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Peregrinus Gasolinus: Wandering Notes on the Liturgy; Chapter 9

Confessionals

The Antiquary is much in demand as preacher and confessor during the Forty Hours Devotion[1] in parishes not too far from his place of residence, that is to say, conveniently reached via flivver. With him, more often than not, goes the Liturgiologist who, tho no orator, is useful for the direction of ceremonies, and not unwelcome as “life of the party” at the mild symposia[2] of the clergy connected therewith. It was after the close of such an occasion, fortified by a repast which both the old priests pronounced primus inter pares,[3] that the two friends were returning homeward in their “Lincoln Pup”[4] and, with all possible charity, discussing the events of the day. The Liturgiologist, who, as may be remembered, inclines to corpulency, was singing the praises of the Pastor, who, himself hardly emaciated, had installed an armchair in “the box” in place of the usual shelf which places a penance upon the confessor and, one fears, assists in the imposition of heavier penances upon the penitents.

“One would think,” said he, “that the construction of tribunals was regulated by Canon Law, and that the Code, usually so merciful, expressly intended that the priest should be made as uncomfortable as possible during the performance of his exercise of the ministry of reconciliation.”

“The old way strikes me as more picturesque,” said the Antiquary, dimming his headlights for a passing machine, which, as usual, failed to reciprocate the courtesy. “A chair in the aisle, or even in the sacristy, and the penitent kneeling at the priest’s side—so simple, so gracious, with the imposition of hands during absolution. One always sees it so in the old pictures—indeed the box is an innovation, and an unaesthetic innovation at that.”

“But don’t forget, my dear Pere, that the box is one innovation which is fully approved, indeed commanded, by the Church. Of course, the box, qua box,[5] is not ordered, but the crates is, and the box is a useful and on the whole convenient extension of the crates. It isn’t comfortable, and isn’t meant to be, tho both priest and penitent may be thankful if a good architect and a sensible carpenter have had a hand in its construction.”

“About the grating,” broke in the Antiquary. “Is it always required? One often sees priests, at Forty Hours and other times when many are hearing, sitting at the altar railing, or beside a prie dieu,[6] and the people coming up quite simply, after the fashion of the olden times which I have mentioned.”

“Of course there are exceptions to every rule, and I suppose necessity knows no law,” was the Liturgiologist’s reply. “Canon 909 section 2 makes the crates of strict obligation for the ‘sedes confessionalis’[7] which, I take it, is any structure regularly employed as a confessional, be it box, prie dieu, corner of sacristy or other room, or any fixed confessional in any church or oratory either public or semi-public.


Don Bosco hearing confessions
of his boys

Contemporary confessional

Open field confession
at a prie dieu

The first section of that Canon requires that the confessional where women are heard must be located in an open and conspicuous place, usually in the church itself, tho we must not suppose that the Code rules out confessionals in the vestibule, or a suitable place in the sacristy for the convenience of the deaf. It would seem that men may be heard in any room, but the provision for the crates for the sedes confessionalis applies always and everywhere, Augustine says ‘The grate is of obligation everywhere, in all parts of the world.’ Canon 910 expressly permits that confessions of men may be heard even in private houses, but that women may not be heard extra sedem confessionalem,[8] except for the reason of infirmity, and then only under precautions prescribed by the local ordinary.”

“You think, then,” asked the Antiquary, “that hearing women at the altar rail is an abuse?”

“Undoubtedly,” was the instant response of the Liturgiologist. “A prie dieu with a grate in an open and conspicuous place, would fulfill the canonical conditions. But I’ve noticed in my quest for topsy-turvy customs, many strange usages. For example, do you remember Fr. Torculus’[9] Forty Hours last Spring? You heard in the box, but I was sent up into the sanctuary, where a prie dieu without a grate was placed be­hind a screen which hid both myself and my penitents. I had a scruple about it, but after all it wasn’t my parish!”

“Yet,” mused the Antiquary, “that same Fr. Torculus is so careful about even the most the remotely possible scandal that he has a veil over the gratings in the box. Tell me, have you ever been able to find any rule about that veil? One finds it in some place, and not in others.”

“I once had the occasion to consult the ‘Approved Authors’ on that very point,” answered the Liturgiologist, “and not a word could I find about it! To be sure, I didn’t search through the entire range of the regulations of St. Charles[10] for his model diocese, else I’d likely have found it! It must have some authority, else it wouldn’t be so general. But it certainly isn’t required, unless by the statutes of certain dioceses. Some priests prefer not to see their penitents, and some penitents prefer not to be seen, even in the dimness of the box and by the vague outlines discernible through the crates. Myself, I never trouble to look in that direction, unless when hearing children. I remember once, when I was first out on the Mission, giving very good advice (I thought) to a little boy, and saying ‘my son’ more than once during the course of it, only to have the mite pipe up ‘if you please, Father, I’m a girl!’ But even Lohner,[11] whose wise counsel should certainly be a guide for confessors when he says ‘Mutus aspectus fugiatur: quid enim prosunt crates ferreae si per oculorum januam intromittatur hostis quern illae arcere deberent?’[12] does not mention a veil.”

“Did you say ‘crates ferreae?’”[13] interjected the Antiquary.

“No,” snapped the Liturgiologist, who just then was grave incommodo[14] on account of the thickening of the traffic as they approached the city. “Lohner said that, and so did a regulation of the S. C. de Prop. Fide[15] in 1780, and all ‘Approved Authors’ say so as well. Of course the grate should be of iron or other metal, and St. Charles even prescribes that the perforations should not be bigger than the ring finger. But wooden gratings are not unlawful, and the fly screens sometimes seen are well within the law.”

“Almost home,” soothed the Antiquary.

“I don’t like riding at night,” growled the Liturgiologist.

“Nor at any other time,” laughed his friend. “But I notice you keep on riding, day and night, for all that!”

“One needs fresh air,” was the rejoinder, as the flivver rattled to a stop before its tin abode.

“Especially in confessionals,” assented the Antiquary, as he dismounted and opened the doors of “Lizzie’s Kennel.”[16]

“And there ought to be a regulation about that, too,” said the Liturgiologist.


Footnotes

1 A three-day (or 40 hours) period of public exposition of the Blessed Sacrament with three special Masses (two coram Sanctissimo) and two Eucharistic processions.

2 Latin for or “symposium” or “gathering”.

3 Latin for “first among equals”.

4 A type of speedster, or open racing-style car of the 1920s.

5 A pun on the English word “box” upon the Latin phrase of “in so far as the fish”, meaning, so long as the crate or box was not previously used for delivering or storing fish.

6 The French term for a “kneeler”, meaning literally “pray (beseech) God”.

7 Latin for “confessional seats”.

8 Latin for “outside the confessional seating area”.

9 A witty name from the Latin word for a “wine press” (or a “tourniquet”) referring back to “topsy-turvy”.

10 St. Charles Borromeo, who while the archbishop of Milan, compiled a much-cited treatise on material requisites for the liturgy (i.e., the arrangement of the sanctuary, its furniture, the altar) titled, Acta Ecclesiae Mediolanensis. His instructions are the basis for the laws developed in these matters after the Council of Trent.

11 Fr. Tobias Lohner (+1697), an Austrian Jesuit theologian who wrote several works on moral theology, ascetical and pastoral matters. The Liturgiologist is most likely citing his Instructio practica de confessionibus rite ac fructose excipiendis published posthumously in 1726.

12 A rough translation: “Shun the appearance of a mute: for what benefit are iron gratings, if through the door of the eyes the enemy is admitted when it should be warded off?

13 Latin for “iron grates”.

14 Latin for “grave inconvenience.”

15 The Latin abbreviation for the Sacred Congregation of the Propagation of the Faith, also called the “Holy Office”.

16 The Antiquary’s nickname for the car’s garage.


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