Latest obsession: confessionals

I’ve got a confession to make: I’m a little bit obsessed with confessionals. I suspect this might be one of the weirdest things a priest could ever be told through a latticed window, but although I have no intention of repenting my curiosity-related sins, an explanation might be helpful…

My curiosity about confessionals had been growing since the first time I visited the brutalist church of Nuestra Señora del Buen Suceso, where I saw a whole row of modern confessional booths. There were a dozen of them, each with their own set of red and green indicator lights, but I was mostly taken aback by the fact that they were still in use.

Then I got chatting about it with some friends, who revealed that they were made to confess in school! When I asked what sort of things they confessed, one said: “You never actually told the truth. You just made something up like ‘I pulled my sister’s hair’ or something fairly low-key.” I giggled, but was left wondering what sorts of things people actually do confess. And so, I turned to the Internet…

You guessed it: cheating, jealousy, lying, theft – the usual ten-commandment-type things and everything in between. It gets dark, but I’m going to leave you to google that yourself.

Another friend, however, sees confessionals in a more positive light…

They’re like a beauty salon, because when you finish there, you always come away with a big smile!

If you step inside a Catholic church in Madrid, you will definitely find a confessional somewhere. It might take some walking around to find it, as the idea is that they’re discreet and therefore hidden in corners where worshippers tend not to roam. This also makes these ornate sculptures appear slightly sinister, like a Gothic portal to a parallel world.

Their designs vary, but most of the traditional booths are like wardrobes, where the priest sits in the middle with the door either open or closed. Some confessors prefer not to be aware of who they’re talking to, but others like to know, even if they’re not speaking to the priest face-to-face.

Some booths, such as this one below, have windows for the priest to look out of. The confessors kneel either side of the confessional, where there’s a screen for discreetness.

This confessional in Malasaña’s very own Sistine Chapel is my personal favourite with its jazzy art nouveau colours and design…

The Usera confessional below is more modern in style. It’s not so enclosed, and is much more no-frills, let’s say.

The Catholic church confessional had been going strong since the 3rd century, but the 21st-century has seen a significant drop in attendance. However, we may be witnessing a slight revival thanks to the confession app, which simply preps you for your penance. It’s kind of like googling your health symptoms, self-diagnosing, telling the doctor what you think you’ve got, and then having them prescribe you the appropriate remedies. Interesting, eh?

The next time you’re in a church – whether as relief from a hot summer’s day, to marvel at shocking grandeur or to actually attend mass – take a walk around to see if you can find the confessional lurking in a dark corner. Be careful though: you might find yourself becoming a little bit obsessed too.

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  • Great article. When I was in Catholic elementary school, we were marched into the adjoining church every Friday to “go to confession.” One by one we’d enter the confessional as the rest of us waited in the pews nearby for our turn. I’ll never forget when a girl in my class entered the confessional, and a minute later the voice of the priest suddenly boomed for all to hear, “You could go to hell for that!” Then, of course, she had to emerge, red-faced, to join her classmates.

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