I have attended Mass in many places the world over, given how frequently my professional and academic duties require I travel, either to visit one of the University of Mary’s campuses worldwide where we have theology offerings (such as Tempe, Denver, or Rome) or to present papers at academic conferences stateside or in Europe. I’ve thus attended Masses in many different countries, rites, forms, and styles, and so the variety of experiences I’ve encountered in my travels occasion opportunities for liturgical reflection.
During this past Lent, I thought deeply about the introductory rites of the Mass, particularly the Penitential Act, for which the celebrant has three options. The first option (called in the Roman Missal “the formula of general confession”) is modeled on the traditional Confiteor (“I confess”), a direct confession of personal sin in its various dimensions:
I confess to almighty God and to you, my brothers and sisters, that I have greatly sinned, in my thoughts and in my words, in what I have done and in what I have failed to do, (And, striking their breast, they say) through my fault, through my fault, through my most grievous fault; therefore I ask blessed Mary ever-Virgin, all the Angels and Saints, and you, my brothers and sisters, to pray for me to the Lord our God.
The Kyrie follows this option (“Lord have mercy … Christ have mercy … Lord have mercy”).
The second option is a dialogue between priest and people:
Have mercy on us, O Lord. / For we have sinned against you.
Show us, O Lord, your mercy. / And grant us your salvation.
The Kyrie follows this second option as well.
The third option combines the Kyrie with words addressed to Christ:
You were sent to heal the contrite of heart: Lord, have mercy / Lord, have mercy.
You came to call sinners: Christ, have mercy / Christ, have mercy.
You are seated at the right hand of the Father to intercede for us: Lord, have mercy / Lord, have mercy.
During Lent, many priests employed the first option, the contemporary Confiteor, as something special for the penitential season, but usually use the third option the remainder of the liturgical year. The missal does provide options for the Penitential Act, so the priest must make a decision. But liturgical decisions are never matters of mere preference, as the Second Vatican Council taught that the liturgy is “the summit toward which the activity of the Church is directed” and indeed “the font from which all her power flows” (Sacrosanctum Concilium 10). Liturgical decisions therefore require thorough theological and pastoral consideration. The liturgy shapes us according to the ancient rule of lex orandi lex credendi—the law of liturgical prayer is the law of belief. And thus for good theological and pastoral reasons, it’s best to use the Confiteor not only during Lent, but throughout the entire liturgical year.
The Confiteor is superior to the other two options for the Penitential Act for several reasons, all drawing on its particular specificity. First, in reciting the Confiteor, the individual takes direct responsibility for his or her sin. The congregant says “I confess” out loud. (One notes here too the new English translation of the Roman Missal has restored the “I” of the Latin to the Creed: “I believe.” The Confiteor thus parallels the Creed nicely.) The second option involves “we” and “us” and thus makes for a more corporate and more general confession, while the third option does not involve congregants involving themselves directly at all: On whom should the Lord have mercy? For what? The Confiteor thus confronts, counters, and corrects the modern world’s rejection of the category of sin.
Second, the Confiteor names sin in all possible dimensions. Having begun the rite as individuals, congregants confess sin in the areas of thoughts, words, actions, and omissions. This too functions to counter the modern tendency to downplay sin; congregants confess and thus think about sin in all potential areas of life. Its detailed focus on sin may drive people to the confessional, in which the New Evangelization is said to begin.
Third, the Confiteor involves invocation of the Church militant and the Church triumphant in asking one’s brothers and sisters and all the angels and saints, including the Virgin, model and mother of the Church, “to pray for me to the Lord our God.” This reminds congregants that divine worship is much more than certain Christians in a given locality gathering together for prayer and praise. Rather, the eucharistic liturgy is attended also by angels and saints in our midst. The Confiteor thus reinforces the reality of the communion of the saints, the revival of which is requisite for a robust sense of the Church and thus her mission.
Fourth, the Confiteor is incarnational; it involves not just words but the bodily gesture of striking the breast in penitence while confessing one’s fault thrice over. It reminds congregants that we are not just wills, or minds, or hearts, but also bodies, and thus counters subtle Gnostic tendencies one finds in contemporary American religion.
Fifth, the Confiteor is ecumenical, as Protestant churches rooted in the Western liturgical tradition—here thinking of Lutherans and Anglicans in particular—use a version of it week in and week out. My wife and I both have deep experience in the Lutheran and Anglican traditions, and our weekly recitation of their versions of the Confiteor shaped us deeply to this day, giving us a proper, healthy sense of sin and forgiveness from a young age.
Sixth, the contemporary Confiteor stands in continuity with Catholic liturgical tradition as it is a simplified version of the Confiteor of the Vetus Ordo, in which one would confess to and request intercession from the Blessed Virgin Mary, St. Michael the Archangel, John the Baptist, and Ss. Peter and Paul in addition to one’s brothers and sisters and all the angels and saints. The other options are more recent inventions. Continuity in liturgy is a good thing, countering the hermeneutic of rupture which has proven so harmful to the peace, unity, and purity of the Church.
Thus, the Confiteor is formative in a way the other options are not; the particular contours of its directness, breadth, and specificity shape congregants in a particularly Catholic way according to the principle of lex orandi lex credendi (and thus lex vivendi). As St. Augustine once said, “The confession of evil works is the first beginning of good works.”
But there is one more and perhaps decisive reason why the Confiteor is the superior option for the Penitential Act: it is supremely pastoral.
In recent decades, theology and practice, doctrine and pastoral care, orthodoxy and orthopraxy have been separated. But this has not proven helpful, as if pastoral practice could thrive being rooted in something other than the truth. And so recently in another context the current Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Cardinal Gerhard Müller, asserted, “Doctrine and pastoral care are the same thing. Jesus Christ as pastor and Jesus Christ as teacher…are not two different people.” Thus good liturgical practice rooted in good theology will bear good pastoral fruit.
This the Confiteor does. Its breadth and specificity help us process our sins existentially. The Penitential Act occurs towards the beginning of Mass to help get worshippers ready to “celebrate these sacred mysteries” by cleansing them of venial sin and getting their minds and hearts right as they prepare to receive the Eucharist, Christ himself and thus God himself.
And often our minds and hearts are not right. It’s easy to commit venial sin and to have a troubled conscience at Mass. Spouses are often short with each other or children. Coarse language gets used. Prayers get neglected. Even on the very way to Mass on a Sunday morning sin can rear its head, as every Catholic parent of young children knows from the experience of trying to get them fed, dressed, brushed, out the door, buckled up, and into a pew on time for a quick prayer before the entrance chant begins.
But the precise words and actions of the Confiteor comfort the penitent: sin is confessed and acknowledged before all and pardon sought and received, individually, directly. With our consciences made thoroughly clear we may approach the sacrament with confidence.
And the sort of deep existential encounter with God’s transformative mercy is also what the Pope of mercy happens to want for Catholics. At a general audience some weeks ago, Pope Francis invoked the Confiteor when discussing the desired effects of attendance at Mass: “When, at the beginning of Mass, we say, ‘I confess,’ it’s not something pro forma. It’s a real act of penance.” Pope Francis also emphasized that attending Mass should involve “the grace of feeling forgiven.” The Confiteor facilitates this pastoral grace throughout the year, and so wise pastors would do well to employ it during Lent and beyond.