An announcement from our pastor appeared in the Sunday bulletin on July 25, 2004, under the heading of Projects Underway. It said the following:
As some of you already know, as a part of the accessibility plan, a washroom is presently being installed where the Confessional Booth was located. For those who are questioning, since more people are celebrating the Sacrament of Reconciliation face to face, the "booth" or "behind the screen" way of celebrating this beautiful Sacrament has been dwindling. People will still be given the option of face to face or behind the screen via a portable Confessional. Realistically speaking, the Sacrament can be celebrated anywhere and at anytime. You might say that's because the Church, ever since Vatican II, has reflected in her life and ministry the beauty of Jesus' reconciling Spirit of healing and grace via Sacred Scripture. At least a bathroom on the main level of the Church will serve a practical purpose. That's the essence of Jesus' life with us!
In April, I wrote about the problem of getting Catholics to go to confession. (Confession Digression, 4-25-04) One of the suggestions I made to priests was, "Be in the confessional with the door closed prior to the starting time, and do not leave until the end of the schedule. Those who wish to receive the Sacrament anonymously need to be assured that the priest will not wander out of the confessional, thereby invading their privacy." Despite the fact that many of those who go regularly are comfortable with face to face confession, many more are not. And even those who are comfortable on a routine basis, may not be comfortable after committing a serious sin. For this and other reasons, Churches are required to guarantee anonymity for those who desire it. Canon Law 964 says the following:
Can. 964 #1 The proper place for hearing sacramental confessions is a church or oratory. #2 As far as the confessional is concerned, norms are to be issued by the Episcopal Conference, with the proviso however that confessionals, which the faithful who so wish may freely use, are located in an open place, and fitted with a fixed grille between the penitent and the confessor. #3 Except for a just reason, confessions are not to be heard elsewhere than in a confessional.
Does our "portable confessional" meet the criteria prescribed in Canon Law 964? It consists of a kneeler with a small screen (about 18 inches square) which can be raised above the arm rest. It is hardly fixed. The "screen" itself is transparent. The priest sits on a folding chair facing sideways. While he may elect not to look the penitent in the eye, anonymity is by no means guaranteed. Remaining out of the priest's field of peripheral vision may require awkward restrictive movement. Even if he deliberately diverts his eyes, the penitent has to look directly at the priest through the see-through screen. No one wishing to be anonymous would be comfortable in this situation.
Father's bulletin assessment that, "Realistically speaking, the Sacrament can be celebrated anywhere and at anytime" may be technically true, but is not the prescribed method according to Canon Law 964, which says confessions must be normally be heard in a confessional in a church or oratory. The last line of 964 would infer that the confessional is to be an enclosure. Going into this confessional is not a possibility. Furthermore, Canon Law 986 says that regular times must be scheduled for confessions. (We are still in compliance with law 986.)
There is a certain irony to all of this that cannot escape me. Here we have a Catholic Church removing a facility used for cleansing of the soul and replacing it with one used for cleansing of the body. And the priest says, "At least a bathroom on the main level of the Church will serve a practical purpose." How sad. I bet the bathroom will be installed according to code, and it won't have a see-through screen.