In older Catholic churches it is common to see one or more confessionals, small "rooms" built out from the side or back wall of the church containing a place for the priest confessor to sit, separated by a screen or grill from the place for the penitent to kneel and confess his or her sins.
It is becoming increasing popular however to be offered the choice to speak face-to-face with the priest and has necessitated the remodeling of confessionals in some churches and the construction of a reconciliation chapel in others.
When I was received into the Church and had to make my first Confession I used a confessional and it continues to be the method I usually use however, there has been the occasion when through circumstance I have found myself sitting in front of the priest.
Upon comparing the two I found I also instinctively preferred the confessional however, it was not until I pondered the choice a little more that I managed to understand why and this is what I concluded:
1. Using a confessional personifies the fact that the priest is acting in persona Christi as I am not actually seeing a person before me.
2. It much easier to be straight about the sins I have to confess whereas in front of a priest I stutter, twiddle my fingers and look at my knees.
3. You can kneel (before God and ask forgiveness) true there is no reason why you could not kneel before the priest however, this does not appear the practice and instead you simply take a seat.
4. You can conceal your identity however, in my experience as I go to confession regularly I can tell from the comments I have received when the priest is giving advice that he knows who I am. This have never actually bothered me though as I find it saves me having to explain myself in lots of detail and can be useful to the priest when he is trying to offer guidance. Nonetheless can also understand why being anonymous might appeal to some people.
5. On perhaps a more personal note I sometimes cry when I go to confession and would hate the priest to see me although I think he can probably tell sometimes from the quiver in my voice.
I did wanted to include some more information on how confession developed over time but I only know bit and pieces of information so could not put anything together however, I did manage to find this interesting piece on the history of the confessional booth:
Confessionals are always made out of wood, since it was thought inappropriate to use more costly materials for non-liturgical church furnishings. Several types of confessional were in existence during the Middle Ages. In the 12th century the priest was seated while the penitent knelt in front of him.
From the 14th century in Sweden, where men lived alongside women in double monasteries, grilles were inserted in special recesses in the choir walls to prevent the priest from coming into contact with the sisters. The first confessional rooms, with a grille opening into the church, appeared in Portugal in the early 15th century (e.g. at Guarda Cathedral); a century later (1517–20), at S Maria, Belém, in Lisbon, the confessional room was extended to a double alcove, one for the priest and another for the penitent, connected by a grille.
During the Reformation, after a number of disputes over the objectivity of confession, regulations for the sacrament were drawn up at the Council of Milan (1565): The confessional itself was to have a partition with a grille through which the priest could communicate with the penitent. St Carlo Borromeo also recommended that the priest’s seat should be closed off on two sides, with a roof above. The addition of a third enclosure behind the penitent was proposed at the Council of Mechelen (1607).
The earliest confessionals of the Counter-Reformation consist of two parts and are closed off at the sides with a roof over the top. This, the alcove type, first gained popularity in Italy. Later a three-piece confessional of this form appeared in the southern Netherlands and south Germany. During the 17th century two further types consisting of three sections came into use: the cell type, which is similar to the alcove type but has no roof (e.g. the Klosterkirche, Stromberg, Germany), and the alcove-cell type, which has a roof over the priest’s alcove but open cells for the penitents (e.g. Onze-Lieve-Vrouw, Aarschot, Belgium; 1647).