The Roman Missal: The Penitential Rite

Whoops!  I accidentally posted my article on the Gloria a week early, skipping over the Confiteor.  So…

Of all the things in the world that people struggle with, I would think patience has to be toward the top.  Patience in waiting for someone to make up their mind whether they want to make a left turn, patience in making sure the kids are getting ready for school, patience in waiting for a simple cup of coffee at a restaurant, or however we might need patience.  Well, if you struggle with patience, welcome to the human race.  All of us are human (hopefully), all of us struggle, and all of us are sinners, whether we deal with patience or a number of other sins.

Sometimes it can make us feel better to admit that we’re all sinners, but it’s more important to remember that this isn’t the thing to give thanks for.  The thing that binds us together is the fact that Christ embraces us despite our sinfulness, and calls us to strive for holiness.  This of course requires that we admit that we’re wrong – to each other as the Church, and to God – and we take responsibility for our own actions.  We’re not recalling our friends’ sins, or our spouse’s, or the sins of the person sitting a few pews away, but we say “I have greatly sinned.”

The first part of Mass begins with the Penitential Rite, or the Confiteor (a Latin word meaning, you guessed it, “I confess”).  At this point in Mass, before we do anything else, we call to mind those sins weighing on our minds and ask for God’s forgiveness.  Just as a side note, this isn’t a sacramental confession, so you still have to go to Reconciliation for any serious sins (mortal sins), but it focuses on those sins that bother us throughout the day (venial sins).  When we pray the Penitential Rite together, we prepare ourselves to receive Jesus.  We know that we’re not perfect, but we strive to be repentant and humble people before God.

Most of this prayer remains unchanged in the new translation, but the most significant change is the phrase, “My fault, my fault, my most grievous fault.”  Many people may recognize this as being similar to the mea culpa in the Latin Mass, a phrase that has become part of our own cultural language.  Most of this change is to imitate the structure of the Latin (I’m sensing a theme here…), but we say it three times to put emphasis on it, as if we’re telling the Lord that we’re really, really, really sorry.

We’re also asked to “strike” our breast at this point.  Now, please do not smack yourself or beat your chest like a caveman.  That’s not the point.  A simple clenched fist tapping your heart is a beautiful symbol of the remorse and desire to change that each of us feels.  It’s another example of a beautiful thing about our Church: that our sacramental words, when they are spoken from the heart, are complimented by our sacramental actions.

Just think of the tax collector in Luke’s Gospel.  As he was praying and beating his breast in remorse, Jesus praised him because he was the one who recognized his own failings and need for mercy.  Next time you hear the Penitential Rite, and especially in the new translation, think of the tax collector and try to do the same!


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