When to enter the confessional

Hi everyone,

I’m newly confirmed in the Church, and I’ve only gone to confession a couple times so far. I’m wondering when exactly I’m supposed to enter the confessional booth.

Last time I went, the priest went inside the middle booth, and the ones to either side were both dark. He ended up opening the doors. Someone went in one, and the priest opened the window, so the little light shone through a hole in the shape of a cross on the top. The other door was open, so I figured I’d go inside and close the door. Well turns out it was pitch black in there, and I could faintly hear the other parishioner’s murmurs (not words, just intonations). After the other parishioner was done, the priest opened up my window and didn’t say anything, so I’m not sure if what I did was correct or not.

Was it ok for me to be in there? Should I go in and just leave the door open until the priest opens the window, or should I close the door and sit in the dark? I was worried someone might come up and think my booth was empty, since I’m not sure what the proper etiquette is.

Thanks in advance for responses!

You should wait until the other person is done with their confession before entering at all.


It is o.k. to wait in the other confessional while the person in the other one is confessing…that’s really the idea. I expect the system of having two confessionals in one was meant to keep the line moving more quickly in the days when it was common for people to go to confession on a Saturday - this certainly would have been the situation in Ireland for many years. I suppose sitting in a dark confessional for a few minutes can give one a moment for deeper reflection too.

It would be quite common for many confessionals to have a light outside to indicate if the confessional is occupied or not. If this is not the case, then it might be an idea to leave the door slightly ajar to indicate that it is unoccupied.

Many churches are now making their confessionals more “open” now, with part-glass doors - there is the option of making a face-to-face confession or an anonymous one.

This is not good advice. All confessionals are not equal. Some are not sound proof, because the “2 in 1” is sometimes anonymous vs face to face.

The very fact that you can hear muffled voices is proof enough to NOT be in the confessional when someone else is confessing.

I notice that my response contradicts what Agapewolf said - anyway, I have just posted my experience, and related how we do things in Ireland, where you wait in the confessional until the priest opens the grille! Even if you are waiting in the other confessional, you shouldn’t be able to make out what the other penitent is saying; needless to say, you shouldn’t attempt to make out what they are saying.

All of the Confessionals I have seen in the U.S. (and I haven’t seen them all :)) that are as you have described have two sides only because one side is for face-to-face Confession while the other side is for confessing behind the screen. It would not be appropriate to enter one side while the other side is occupied.

It sounds like things are different in Ireland, though. You learn something new every day. :o

Here are some options:
*]Check to see what thype of Confessional is the one at your parish.
*]Ask the priest about the proper etiquitte (don’t feel awkward about asking; it’s allowed :))
*]Stay further back in the Confession line next time and observe what everyone else is doing.
Without any further info, I would err on the side of not going in to the other side until the previous penitent has exited the Confessional. Better to slow down the line a little than to overhear someone else’s Confession.

Ok. So if there are two confessionals (and I’m in the States), then perhaps the norm is nowadays To just wait outside and go into the one that the other person leaves? Pretty sure this particular church building is from the late 1800s or so, so matbe the double booth thing is old fashioned.

Thanks for summing up Joe. I’ll do that next time.

There is, of course, (as Joe said) always the option of asking your parish priest directly - this would be the right thing to do.

I wonder, though, if it is not appropriate to enter the confessional whilst the other is occupied, what exactly is the purpose of having two confessionals if they cannot both be occupied at once. Confessions should not really be audible anyway - priests would traditionally sit quite close to the grille, so the penitent was essentially speaking directly into the priest’s ear. Also, if the person waiting one confessional can hear mumblings from the other - even through the priest’s booth in the middle - the people waiting outside will likely hear just as much.

Another point is that waiting in the confessional could also serve to protect the seal of the confessional as one does not always see who has confessed directly before them, nor will they know who has entered the confessional while they themselves are confessing. Also worth noting is that in continental Europe it is quite common for the confessional not to have any doors at all - it means that all penitents are in full view of others, even though their confession to the priest is still through a grille, anonymous. In such cases, having two spaces for penitents indicates that use is to be made of both. Some such confessionals may have a curtain surrounding them, but if sound-proofing is an issue, then the confession should really be whispered.

Good point. I have never been to a parish where the two sides were basically identical as you have described. In such a case, it would seem that the whole point of having two sides is so that a person could enter on either side and thus speed the process along.

I always assumed that a Confessional with two sides meant that one was for face-to-face while the other was for behind-the-screen. Perhaps that is a more recent American development. Good to know. :thumbsup:

No - both sides would always have had a grille, at least in my experience!

Many of the modern confessionals have only one door, and once inside, one has the option of anonymous or face-to-face confession (one always has a right to an anonymous confession though). Several churches in Ireland have converted old confessionals to incorporate this type of setup - a major reason, sadly (though, not to say it’s not a good idea), is as part of new child-protection measures introduced by various dioceses.

Very interesting. One of the parishes in my area is very traditional (architecturally speaking) and was built in the 1800s. They have four very beautiful confessionals with the priest in the center and two sides, but one is for face-to-face and the other has the grille. Now I am wondering if they weren’t originally as yours are but were later modified. Hmmm… :hmmm:

That the priest opened the window on your side strongly suggests that you were in the right place. If he didn’t expect someone to be in that confessional, he wouldn’t have opened the window. As others have said, feel free to ask. Confession can be nerve-wracking enough - you shouldn’t have to worry about being in the wrong place!

I’ve been to many parishes in the U.S. where confessionals are oriented as you describe: the priest sits in a small room between two confessionals. Let’s call them A and B. Sometimes A is for behind-the-screen confessions and B is for face-to-face, but usually they’re the same. (That is, you can do only behind-the-screen confession or both types in either confessional.) When confession begins, people enter both A and B at the same time. The priest hears A’s confession while B waits his turn. The point is speed, but unfortunately, as the OP mentioned, one waiting to confess often can hear mumbling from the other side. Still, the practice is for someone to be in both confessionals at all times - one person confessing and the other waiting.

This is common in many churches built in the 60s and early 70s. After that, the Reconciliation Room took hold.

I am sure glad to read this discussion!

When I returned to the church after many years and went to confession I was very confused–there were the two doors and the custom when I had gone many years ago was for a person to enter as soon as one had exited and wait while the priest heard the confession from the other side.

However, I couldn’t tell if anyone was in either side and there wasn’t a line of people so that I could tell what I should do.

I finally asked someone who was setting up in the choir area for the vigil Mass…

I don’t know what I would have done if I had entered and found it face to face…! I didn’t know about that at the time.

(And yes, I should have made a private appointment with the priest for my confesstion after so many years, but this got the job done.)

The church I regularly attend is a mission church with no regular confession hours (the above happened at the parish church). Sometimes (at the mission church) if the priest is in a hurry (he has other Masses at other churches) he will take you to a pew away from anyone else to hear your confession, even though we do have a regular confessional (with face to face or a grille, BTW.).

In Mexico City at the cathedral they had open structures that looked like they could even be moved. The priest sat in the middle and could hear the confessions from either side through a grille, but the front was completely open for all to see. No, I didn’t use one of these, but I did see one in use.

I never would have thought that this could be so confusing.

My own parish has the traditional confessionals, with the priest in the middle, and a penitent’s station on each side. Both sides are identical. When the priest finishes with one penitent, he closes the grille door on that side and opens it on the other side, where another penitent is waiting. Face to face is theoretically possible (the curtains over the grille would have to be pulled aside from both the priest’s and penitent’s side of the grille) but the parish has elected not to use this option.

When the priest is in his station, a light over the priest’s station lights up to show he is inside.
When a penitent kneels at the kneeler inside one side of the confessional, a light on that side lights up to show it is occupied.

The confessionals are well lit inside, so it’s not dark. Personally, I preferred the dark, but you can’t have everything.

This setup isn’t old. The church was remodeled about 10 years ago, including these new confessionals, which provide excellent privacy.

Sheesh, I guess I’m just more out of touch than I realized. :blush: That’s what I get for assuming that my personal experience is the norm. :o

Many older parishes will have 3 small rooms, with 2 grilles.

|  1  :  P  :  2  |
+     +_____+     +

when the door is open on either 1 or 2, enter that room.
Never enter the center room; if the door is open, the padre is packing up or just got there, or is too hot.

Note that when this is used, there are sliding barriers on the priest’s side. When you hit the kneeler, the priest is made aware (by bell or light, depending on age), and when he’s done with Room 1, he closes that room’s barrier, and opens room 2’s barrier. When done with 2, back to 1.

Common in Alaska is

| 1 : P  | 
|   :   2|
+-+   +--+

In this case, only one person enters; use either 1 or 2.

Oh, and if you go to a Byzantine Rite parish for confessions, expect no confessionals; tadition is to confess stading in the front of the nave…

There is a parish down the road which has a set-up like your second example above. The penitent enters and can choose either behind the screen (1) or face to face (2). The door would be to the left so that the priest doesn’t see you unless you walk past the screen to go face to face.

The only problem with this is, as far as I know, no one uses the face to face option; thus it would actually be more efficient to use the standard confessional.

All the responses from my perspective are right on target. My parish has closed one of the doors and used the other space for a face to face reconciliation. Yet where the OP was remarking about possibly hearing another confession to our Lord, what about the penitents who after their confession kneel immediately outside the confessional?

I guess I will become old one of these days, but regardless if one can hear “murmurs” or the actual language, I pray I respect the privilege of others! :slight_smile:

And, just so someone says it, if you do happen to overhear part of someone else’s Confession, you are also bound by the seal of the Sacrament. In other words, you can’t tell anyone what you heard. :slight_smile:

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