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The confessional is one part of a life where hearing loss gets in the way. For those uninitiated to the concept, religious confession is most widely practiced in the Catholic Church. This is how it works: there are two side-by-side compartments with seating inside. The penitent goes into one compartment, the priest goes into the other, and they communicate via a screen that connects the two. The penitent can confess whatever’s weighing on his or her mind, and once the confession is done, the priest performs a Sacrament of Penance, which forgives the penitent.

You can see how this would make life infinitely harder for a person with hearing loss who wanted to confess. First of all, the confessional’s division between penitent and priest provides a sense of security — the penitent doesn’t have to look at the priest directly while confessing. And even if the penitent were comfortable confessing out in the open, in front of the priest, not everyone knows sign language. Confessional could be a huge problem for those with hearing loss.

That is, until a priest from Phoenix, Arizona figured out a solution. His name is Father Romuald P. Zantua and he calls his invention “St. Damien’s Confession Box” — named after St. Damien of Molokai, a saint in the 19th century who, after moving to Molokai (a Hawaiian island) to help a community of lepers, was forbidden to leave under a decree by the Honolulu Board of Health. Unfortunately, Molokai didn’t have a confessional, which proved hard for St. Damien at first — until he reinvented confessional for himself by confessing out in the open while on a boat at sea.

How does the St. Damien Confession Box work? Through none other than laptops. The penitent has a laptop, as does the priest, and both these laptops are connected to each other via a cable. A special software application ensures that signals are passed only between these two laptops, which secures the messages. Additionally, they don’t connect to the Internet and the priest’s laptop has a password to limit any possibility of unauthorized use.

So, just like that, the penitent and priest type to each other via laptop, and once the penance has been announced, the messages on the laptops aren’t stored. It sidesteps the issue of translating from vocals to sign language and vice versa — in addition to sidestepping the issue of messy handwriting.

At the moment, Father Zantua is awaiting approval from the Holy See, which is the Catholic Church’s jurisdictional body. If they do approve it, the St. Damien Confession Box would be implemented inside churches and used alongside traditional confessionals, making it just one more way to make hearing impaired individuals (and speech-impaired) individuals feel more at home in their environments.

by Andrea Garcia Vargas