Creating a Space for the Sacrament of Reconciliation

March 07, 2007


Catholics of an older generation--and still today the popular entertainment media--speak in animated fashion when recounting stories of harrowing experiences of Confession in “the good old days” when the sacrament was celebrated in the “box.” Clearly, there was something deeply evocative about the place and the manner in which the sacrament was once experienced that continues to capture the imagination of many people, even when they have long-ago abandoned the practice of going to confession “in the box.”

The challenge communities face today in renovating or creating a new space for the sacrament is imposing. How are we to capture the imagination of this generation (and the next) in so powerful a fashion that their memories many years hence will still be vivid? And, how are we to insure that those memories are positive ones that bespeak a renewed theology of the sacrament that emphasizes healing, forgiveness and reconciliation, rather than guilt, shame and fear? 

Official guidelines about the place of reconciliation are important to follow, but are quite sketchy. A quick review of those official guidelines can be summarized by saying that the place for the sacrament should:

*     assist the penitent’s conversion and proclaim reconciliation
*     be visible & accessible (including amplification & Braille for those requiring it)
*     provide a fixed grille or screen to assure anonymity
*     permit face-to-face interaction between priest and penitent
*     have a chair for the priest as well as kneeler and chair for the penitent
*     be sound-proofed
*     have lighting that is warm and inviting
*     provide space for a Bible
*     have appropriate artwork

Merely following these guidelines as the bare minimum required will certainly not inspire the kind of space that will lead to a renewed experience of Christ’s healing love and forgiveness. What is needed, instead, are spaces that connect with the same primal energies that the old “confessional boxes” managed to tap into, but that do so in a more positive, life-giving fashion.

The vision that must inspire architects and artists who shape reconciliation chapels needs to be thoroughly positive and life-giving. Primal symbols (light, especially) will need to be skillfully interwoven with colors, textures, shapes and forms that are inviting, calming, uplifting and reassuring. What if every reconciliation chapel became a place where an exquisite work of original art was placed? And what if reconciliation chapels became renowned throughout our country for the way they housed incredibly evocative images that invited people into the mystery of God’s freely given grace, poured out as sign and experience of unconditional love? Would that not give a new generation a different set of memories and associations, and thus shape the stories that fill the popular imagination in future years?

Think, for example, of the impact of entering a reconciliation chapel and being face-to-face with a piece of sculpture of the prodigal son and his father in tender embrace, or a contemporary Pietà, or a vivid painting of the Magdalene clutching the feet of the Risen Christ in the garden. Imagine generations of penitents who celebrate the sacrament while gazing at an open Bible with an illustration of the caliber of Donald Jackson’s St. John’s Bible, the page turned to an illumination that resonated deeply within their psyche, planting images of healing, of the life-force returning in a blaze of fire, of sin swept away in swirling waters.

Only if and when our spaces of reconciliation take our breath away with their beauty and resonate with primal memories of love and comfort--only then--will they support the renewed theology of the sacrament that the liturgical form aims to celebrate.

Rev. Robert D. Duggan is a priest of the Archdiocese of Washington.  He is the author of:  Creating A Catechetical Plan: A How-to-Do-It Resource (Washington, DC: NCEA, 2006); Confirmation (Filled with the Holy Spirit, they proclaimed the Lord Jesus) (San Jose, CA: RCL Publications, 2006); Teaching Kids the Basics of Liturgy: Making the Rituals More Meaningful (Thomas More Press, 2000); Parish Liturgy: A Handbook for Renewal (Kansas City: Sheed & Ward, 1996); and Conversion and the Catechumenate (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1984).  He is also the author of a new self-study tool for parishes:  Best Practices for Parishes available from the Paulist National Catholic Evangelization Association.


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