Pope Francis leads a penitential liturgy in St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican March 28. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)
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:
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 credendithe 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
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
traditionhere thinking of Lutherans and Anglicans in particularuse 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.
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.
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.
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.