The typical confessional is like three small adjacent closets, each with a door. Each cubicle is barely big enough for a large person. The priest sits on a bench in the middle cubicle and the Catholic penitents kneel in the cubicles on either side. The priest slides open a panel to listen to the penitent, rotating side to side. It is dark in the confessional. “Bless me, Father, for I have sinned” the penitent begins, and then confesses his sins to the priest. The priest gives the penitent a penance (perhaps ten Hail Marys or five Our Fathers or whatever) and then declares, “Te absolvo” (“I forgive you”).
The confessional was a thirteenth century invention. Previous to this the priest and the penitent had to find a dark, private corner in the church and this was a cause of great temptation when the penitent was a woman.
PROBLEMS WITH THE CONFESSIONAL
Imagine the humiliation suffered by the wife who commits a lustful sin, whether in conduct or in thought, and has to enter the confessional to give a report of her sin to an unmarried man. Like (imaginary) Judy……
Judy hates the confessional. She can still remember her first confession as a seven year old, entering that dreadful box, speaking her dark sins into darkness, knowing a man in black on the other side was hearing about the times she called Tommy a rotten egg, and all the cookies she stole, and the time she pretended to be sick so she wouldn’t have to help with dishes. As a married woman, Judy tried very hard to avoid serious transgressions, the dread of the confessional a major factor in keeping her in check. The CC requires her to go to confession at least once a year regardless, but confessing little sins, like impatience toward the kids or feelings of jealousy, was tolerable. But this time she slipped and committed what the CC might consider a mortal sin. A moment of weakness and now Judy must pay dearly. She must suffer the ultimate humiliation. She is forced to disclose a terribly personal matter in a dark box to an unmarried man.
Judy is trapped. If she does not confess her sin to a priest who alone, she has been taught since childhood, has power to forgive her sins, she risks eternal damnation. And she will never be able to receive Communion on Sunday. It is so embarrassing sitting in the pew while everyone else lines up for Communion. What will her children think? What great sin has Mommy done that she can’t receive communion? What are others imagining?
So she has to go to confession. She must enter that dark box, kneel in contrition and await the dreaded panel to slide open. She has already confessed her sin to God, but that won’t suffice. The priest must hear. She must share her dark secret with an unmarried man. Waiting, waiting for that panel to slide open.
She hears the muffled voice of Father Whoever talking to the penitent on the other side…something about trying harder to avoid occasions of temptation and being more tolerant with others. Waiting, waiting. She picked her confessor carefully. Father Whoever is past middle-aged, and if she lowers her voice just so, and spoke in an unusually slow and deliberate manner, he might not recognize her. She didn’t think he would probe like some priests, demanding to know every detail, more curious than concerned. Or worse yet, becoming aroused. The stories she has heard! Waiting, waiting. Oh God, I hope he doesn’t recognize me!
Suddenly the panel slides open. Only a few inches of space and a thin screen separate her from the man in black. Under no other circumstance would she ever be in a dark place whispering intimate secrets in the ear of a man. But this is a Catholic priest, and so it is right, and it is required. Or so the priests and nuns and Mom and Dad had taught her since childhood. “Bless me, Father, for I have sinned,” she blurts out. Her mouth is dry, her voice raspy, she is tempted to flee. “It is about six months since my last confession. About six weeks ago Bill and I…oh…I mean, my husband and I…were at this party and…well…everyone was drinking a little too much and…”
Judy leaves the confessional abused and angry, less a person than she was ten minutes previous.