministration of the sacrament of penance and the place of the confessor are those prescribed by canon law.

Environment and Art in Catholic Worship

81. A room or rooms for the reconciliation of individual penitents may be located near the baptismal area (when that is at the entrance) or in another convenient place. Furnishings and decoration should be simple and austere, offering the penitent a choice between face-to-face encounter or the anonymity provided by a screen, with nothing superfluous in evidence beyond a simple cross, table and bible. The purpose of this room is primarily for the celebration of the reconciliation liturgy; it is not a lounge, counseling room, etc. The word "chapel" more appropriately describes this space.

Commentary TRR:

If a church building has a separate chapel for the celebration of the Sacrament of Reconciliation, one would presume that it would be used only in those rare occasions when Rite I (individual confession) is celebrated.   Ordinarily sacraments are celebrated with the community in the worship space proper.  Catholic churches, for this reason, do not ordinarily have "Confirmation Chapels" or "Ordination Chapels"  or "Wedding Chapels".  Sacraments "are not private functions, but are celebrations of the Church, which is the sacrament of unity."

The church building may have rooms/spaces in addition to the liturgical assembly space;  there may be a space for business meetings, or shared (non-eucharistic) meals and other celebrations (e.g. funeral meals), a space for catechesis, a space for counseling and/or spiritual direction, and even space for devotional practices (e.g. an Eucharistic Chapel).  For most people, "confession" traditionally takes place in a devotional space. 

Note that spiritual direction, counseling, therapy, etc are more appropriately done in a space designed for these activities.  The Reconciliation Chapel "is primarily for the celebration of the reconciliation liturgy; it is not a lounge, counseling room, etc."

Code of Canon Law

Canon 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.

Catechism of the Catholic Church

1180. [Where is the Liturgy Celebrated? The place of celebration is primarily the church...] These visible churches are not simply gathering places but signify and make visible the Church living in this place, the dwelling of God with all reconciled and united in Christ.

Misericordia Dei

9.  Concerning the place and confessional for the celebration of the Sacrament, it should be remembered that:

a) "the proper place to hear sacramental confessions is a church or an oratory", (26) though it remains clear that pastoral reasons can justify celebrating the Sacrament in other places. (27)

b) confessionals are regulated by the norms issued by the respective Episcopal Conferences, who shall ensure that confessionals are located "in an open area" and have "a fixed grille", so as to permit the faithful and confessors themselves who may wish to make use of them to do so freely. (28)

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Pastoral Reflection

When parishes celebrate the "Rite for Reconciliation of Several Penitents with Individual Confession and Absolution", the stations for individual confession are usually arranged in such a way that one of the confessors goes to the reconciliation chapel for those penitents who wish to use a grille, while the other stations are placed in the church so that those going to confession can be seen but not heard by the assembly, thus giving community witness to their desire for reconciliation, while at the same time their privacy is protected. The confessor hears their sins, imposes hands, and gives absolution.

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To Think About

Should the reconciliation chapel be located near the baptismal area? Why or why not?

When your parish celebrates the "Rite for Reconciliation of Several Penitents with Individual Confession and Absolution" is it necessary that each station for individual confession be equipped with a screen?  Why or why not?

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Copyright: Tom Richstatter.  All Rights Reserved.  This page was created by Fr. Thomas Richstatter, O.F.M.  Every effort has been, and is being made to acknowledge sources when the ideas are not my own.  Any failure to comply with the United States Copyright Act (Title 17, United States Code) will be corrected immediately should I become aware of it.  This site was updated on 03/20/15.  Your comments on this site are welcome at