The Mass in Slow Motion – The Penitential Rite

The Penitential Rite in general – Let us recall that we have just acknowledged and celebrated the presence of Christ among us. First we welcomed him as he walked the aisle of our Church, represented by the Priest Celebrant. The altar, another sign and symbol of Christ was then reverenced. Coming to the chair, a symbol of a share in the teaching and governing authority of Christ, the priest  then announced the presence of Christ among us in the liturgical greeting.  Now, in the Bible whenever there was a direct experience of God, there was almost always an experience of unworthiness and even a falling to the ground! Isaiah lamented his sinfulness and needed to be reassured by the angel (Is 6:5). Ezekiel fell to his face before God (Ez. 2:1). Daniel experienced anguish and terror (Dan 7:15). Job was silenced before God and repented (42:6); John the Apostle fell to his face before the glorified and ascended Jesus (Rev 1:17). Further the Book of Hebrews says that we must strive for the holiness without which none shall see the Lord (Heb 12:14). Thus is makes sense that, acknowledging the presence of the Lord and longing to see him more clearly,  we ought to repent of our sins and seek the Lord’s mercy. How can we, who enter the presence of the Holy not see more clearly our sins and desire to be free of them?

Thus, The priest invites them (the congregation) to take part in the penitential rite which the entire community carries out through a communal confession and which the priest’s absolution brings to an end. He uses these or similar words, Let us acknowledge our sins that we may worthily celebrate these sacred mysteries. The priest and people recall their sins and repent of them in silence. The penitential rite may take a number of different forms.

  • A confiteor (I confess) recited by the priest and people together followed by the absolution
  • A rarely used Miserere consisting of the following formula:
    • Lord We have sinned against you. Lord Have Mercy.
    • Lord Have Mercy
    • Lord show us your mercy and love.
    • And grant us your salvation.
  • A Kyrie Litany. There are numerous forms for this given in the sacramentary which are not themselves seen as an exhaustive list since, once again, the directive indicates that “the priest (or some other suitable minister) makes the following or other invocations. Here is one sample:
    • You raise the dead to life in the Spirit. Lord have mercy.
    • You bring pardon and peace to the sinner. Christ have mercy.
    • You bring light to those in darkness. Lord have mercy.

History of the Penitential Rite. It is a rather surprising fact to many that, strictly speaking, there is no history to the penitential rite in the Mass prior to Vatican II. The inclusion of the penitential rite as a communal gesture is an innovation in the new order of the mass. “But Father, but Father!” you might say, “I remember the old Mass and hearing the priest and servers recite the confiteor and strike their chest three times!” True there was a confiteor in the Tridentine Liturgy but this was a private devotional gesture between the priest and the servers done at the foot of the altar which was actually prior to the actual beginning of Mass. Thus the introduction of this element into the Mass itself and as a communal gesture is new. Some have suggested a historical precedent may be found in Protestantism. Communal confession of sins was first introduced into protestant communion services of the 16th century. Others However, see its roots in the Eastern liturgies wherein a penitential act at the beginning of Mass is almost universal and very ancient in origin. The form of this practice varied however and was sometimes linked to the incensing at the beginning of mass. Even as early as the Didache (written ca 90-100 AD) a confession of sins is prescribed before the Sunday celebration of the Eucharist: “On the Lord’s day gather together, break bread and give thanks after confessing your transgressions so that your sacrifice may be pure. Let no one who has a quarrel with his neighbor join you until he is reconciled, lest your sacrifice defiled. For this is that which was proclaimed by the Lord, “In every place and time let there be offered to Me a clean Sacrifice’” Elements of the Penitential rite (the confiteor and the kyrie) do have a history and their histories will be dealt with separately below.

The History of the Confiteor (I Confess). The history of this part of the Mass is somewhat convoluted. The remote history may be found in the Western Liturgy  in the silent worship which the Pope made when he first came to the altar. Later (by the 7thcentury) this silent prayer became more elaborate with the directive being that the celebrant lie prostrate before the altar. Likewise, the nature of the prayer came to be more specified. The celebrant was directed to pour forth prayers for himself of for the sins of the people. The general term for this was the apologiae and may be called the forerunner of the confiteor. Thus a penitential theme is introduced. By the 11th century the Confiteor had developed as a specific dialogue between the Celebrant and those immediately around him. Thus he not only acknowledges his sinfulness before God but also before those who serve him and asks their mediation on his behalf. The actual text of the confiteor, was taken from those used in sacramental confession. The oldest confiteor formulas were simple and brief. For example here is an 11th Century version from Cluny, “I confess to God and before all His saints and you, Father, that I have sinned in thought word and deed through my fault. I ask you to pray for me. They confessed before God and the heavenly Church (i.e. the saints) as well as asking intercession from the Church on earth. In the Gothic period there grew a practice of listing some of the Saints by name. This is evident in the confiteor used in the Tridentine Mass. The shorter, simpler version of the confiteor now prescribed is closer to the oldest formulas although the angels and the Mother of God are still specifically mentioned in addition to the general phrase “all the saints.” Both versions can be compared HERE. One other difference today from the Tridentine Mass is that there is no longer a separate recitation of the confiteor for priest and the servers. Now the communal aspect of the act is stressed even while the personal aspect is retained: I confess.

The History of the Kyrie is much more complicated and will be covered in a  separate post.

Sometimes in the Extraordinary Form of the Mass there is a second recitation of the  Confiteor just prior to communion that may even be sung.

One Reply to “The Mass in Slow Motion – The Penitential Rite”

  1. If I not mistaken, didn’t the 1962 use (the “authorized” Extraordinary Form) abolish the double Confiteor, retaining it only after (or during, at a High Mass) the introit?

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