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Traditional confessional in the church of Thann, France
Traditional confessional in the church Gesù Nuovo, Naples, Italy

A confessional is a small, enclosed booth used for the Sacrament of Penance, often called confession, or Reconciliation. It is the usual venue for the sacrament in the Roman Catholic Church, but similar structures are also used in Anglican churches of an Anglo-Catholic orientation, and also in the Lutheran Church. In the Catholic Church, confessions are only to be heard in a confessional or oratory, except for a just reason (1983 Code of Canon Law, Canon 964.3).

Traditional confessionals

Confessionals in the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, Spain

The priest and penitent are in separate compartments and speak to each other through a grid or lattice. A crucifix is sometimes hung over the grille. The priest will usually sit in the middle and the penitents will enter the compartments to either side of him. The priest can close off the other compartment by a sliding screen so that only one person will be confessing at a time. Kneelers are provided in the compartments on each side of the priest, sometimes a prie-dieu style kneeler, or sometimes a diagonal kneeler built into the walls of the confessional. Confessions and conversations are usually whispered. Sometimes a confessional will be built into the church walls and have separate doors for each compartment; other confessionals can be free-standing structures where curtains are used to conceal penitents (and even the priest in some confessionals) from the rest of the church.

Modern, post-Vatican II Confessionals

Modern confessional in the Church of the Holy Name, Dunedin, New Zealand. The penitent has the option to either kneel on the kneeler or sit in a chair facing the priest (not shown)
A modern confessional at a Lutheran church in Columbus Georgia, United States.

After Vatican II, the Sacrament of Penance was revised so that it more clearly expresses both the nature and effect of the sacrament (Sacrosanctum Concilium, 72). To facilitate this, face-to-face confession has been allowed. To accommodate this new form of the sacrament, many confessionals now comprise just one room. There is a screen and a kneeler to kneel on so the penitent can confess anonymously, but there is also a chair that the penitent may sit on and face the priest. In some confessionals, there may also be a chair behind the kneeler so that penitents who, due to old age or medical conditions, cannot kneel, can sit but still confess anonymously.

The screen may be anything from a curtain to a section of wall with a grille inserted in it. Sometimes the penitent may be able to see the priest through the screen, but the priest can usually never see the penitent. Often placed on the kneeler is a plaque with the Act of Contrition written on it. There may also be other materials associated with the sacrament, such as a card containing the order of the sacrament, with prayers and other useful information. A crucifix or cross might be placed above the screen or anywhere near the penitent to aid in prayer. Many modern confessionals, and even some older, traditional ones, will often have two or three lights outside, which can be controlled by the priest from inside, or are automatic (activated when by the penitent by kneeling on the kneeler or in some other manner). A green light above the priest's location shows that a he is in the confessional and he is available for confession, whereas a red light above the penitent/s area/s shows that it is already occupied and that parishioners should keep away from it so as not to overhear something. If it is necessary to walk by a confessional, it is considered polite to cover one's ear with one's hand, to show respect for the sanctity of the confessional. This is a pious practice even when no-one is in the confessional. In some churches, the confessional is sometimes a room in the church with the screen and kneeler available so it may be used as a confessional, but when no confessions are being heard, the screen can be folded back so it can be used for other purposes.

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Source material

Up to date as of January 22, 2010

From Wikisource

Confessional
by Paul Laurence Dunbar
Information about this edition
In the 1913 collection of his work, The Complete Poems of Paul Laurence Dunbar

   CONFESSIONAL

Search thou my heart;
  If there be guile,
It shall depart
  Before thy smile.

Search thou my soul;
  Be there deceit,
'T will vanish whole
  Before thee, sweet.

Upon my mind
  Turn thy pure lens;
Naught shalt thou find
  Thou canst not cleanse.

If I should pray,
  I scarcely know
In just what way
  My prayers would go.

So strong in me
  I feel love's leaven,
I 'd bow to thee
As soon as Heaven!

PD-icon.svg This work published before January 1, 1923 is in the public domain worldwide because the author died at least 100 years ago.

1911 encyclopedia

Up to date as of January 14, 2010

From LoveToKnow 1911

CONFESSIONAL (Late Lat. - confessionale, neut. adj. from confessionalis, " pertaining to confession," Fr. confessional, Ital. confessionale), a box, cabinet or stall, in which the priest in Roman Catholic churches sits to hear the confessions of penitents. The confessional is usually a wooden structure, with a centre compartment - entered through a door or curtain - in which the priest sits, and on each side a latticed opening for the penitents to speak through, and a step on which they kneel. By this arrangement the priest is hidden, but the penitent is visible to the public. Confessionals sometimes form part of the architectural scheme of the church; many finely decorated specimens, dating from the late 16th and the 17th centuries, are to be found in churches on the continent of Europe. A notable example, in Renaissance style, is in the church of St Michel at Louvain. But, more usually, confessionals are movable pieces of furniture.

The confessional in its modern form dates no farther back than the 16th century, and Du Cange cites the year 1563 for an early use of the word confessionale for the sacrum poenitentiae tribunal. Originally the term was applied to the place where a martyr or "confessor" (in the sense of one who confesses Christ) had been buried. There are, however, instances (e.g. the confessional of St Trophimus at Arles) where the name was attached to the spot, whether cell or seat, where noted saints were wont to hear confessions. In the popular Protestant view confessional boxes are associated with the scandals, real or supposed, of the practice of auricular confession. They were, however, devised to guard against such scandals by securing at once essential publicity and a reasonable privacy, and by separating priest and penitent. In the middle ages stringent rules were laid down, in this latter respect, by the canon law in the case of confessions by women and especially nuns.

In England, before the Reformation, publicity was reckoned the best safeguard. Thus Archbishop Walter Reynolds, in 1322, says in his Constitutions: "Let the priest choose for himself a common place for hearing confessions, where he may be seen generally by all in the church; and do not let him hear any one, and especially any woman, in a private place, except in great necessity." It would seem that the priest usually heard confessions at the chancel opening or at a bench end in the nave near the chancel. There is, however, in some churchwardens' accounts mention of a special seat: "the shryving stool," "shriving pew" or "shriving place" (Gasquet, Parish Life in Mediaeval England, p. 199). At Lenham in Kent there is an ancient armchair in stone, with a stone bench and steps on one side, which appears to be a confessional.

With the revival of the practice of auricular confession in the English Church, confessionals were introduced into some of the more "extreme" Anglican churches. Since, however, they certainly formed no part of "the furniture of the church" in the "second year of King Edward VI." they can hardly be considered as covered by the "Ornaments Rubric" in the Prayer-Book. The question of their legality was raised in 1900 in the case of Davey v. Hinde (vicar of the church of the Annunciation at Brighton) tried before Dr Tristram in the consistory court of Chichester. They were condemned "on the ground that they are not articles of church furniture requisite for or conducive to conformity with the doctrine or practice of the Church of England in relation to the reception of confession" (C. Y. Sturge, Points of Church Law, London, 1907, p. 137).

"Confessional," in the sense of a due payable for the right to hear confession, is now obsolete. As an adjective confessional is used in two senses: (I) of the nature of, or belonging to confession, e.g. " confessional prayers"; (2) connected with confessions of faith, or creeds, e.g. " confessional differences." (W. A. P.)


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