The Penitential Act reminds us of our sinfulness, of God's glory and of our need for forgiveness.
by Msgr. James P. Moroney
Return of the Prodigal Son, c. 1667-1670, (oil on canvas) by Bartolomé Esteban Murillo (1617-1682) National Gallery of Art / Wikimedia Commons
EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the second in a series of articles on the Roman Missal in anticipation of the new English-language translation, effective in the United States beginning Nov. 27.
At the beginning of Mass, we ask for God's mercy and thereby acknowledge a timeless truth: God is big, we are little, and only he can save us from our sins.
The Church's liturgy has begun with some form of a "Penitential Act" since the first centuries, as reported in the Didache, one of our earliest descriptions of the Mass. All the baptized come together on Sunday for the breaking of the bread "after having confessed their sins."
Humility and contrition are unpopular in a world obsessed with celebrity. However, the holiness of the Church, according to the great liturgist Father Lucien Deiss, "consists precisely in recognizing herself a sinner in order to be able to welcome the forgiveness of Jesus."
There are three forms of the Penitential Act in the Roman liturgy. The first dates from the 11th century and is known by its first word in Latin: Confiteor. In the new translation of the Roman Missal, it reads: "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, (striking breast) 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."
While the Confiteor begins with a confession of sinfulness, it is also a proclamation of God's mercy, trusting in the intercession of the saints before the throne of God. In this new translation, there is a notable restoration of the once familiar triple mea culpa, accompanied by the striking of the breast in repentance, as well as the more accurate translation of the admission that I have "greatly sinned."
The second form of the Penitential Act is the shortest and is taken from Psalm 85:8. In this form, which is most often chosen for weekday Masses, the priest will now say "Have mercy on us, O Lord." And the people reply: "For we have sinned against you." The people's response to the second invocation‚ "Show us, O Lord, your mercy"‚ remains unchanged: "And grant us your salvation."
The third option for the Penitential Act consists of a series of acclamations praising the mercy of Christ. Our response to each is the ancient cry for mercy: Kyrie Eleison (Lord, have mercy), Christe Eleison (Christ, have mercy). There are many suggested acclamations for this third form of the Penitential Act in the Roman Missal. Each is a proclamation of praise for God's mercy and not, as sometimes happens, an enumeration of our sins.
The Kyrie response is used in each of the forms of the Penitential Act. It is one of the oldest and most treasured prayers of the Catholic Church and the only part of the Mass still in Greek. It also echoes the prayer of the two blind men begging to see (Mt 9:27), of Bartimaeus (Mk 10:47-48), and of the Canaanite woman for her little daughter (Mt 15:22).
Each of the three forms of the Penitential Act begins the same way, with an invitation by the priest to quietly recall our need for God's abundant mercy. This is followed by one of three formulas of general confession and is concluded by the priest's prayer of absolution, in which he prays that God will forgive our sins and lead us to everlasting life.
While this prayer does not possess the same efficacy as the prayer of absolution in the sacrament of penance, it does help us begin each Mass by recalling that we are little, broken and sinful, and that only God's mercy, majesty and glory can save us.
Msgr. James P. Moroney served as executive secretary of the Vox Clara Committee. A priest of the Diocese of Worcester, Mass., he is a faculty member of St. John's Seminary in Boston and a member of Our Lady of Guadalupe at St. Paul's Council 12182 in Worcester.