Missa – Confiteor
The Penitential Rite follows next in this series on the Catholic Mass. This rite has several different formulas which may be used during the mass. Also the rite may be omitted during certain masses, usually because another ceremony is used which takes care of this part of the process of worship. For instance the Blessing of Ashes on Ash Wednesday or the Rites of Blessing during the Easter season.
Right after the Greeting the priest will begin the rite by calling those gathered to “..acknowledge our sins, and so prepare ourselves to celebrate the sacred mysteries”. In a way this is a type of “confession/absolution”, but a general one. It doesn’t replace the sacrament of reconciliation (Confession) or absolve one of a mortal sin.
The first of the formulas in this rite is a prayer of repentance called the “Confiteor” or “I confess”. What you will find with most catholic prayers is that they are usually named after the first words in the prayer. We say the “Glory be”, “Our Father” and “Hail Mary”. The same goes with the Confiteor, in Latin. However this was also known as the “Mea Culpa” which translates as “my fault”, and is a phrase found further in in the prayer. To be honest, I really don’t know what this prayer is called in English as I’ve never heard anyone say “Let’s pray the “I confess”!”, but what I do know is that it is one of my favorite prayers. It is a prayer of repentance and confession, and what I like about it is that it paints a picture of the mystical body of Christ, which is the church, as something that functions as a community or a communion.
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,
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 prayer begins by confessing to God and to the community; as a community. In one stroke it places us all in several places. Confessing to God, confessing to the people who maybe we sinned against and being confessed to. I can look for forgiveness to God, my brothers and sisters and also reflect on my duty to forgive those who have “trespassed against me”.
Next comes some definition about sin. “in my thoughts and in my words, in what I have done and in what I have failed to do.”. Many people are often concerned with the exterior, the visible actions and transgressions. It is almost a throwback to a kind of gnosticism or variant of platonism, separating the physical from the spiritual. But here there is no separation. Our action, our words and even our thoughts come into play. Our actions are categorized into sins of commission and omission (the guilty bystander), our words and even unspoken words are taken into account. It’s not as if God doesn’t know our deepest thoughts, be they dark or not, but in similar way to the actual sacrament of confession, it can be like taking a load off your chest, and allowing yourself to get back to what matters.
The term Mea Culpa comes from the next part of this prayer. It ties directly into what was previously spoken, and is accompanied by striking the breast 3 times while speaking it. “My fault, my fault, my most grievous fault”. To a person no familiar with the liturgy or this prayer, this may be the first part of the mass where they start to look for the door. After all everyone just started to recite the same prayer, they are talking about sin and fault, and now they are hitting themselves? The striking of the breast is a symbol, a physical idea. It draws from older traditions like tearing robes, and more specifically from the gospel story of the publican in Luke. “And the publican, standing afar off, would not so much as lift up his eyes toward heaven; but struck his breast saying: O God, be merciful to me a sinner.”.
The prayer continues with the communion of saints, and prayers to them, asking them to pray to the Lord our God. We ask those saints in heaven and on earth to ‘keep us in their prayers’. A very simple idea, which has suffered much criticism and assault in the last several centuries. It probably stems from the creeping in of a dualism during the reformation years, which again draws from older gnostic and platonic extremes. The church believes in the communion of saints which encompasses members of the church on earth and in heaven, as functioning parts of the body of Christ. We can pray(ask) to Mary, Joseph and all the saints just like we can pray(ask) our pastor, spouse and friends to pray to God for us; like we may keep them in our prayers..when they ask us.
In the next post we will look at the other two formulas used in this rite but for now I will leave with the latin version of the prayer. It’s sometimes interesting to look at the latin and pick up on the roots for words we use today. It also helps when your trying to learn latin to try and translate some of these prayers and creeds as a way of becoming familiar with a language.
Confiteor Deo omnipotenti,
et vobis fratres,
quia peccavi nimis cogitatione,
verbo, opere et omissione:
mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.
Ideo precor beatam Mariam semper Virginem,
omnes Angelos et Sanctos,
et vos, fratres,
orare pro me ad Dominum Deum nostrum.