Sunday, August 19, 2007

Confession behind the screen: more than just preference

Much energy has been expended discussing the current liturgical problems in the Church (and not without good cause; the Divine Liturgy, where Christ is offered in sacrifice to the Father, is the most important aspect of the Church's worship). However, the abuses, ambiguities and modernist innovations current in ecclesial life are by no means limited to the liturgy alone. Today I'd like to discuss them with reference to the Sacrament of Confession.

How often is the deficient argument made that those who prefer the old rite do so for merely aesthetic reasons: that either rite is just as good, and there is no logical reason why we should have one over the other because they are both equally valid (and by the way, I think people who argue on terms of strict validity demonstrate a skewed point of view; to argue from validity alone is to argue on the basis of bare minimums and exceptions instead of what is the fullness of the rite and what are the proper norms, but I digress)? And if both rites are equally valid (which they are objectively speaking), then the one solitary reason why one should prefer one over another is for mere aesthetic, sentimental, nostalgic or romantic reasons. We see this in the Bishop's statements on the Motu Proprio; that it is for those "still attached" to the old rite, never imagining that there is a small army of persons alive who were born after the Council implementations but yet desire the old form because they know with Catholic sense that it is the fullness of Catholic worship.

In the sacrament of Confession we see this false mindset regarding validity and aetshetics in the discussion between whether it is better to co to the sacrament behind a screen or face to face. In most parishes today, face to face is the norm. Parish confessionals are still supposed to be set up for behind the screen confession, but, as with kneelers, many parishes have chosen to abandon the behind the screen option all together. The confessional has turned into a small conference room, complete with table, small lamp, cushy chairs, box of tissue paper (in case the penitent starts crying) and perhaps even a glass of water (for the penitent's throat after he spends 30 minutes blabbing about everything except his sins). I'd say only the most liberal parishes have done away with the behind the screen option altogether; the majority of parishes have a behind the screen option but with an option for face to face. Only a few parishes have exclusive behind the screen confessions.

I think face to face is a big problem, and not just because I favor behind the screen for aesthetic reasons. When looking at face to face vs. behind the screen, we have to look not at preferences and what makes us feel good, but what facilitates a more thorough confession and hence a firmer reconciliation to God with the reception of more grace. As we look at the differences in the two customs, remember that we are not talking about what the faithful "get out of it," but rather what is intrinsic to the practice itself. Please don't leave a bunch of comments saying "but I get a lot out of confession face to face"; that may be true, but it is not the point. There are a lot of people who "get a lot" out of Buddhism too, but it has nothing to do with what is good for the soul. Here are some things to consider:

Downsides to "Face to Face" Confession

1) The biggest and most obvious one is lack of anonymity. Confession of sin, since the early Middle Ages, has always been anonymous (in patristic times, it had been public, before the congregation, which I don't think anybody is anxious to return to). Knowing that the priest is now able to connect a face with the sins you are confessing makes it more difficult to bring everything out into the open.

2) It creates the atmosphere of a meeting room or a psychiatrist's office. A face to face format encourages discussion; after all, in society, we are always face to face when we discuss things. Thus, from habit, we tend more to want to "discuss" our sins instead of confess them. Behin the screen, it is easy to say, "Bless me Father, for I have sinned. It has been six weeks since my last confession. I confess that I have..." It is awkward to repeat this formula while you are sitting face to face with the priest. Instead, the confession tends to sound like, "Oh Father. I'm having such a problem with my daughter! Let me tell you about it..." This is one of the biggest problems of face to face confession; instead of confession of sin, it turns into discussion of problems.

3) Flowing from the above tendency of confession to turn to discussion comes the consequent that confessions take a lot longer; it takes a lot longer to discuss things with a priest face to face than to simply make a confession behind a screen. Face to face confessions often run twenty-minutes a piece. The avergage confession made to St. Padre Pio was under two minutes.

4) It fails to give any sense of the fact that sin puts you outside of God's grace; i.e, the sacrament done face to face has very little sign value. It has the feeling of a fireside chat.
Benefits of "Behind the Screen"

1) Easier to recollect sins because of the absence of having the priest looking at you while you are trying to do it, thus rendering confession more thorough and thus more fruitful.

2) Preserves anonymity, again making it easier to recount and recollect sins. The anonymity also, in a way, symbolizes the gratuitous nature of God's grace, who gives without distinction of persons. The fact that the priest cannot see you is in a way symbolic of the fact that to God all men are equal and that He judges by the heart.

3) Keeps confessions shorter; it is harder to get into a "discussion" from behind a screen.

4) Sign value: placing yourself behind a screen with the priest, acting in persona Christi, reminds us that sin does indeed put up a barrier between ourselves and God.

5) Greater humility: when we are visible to another person, especially a priest, we will tend to try to look more impressive in our demeanor and facial expressions. Behind a screen (especially if there is a kneeler), we are enabled to forget our image and truly humble ourselves. This is the proper disposition for the sacrament and thus makes it more fruitful.

I'm sure there are many others, and this is not even taking into account the actual words and rubrics of the rite itself! So we can see that confession behind the screen helps instill greater humility, makes it easier for the penitent to recall his sins, preserves anonymity, keeps the confession time shorter (making it more practical) and, if the proper dispositions are all there, facilitates a greater reception of grace ex opere operantis to the penitent. It is no mere matter of taste. If a priest took seriously his obligation to make the greatest amount of grace available to his flock, it seems that he ought to fervently recommend confession behind the screen.


Anonymous said...

Thank you for your thoughts on behind the screen confessions! I have been recently contemplating changing to doing face-to-face confessions, but I fully agree with your reasons. I'd like to know your thoughts on this one- if the priest you are confessing to is your spiritual director, would you do face-to-face? Or, avoid going into his line altogether? Your thoughts would be much appreciated. Thanks!

Unknown said...

The most important fact of confession, is that one goes. I think it is more humbling face to face than behind the screen. The result is the same, hopefully.
Wonder how many more years before there are enough Priests to hear our confessions.
You might ask how many people thank the priest for this privilege at the conclusion.

You have a great blog and one could spend days reading Catholicity. Thank you.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for writing about this. I'm a new Catholic. I was Pentecostal for many years. I completely understand about the public confession - had to do that as a young adult when I was caught in a very public sin. It was more about humiliation, I think, than about confession and restoration. For years after that public confession, I was treated a pariah. In fact, it's not thirty years later - and people from that community still bring up my sin. Apparently, God forgives - but they never forgot.

So I came to Reconciliation pretty freaked out about the whole idea. It almost derailed me from coming into the Church. The image I had of God was an angry, vindictive one - who barely tolerated me.

So when I made my first Confession, I was pacing around trying to decide if I would go or not. Finally, at the last possible minute, I bit the bullet and actually said out loud, "Father, nothing so far about the Church has proven to be unorthodoxed - I'm scared. But I will." In my heart, I decided I would trust God on this one.

My parish is the Co-Cathedral of our Archdiocese. We have kneelers and the option for behind the screen - but as all new Candidates, we were not allowed the option of behind the screen. All I've ever known is face to face.

So I had my little "cheat sheet" and explained to the priest that I was new. I thought I was going to have a panic attack. Hearing that I was new, he welcomed me. I'll never forget the weight of the solemness of his words when he said, "What sins do you need to confess?" Instantly, it felt like the entire room faded away - and as if this huge light were shining on me - and that I couldn't hide - but oddly, I did not want to hide. It was if he retreated, too. I experienced Jesus present to me in a way I cannot describe. When I spoke, I was aware I was in the presence of Holy God. I couldn't hide if I wanted to. When I began to speak, I surprised myself - I didn't really realize what was important - but the Spirit knew - and those were the things - only a few that came forward. When I finished, the priest laids his hands on my head -and prayed for me - and when he touched me, a warmth flowed over me from the top of my head the soles of my feet. I will never forget it. I knew, for the first time in my life, that my sins were truly forgiven. For days afterward, I felt a "cleanliness" before God that I'd never experienced before. Though exposed, I knew I was forgiven.

For me, face to face confession is about being accountable. It's about owning up to what I've done and saying it out loud - so that the gravity of what I've done is real to me - God already knows the consequence of my sin - it's me that isn't always aware of it. I guess in some ways, being mortified about confessing is a good thing - I can feel the sting of being known. But more than anything, I felt God's love through the priest - Jesus was present to me in the Sacrament. I'll never forget that.

I guess, at some point, I will have an opportunity to avail myself of confession behind the screen.

I appreciate your thoughts. I'm grateful to read about another's thoughts and about the tradition of the church and Her history.

Thank you.

Boniface said...


Thanks for sharing your great story!

I am a little troubled by your statement that you all were not permitted the option of going behind the is my understanding that behind the screen is still the norm (face to face being an exception), and that all parishes must offer the possibility of going behind the screen.

I hope you choose to go behind the screen someday - if you have trusted the Church this far, then think that behind the screen has been the norm for over a thousand years, and the Church would not have had it so if there were not very good reasons for it.

Congrats on your conversion.

Anonymous said...

Behind the screen is not an option for Catechumen and Candidates in our Archdiocese. We were taught that it is the expectation - and we were not allowed the option. In fairness, for my first confession - it was at a larger service with multiple priests behind screens - and there wasn't anywhere to kneel.

We do have kneelers in our Reconciliation Rooms - but I've never used them because we were taught that Confession was face to face. So we saw older Catholics using the kneelers - but not us.

Would love to hear you say more about it...

Reconciliation is such a gift. Since I came into the Church and after that first experience, I go regularly and it is always something that brings me closer to God and helps me to understand how to get back on the Way...when I've gotten off the path. Reconciliation actually brings me closer to God. I don't want to run away and hide. I tend to be more honest and direct with others. I do not pretend to be something I'm not. I tend to tell the truth better.

I don't know about you - and I'm not exactly sure how others experience it - but my whole orientation changes. I experience others with more tenderness - I am not as likely to judge.

I can always tell when it's time - it begins to come to mind over and over, when I wake up in the morning, as I go about my day, before I go to bed at night. I feel compelled to go - and sometimes my schedule doesn't permit and I cannot always go to my home parish - so I will go to another parish.

One thing I know for sure...Pentecostals got nothin' on Catholics. They may rail about sin all the time - but Catholicism requires that I be more honest and forthcoming than I ever was a Pentecostal. I don't get to make excuses or blame someone else. I have to own my own sin. It also holds out the love and acceptance that I need so that I can come closer to God and to live my life in obedience to Him. It allows me the most precious words, "Your sins are forgiven, go in peace." No sweeter words have I ever heard.

God bless,

Lurking said...

If I ever find myself in a face-to-face confession (non-italian version), I'll just look the priest dead in the eye and make a general confession so I can get my worst sins in there.

Then he'll be the one running for the screened confessional.

Anonymous said...

I know this is years after this post but I feel I have to comment on behind the screen confession: this also is a protection for the priest. Especially with sexual sins, and when women confess in general the priest must be protected from facing the penitent. I've never seen any mention of that. We must always be discrete!

Boniface said...

haha...yeah, like seven years!

That is a great point. I am going to rework and update this article and incorporate that thought. You don't want an attractive woman confessing some lustful or sexual sin and the priest looking at her while she's talking about sexual stuff...he might think it's kind of hot and it could become a snare.

Anonymous said...

The primary historical reason the church brought in anonymous confession behind a screen was because the faithful
were not going to confession.

The idea was to make an often embarrassing encounter easier to deal with at a human level.

Therefore the notion of face to face confession is retrograde in the sense of serving the bulk of the catholic faithful.

That is why so few now go to confession and another proof of the disastrous effects of vatican 2.