A Place for Reconciliation

The picture below was taken on April 23 in St. Peter’s Square. The Pope and numerous priests are celebrating the Rite for Reconciliation of Individual Penitents, as part of a Jubilee celebration weekend for young people ages 13-16. The extension of hands (or at least the right hand), pictured here, takes place during the absolution. This classic gesture from the ancient penitential liturgy signifies the giving of the Holy Spirit for the forgiveness of sins. It was restored to the Rite of Penance following the Second Vatican Council.

It appears that Pope and clergy at this event are considerably less fussy about the place and furniture for reconciliation than are many US priests, who would insist upon an indoor celebration with the option of a grille to separate priest and penitent always ready at hand. The option pictured below appears welcoming however, and the young people (here and in other photos of the event) seem comfortable with it.

Can certain outdoor settings provide sufficient privacy and serve as an appropriate venue for this liturgical rite? Or is this unfair to the penitents? Some Catholics say that the grille of the confessional was forbidding to them in their youth and going into “the box” made them fearful, leading to an abandonment of the sacrament as adults. Should the Church perhaps be holding more open-air reconciliation events, out in the sunshine?


  1. I’d be happy with more opportunities period, indoor or out. It seems hypocritical to me for priests to say how important confession is, then have one weekly session for a half-hour prior to Saturday evening Mass in a parish with 1000+ families. In my experience at several parishes, the opportunity for face to face confession has outnumbered “into the box” over the past 45 years of confessions.

    As an aside, not sure if I’m digging the yellow baseball cap on the priest behind the Pope 🙂

    1. @Chip Stalter:

      If you knew how hot it can get on the piazza when the sun is out, you’d be OK with a confessor protecting himself from getting sunstroke. We don’t all get to wear zuchettos to cover the bald spot (although I must admit that I wore a kippa all over the Holy Land to protect mine!)

  2. As long as there is an option at some, not necessarily all, stations, it seems to me the requirement to allow anonymity is meant. When we had many priests hearing confession, I would set up three chairs at each station, with the priest sitting with his back toward approaching penitents. The penitent could choose to sit behind the priest, and so not be seen by him, or cross over to sit face-to-face in front of him.

  3. Perhaps…on the other hand, this was a planned event (as I understand) and further, we don’t know how many people opted not to go because it was out in the open. Or how that would translate in another (less enthusiastic) demographic.

    As an aside: the gesture of the raising of the hand was present in the former rite as well – although probably not visible when a confessional was used. Some diocesan rituals also allowed for the placing of the hand on the head of the penitent, when there was no screen.

  4. The penitents are the celebrants. The priests are facilitators of the flow of grace and reconciliation with God, through His Son. My opinion!

  5. A few liturgical observations …

    I notice the placement of the chairs. How a liturgist or confessor arranges the furniture for a penitent says a lot. One priest I worked with preferred chairs front to front. In this photo, the Holy Father’s chair is just tilted a bit. Behind “Yellow Cap,” the chairs are 90 degree-angled.

    No alb for Pope Francis; just stole over cassock, right?

    As for the anonymity option, does the cultural prohibition on “alone with children” play into a discomfort with it? I don’t know: I’m just asking. Also, if this is a diocesan event, it’s likely that only a few of these penitent-confessor pairings will ever occur again.

    Also, is anonymity more of an old-church, northeastern US kind of thing? I didn’t see as much concern about it in the Midwest. Is it an issue in Europe? Again, don’t know; just wondering.

    1. @Todd Flowerday:
      I have seen an alb on PF twice. Both times he looked like he was wearing baby doll pj’s and looked like he could not move his shoulders. I suspect he does not like wearing one. I am sure the absolution was valid without it.

  6. It’s been interesting to compare various pictures of the event. The more distant the view, the more different the perspective. This was the first I’d seen with a lineup of chairs. Other photos seemed more random.

  7. To each his/her own, but I would feel considerably more afraid of confessing my sins in the open air to the Pope than being anonymous in a private box to a parish priest. There should be room for both approaches, yes?

  8. Confessionals are early-modern relics which are past their prime. I’m not a tall man, but I find them cramped and hard to enter and leave. I also prefer looking my confessor in the eye when speaking. He’s heard it all before. Besides, I prefer that a priest’s advice not emanate from a screen. Rather I’d like frank advice from a person whose body language and verbal language I can see and hear well. If I were there I would ask the confessor if I could turn my chair to face him.

  9. I think it’s important to give the option. I think giving choices empowers people, even if subconsciously.

  10. The event at St. Peter’s isn’t quite as novel as it might seem at first sights. At the last World Youth Day in Rio de Janeiro, for example, there were hundred of outdoor, mobile, cardboard, open “confessionals” (just google for images). I thought they were really well done, design-wise, and almost whimsical (if one can imagine that description fitting a confessional).

  11. Of course there will always be the options of indoor & confessionals/reconciliation rooms, but the scene in St Peter’s Square, like those at World Youth Days, is a marvelous public witness and proclamation of faith. Our Protestant friends know the value of outdoor revivals/ tent meetings and Billy Graham-like crusades. We need to catch on to that more.
    The photo of St Peter’s Square has “I believe in the forgiveness of sins” written all over it.

  12. Confessional screens trace their origin to the late Middle Ages as a barrier of moral protection between priests and female penitents. In time they were mandated for hearing the confessions of women. Flash forward to the ministry of Irish and other Immigrant clergy in the US. Having chosen not to institute separate confessionals for men and women in the churches they built, the notion of confessional anonymity emerged as if it were some kind of divine ordinance. Now my experiences as a confessor tell me that there are some individuals who are psychologically impeded from confessing face to face, and so there is one in our confessional chapel. I would estimate about 10 percent of penitents make a dash for the kneeler behind the screen, but some of them are children whom I gently invite to take the seat opposite from me. In short, I contend there is no right to anonymity in the confessional. It is a practice unknown to the orthodox as far as I know. In the sacrament we meet Jesus face to face, he looks upon us with a loving gaze and freely dispenses his mercy.

  13. Let us not forget that “confessionals” are only a few centuries old in our church. Prior to their invention and placement, penitents and priests had many places to meet for the sacrament of reconciliation: standing or sitting by an inside church pillar, at another space in the corner of the church, at a side chapel, a sacristy, outdoors, at the edge of a battlefield before combat, in a home during a pastoral visit, at the rood screen or altar rails, on either side of a hanging textile in church or elsewhere, etc.

  14. I don’t remember the source, but there is a Vatican document that implies that penitents have the right to anonymity, and insists as well that a priest cannot be required to hear face to face confessions.

  15. Jan Larson: “I don’t remember the source, but there is a Vatican document that implies that penitents have the right to anonymity, and insists as well that a priest cannot be required to hear face to face confessions.”

    Here: July 24, 1998 by the Vatican Information Service:

    The Pontifical Council for the Interpretation of Legislative Texts, with the Holy Father’s approval, in a recently-published note, responded affirmatively to the following inquiry by several episcopal conferences regarding confessionals:

    “If, according to Canon 964, paragraph 2, of the Code of Canon Law, the minister of the sacrament, for a just cause and excluding cases of necessity, can legitimately decide, even in the eventuality that the penitent ask for the contrary, that sacramental confession be received in a confessional with a fixed grille.”

    Canon 964
    …§2: The conference of bishops is to issue norms concerning the confessional, seeing to it that confessionals with a fixed grille between penitent and confessor are always located in an open area so that the faithful who wish to make use of them may do so freely. …


    As noted, medieval practice actually was similar to the Orthodox, some kind of face-to-face arrangement. (It was assumed pastors could know who had fulfilled the Easter duty of confession and communion.) Confessionals are early modern, and were partly a response to the danger of solicitation/abuse, and considered especially a protection for women. St Charles Borromeo was an early advocate, I think. (Now, some see them as a protection for both priest and penitent.)

    The claustrophobia inducing, totally closed-in boxes are even more modern. Older models had a central chair with grilles and kneelers on either side, but otherwise open, so both priest and penitents were visible (just not to each other). Some were built-ins, but the style can be quite portable; the clever versions at Rio Teresa mentions (#17) were a modern variant.

  16. I’m one of those with a psychological impediment to confessing well without a screen, or at least being able to be behind the Priest. Seeing his face makes it virtually impossible for me to confess well.

    And whether there is a “right” or not to a grille, if there’s one place that one would expect the Church to be more pastoral would be to allow either option.

    With that said, I am currently in a parish where they are blowing out the confessional rooms, because the Priests want physical separation between them and the penitent as there was a recent rape accusation. They were public about them wanting this for their protection as well as the penitents’ . No one seems to have complained, and about 95% used the optional screen anyway.

  17. I like the “out in the open” approach as long as the stations are set apart so that others can’t hear what you are saying. Celebrated in this way, confession is a clear sign that we are all sinners and our personal sin has an effect on the whole Church.

  18. I am surprised that anyone should think there is no right to anonymity for the penitent. Surely there is, or should be. The Sacrament of Penance should not be made more difficult than for some people it already is.

    Anonymity can also provide a layer of protection for the priest, in cases of disclosure in countries where there is no legal recognition of the seal of confession. It is likely in the UK that this hitherto accepted confidentiality will eventually be challenged in a court of law.

    The open air location of the event in question makes all the difference psychologically, as there is total visibility, but little audibility possible.

    And if I were that priest in the Piazza San Pietro I would be wearing a sombrero !

    Alan Griffiths.

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