Absolution Confusion

The Penitential Act at Mass, still often referred to under its previous title of “Penitential Rite”, continues to be the subject of confusion among both clergy and laity.

Nos. 4-6 in the current version of the Roman Missal lay out the principal options:
• Form I: the “I confess”
• Form II: “Have mercy on us, O Lord” ― “For we have sinned against you” etc.
• Form III: “You were sent to heal the contrite of heart” etc.

Each of these is preceded by an invitation from the priest, and followed by an absolution by the priest.

What is not immediately clear from a bullet-point list is that the three forms have different emphases. Form I is a personal expression of repentance and unworthiness. Form II is a communal expression of repentance and unworthiness. Form III is completely different, which is why the 1998 ICEL Sacramentary separated it out from the other two and entitled it a “Litany of Praise”: in this form, all the sample invocations without exception praise Christ for who he is or for the wonderful things he has done or continues to do.

How to decide which form to select on any given occasion? It seems to me that this is one of the lost opportunities in the Order of Mass today. In many places Form I is used merely because a sung Kyrie will follow, something which does not happen with Form III. In other places, the criterion for selection is the whim of the presiding priest. I maintain that a proper criterion should derive from the liturgy itself: we should be selecting the form in accordance with what we will find in the scripture readings that will follow shortly. Many times the underlying theme of those readings will not be about personal or communal repentance, and therefore Forms I or II will not be appropriate but Form III will be.

But here, too, there is a danger. The main thrust of Form III is all about Jesus, and not about us: “You are mighty God and Prince of peace.” “You raise the dead to life in the Spirit.” “You came to gather the nations into the peace of God’s kingdom.” Many presiders, however, turn this form into a Litany of Sorrow, rather than a Litany of Praise. Their introductions emphasise our shortcomings. Their invocations, frequently spontaneous, often begin “For the times when we….” This may be fine at a service of reconciliation, but at Mass it not only contradicts the meaning of this part of the rite but also leads to a perpetuation of misunderstanding about what is going on. In fact this form is not a Penitential Act at all. It is interesting to note that in the 1998 ICEL Sacramentary there is actually no absolution following after Form III.

I encounter many elementary school teachers who tell their children that “We always begin Mass with ‘Sorry Prayers’.” It may make life easier for them, but it’s inaccurate and misleads the children. It should be clear that, if Form III is used, these are not “sorry prayers” at all. In part, the confusion is caused by the “Lord/Christ, have mercy” responses. Those teachers don’t know that in the Middle Ages these were often used as acclamations, rather than for breast-beating. “You are wonderful ― have mercy!”

Additionally, there are many occasions in the Church Year when the Penitential Act simply doesn’t happen. A basic list would look like this:

Ash Wednesday
Palm Sunday
Easter Vigil
Presentation of the Lord (February 2)
Whenever a rite of blessing and sprinkling of water is used instead
Requiem Mass
Mass with Baptism
Nuptial Mass

Unpacking those, Ash Wednesday is an interesting case. For decades liturgists have been telling us that the best place for a penitential act is not in the introductory rites when the community is still coming together but at the end of the Liturgy of the Word, which will have established a proper context for expressing repentance. On Ash Wednesday this is precisely what happens: the penitential act, the blessing and imposition of ashes, takes place not at the beginning but after the Liturgy of the Word. Doing this also makes much more sense of moving the gesture of peace to this point, immediately before the presentation of the gifts, as Benedict XVI suggested in Sacramentum Caritatis, footnote 150. Our Anglican sisters and brothers have had the sign of peace at this point for centuries….

On Palm Sunday, Easter Vigil, the feast of the Presentation of the Lord, and a Mass with Baptism, the penitential act is simply replaced by the introductory rites on those occasions. At a Requiem Mass, it is replaced by the sprinkling of the casket with blessed water.

There is considerable confusion about the rite of blessing and sprinkling of water. Just because it replaces a penitential act does not mean that it is itself a penitential act. It is not. The sample introduction in the Roman Missal makes it clear that it is a reminder of our baptism ― surely a joyful and not a penitential occasion. On Easter Sunday morning, when the rite of sprinkling follows a renewal of baptismal promises after the Liturgy of the Word, it is scarcely a penitential act but rather a rite filled with the joy of the resurrection. The blessing prayers speak not of washing away our sins but of defence and protection, helping us seek forgiveness, and explicitly asking “that we may share in the gladness of our brothers and sisters who at Easter have received their Baptism.” Once again, confusion is caused by the antiphons, some of which talk about cleansing. As to when this rite might be used, once again a look at the scriptures can often provide a clue.

There has been no penitential act at Nuptial Masses since the first postconciliar edition of the Rite of Marriage in 1969. However, that has not prevented publishers of worship aids from including one erroneously, nor presiders from using one when they are on autopilot. A moment’s thought should show how out of place such a rite might feel on such a celebratory occasion.

The same is true of Midnight Mass, where having a penitential act after 30 or 40 minutes of an extended Liturgy of the Word of lessons and carols can also seem superfluous. A more natural progression would be adding the Dawn Gospel of the Shepherds to the Midnight Mass Gospel, leading immediately into the singing of the Gloria, followed by a procession to the crib and blessing of the crib, followed by the procession of gifts. Perhaps a future edition of the Missal will address this issue.

A sacrament where the Missal still includes a penitential act is Confirmation. On this occasion, how much more appropriate it would be to substitute the blessing and sprinkling of water as a reminder to the confirmandi of their baptism.

Just a brief word about the priest’s introduction. The 1969 Order of Mass and 1973 Missal used the phraseology “let us call to mind our sins”. It was the late Cuthbert Johnson, OSB, who first commented in 1983 that “calling to mind one’s sins can be a most pleasurable occupation”. Before you know where you are, it’s the Gospel and your mind has been on other things…. He used this as a way of showing why we needed a new translation of the Missal, and he was right. We are called to acknowledge our sinfulness before God — rather different from contemplating one’s peccadilloes!

All of this leads us to the major area of confusion that gives this article its title. Many people are under the impression that the absolution by the priest actually absolves them from their sins. After all, the words they hear imply this: “May Almighty God have mercy on us, forgive us our sins, and bring us….” It was worse in the preconciliar rite, where the words, whether audible or silently read in a hand missal, began “Indulgentiam, absolutionem et remissionem peccatorum nostrorum…

Those people have not (and why should they have?) read para 51 of the current GIRM, which clarifies what was previously not made explicit: “The rite concludes with the Priest’s absolution, which, however, lacks the efficacy of the Sacrament of Penance.” For them, it’s called “the Absolution”, so it absolves. (Perhaps we can change this name?) Many make the sign of the cross on themselves, strengthening the conviction that sacramental absolution is actually happening. (It’s a brave priest who will tell his people that this sign of the cross is not in the rite and they shouldn’t be doing it! Catholics often did this through devotion in the preconciliar rite, though it was not in that rite either.) Perhaps some have even read the section of the Catechism of the Catholic Church dealing with the Fruits of Holy Communion (paras 1393-5), which explicitly states that the Eucharist forgives all except grave sin. They may think that this must take place at “the Absolution” rather than by sharing in Holy Communion, the greatest sacrament of reconciliation. If an incorrect, homemade version of Form III has preceded (“For our failure to love you and our neighbours as we should: Lord, have mercy”, etc.), the impression is further accentuated.

It is my hope that if Pope Francis’s recent Motu Proprio has the effect of providing us with a revised version of the Roman Missal in the not-too-distant future, this will also be used as an opportunity for catechesis on this and other basic topics on which many of our people are still sadly misinformed.

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12 comments

  1. View from the Pew
    Regarding: “Absolution Confusion”
    – This is a very good article.
    – The common thread is joy which is subsequent and consequent to penance, baptism, resurrection all for each and everyone throughout the body of christ assembled together / with /from the Eucharist of our lord jesus christ.

  2. Good reflection. Perhaps a longer term view should be considered on this: is the penitential act really suitable for the entire congregation? Was it a mistake to compose it from the prayers of the priest and ministers at the foot of the altar? Maybe the Kyrie eleison should be restored to a very obviously stand-alone rite which accompanied the veneration of the cross and altar.

  3. The introduction to the Penitential Act still invites us to “acknowledge our sins” before form III. So, I would say the elementary school teachers are still accurate in saying that Masses which use this form include “sorry prayers,” it’s just that those prayers are silently prayed by each person present before a litany of praise is begun.

  4. “All of this leads us to the major area of confusion that gives this article its title. Many people are under the impression that the absolution by the priest actually absolves them from their sins. After all, the words they hear imply this: “May Almighty God have mercy on us, forgive us our sins, and bring us….” […] Those people have not (and why should they have?) read para 51 of the current GIRM, which clarifies what was previously not made explicit: “The rite concludes with the Priest’s absolution, which, however, lacks the efficacy of the Sacrament of Penance.” For them, it’s called “the Absolution”, so it absolves.”

    But if that is the case, why would the words “May Almighty God have mercy on us, forgive us our sins …” be in the missal? Are they simply superfluous?

    Here is what I take to be the conventional understanding (which your article doesn’t quite state explicitly): this prayer during the Introductory Rite *does* result in the forgiveness of (some) sins. That line in the GIRM about “lacks the efficacy of the Sacrament of Penance” is in response to another conventional (but erroneous) thought that was current at one time and may still be current today: that these words in the Introductory Rite are *so* efficacious that the faithful no longer need to avail themselves of the sacrament of reconciliation.

    To put it in the nutshell of traditional (and still in some ways useful) terms: that prayer during the Introductory Rite results in the forgiveness of venial but not mortal sins. To have one’s mortal sins forgiven, one must bring out the big gun of actual confession.

    To continue the conventional explanation: what you say about the Eucharist is perfectly true; but recall that not everyone partakes of the Eucharist, perhaps because they are not yet fully initiated; or they are simply not in communion with the Catholic church; or because (pertinently for this conversation) they are fully initiated but are conscious of mortal sin.

  5. @PaulInwood “All of this leads us to the major area of confusion that gives this article its title. Many people are under the impression that the absolution by the priest actually absolves them from their sins. After all, the words they hear imply this: “May Almighty God have mercy on us, forgive us our sins, and bring us….” It was worse in the preconciliar rite, where the words, whether audible or silently read in a hand missal, began “Indulgentiam, absolutionem et remissionem peccatorum nostrorum…”

    The prayer, “May almighty God have mercy on us” comes from the preconciliar prayer said by the servers for the priest and the priest for the servers: Misereatur tui (vestri) omnipotens Deus, et, dimissis peccatis tuis (vestris), perducat te (vos) ad vitam aeternam.” It was not accompanied by a Sign of the Cross.

    After that dialogue, the priest signed himself with the Sign of the Cross as he said “Indulgentiam, absolutionem et remissionem peccatorum nostrorum tribuat nobis omnipotens et misericors Dominus.” [The “penitential rite” was still not over at that point.] We mustn’t confuse the prayer “Misereatur,” which was carried over into the reformed Missal, with the “Indulgentiam,” which was not.

    As for the 3rd form of the current penitential rite, which from its introduction and conclusion is clearly penitential, the fact that we respond, “Lord have mercy . . . Christ have mercy” (rather than, say, “We praise and glorify you”) indicates to me that the “Litany of Praise” notion is a mistaken one.

    1. Michael:

      After that dialogue, the priest signed himself with the Sign of the Cross as he said “Indulgentiam, absolutionem et remissionem peccatorum nostrorum tribuat nobis omnipotens et misericors Dominus.” [The “penitential rite” was still not over at that point.] We mustn’t confuse the prayer “Misereatur,” which was carried over into the reformed Missal, with the “Indulgentiam,” which was not.

      We are not confusing the two prayers but in a sense the people are. In the preconciliar rite, many people through devotion imitated the priest signing himself during the Indulgentiam prayer, and have carried that devotional practice through to the current version of the Misereatur prayer. The Pavlovian practice is one of signing oneself during what follows the penitential act, in this case a prayer that sounds like a formal absolution but isn’t. I am sorry if my article was not sufficiently clear on that point.

    2. I follow this particular posting with interest and offer up this observation and question.

      Since there is confusion (and really has been for quite a while) that the average lay person in the pew, hearing the words to the formula ending what they understand to be the penitential rite…..and in good faith believe themselves forgiven their sins…….are they not indeed forgiven their sins?

  6. The penitential act in the Mass has for me always been problematic. It was clearly an effort on the part of the reformers to give the entire assembly an opportunity to begin Mass with an expression of humble acknowledgement of how great God’s mercy and love is in the face of our failings and sins–once reserved only for the priest and his servers. The introduction clearly provides for a period of reflective silence though frequently ignored by priests and deacons wishing to get on with things. In my view, Form one is vastly overused and has contributed greatly to confusing the penitential act and its absolution with the sacrament of penance. However, the Mass does effect the forgiveness of sin and long before private, auricular confession became normative for the absolution of mortal sin, this was the great hope of sinners both lay and clerical. When I was a boy I was led to believe that mortal sin was lurking behind every bush and that if I didn’t confess frequently I would risk something called sacrilege which might doom me forever. Thinking that receiving communion in the state of grace was all that mattered I would even go to confession after Mass had already begun. The reform and renewal of the sacramental rites and life of the church gives assurance to people seeking progress not perfection that God truly has mercy on us, forgives us our sins and brings us everlasting life. Amen.

  7. ” long before private, auricular confession became normative for the absolution of mortal sin, …”

    True, there was that loooong period where people deferred baptism because post-baptismal sin was an, um, unsolved problem, and then another loooooong period where post-baptismal sins were publicly confessed and publicly shriven. So, during those periods, it wasn’t quite a “receive Holy Communion and be forgiven” model. Were we to actually “go back” to praxis before the advent of private anonymous auricular confession, I doubt most Catholics would experience that as easier or less rigorous.

    And while I am certainly aware that scrupulosity has not become extinct, and that there are those (especially loud on the Internet, less so in pulpits*) would lean towards encouraging mentalities that increase a risk of it, I would say that evidence is thin on the ground that American Catholics at large suffer from it in the ways they formerly did.

    I say this as someone who does go to Reconciliation more or less monthly (because of a commitment I was asked to make years ago by a confessor, which I choose to continue to honor because I’ve found it fruitful in ways I did not understand until years of practice). But not to beat myself into salvation – which, of course, is impossible – but to reground myself in particular reasons for gratitude for God’s abundant mercies so as to reground my generosity. I would observe that, when people shrink from confronting the particularity of our sins and God’s mercies for us in that regard, we are less likely to find a common ground flowing from gratitude when others wrong us. To my sense, then, moving from a general acknowledgement of being a redeemed sinner to a frequent engagement with God’s particular mercy upon me is a necessary link in the Social Gospel.

    * I’ve also encountered it, rarely, in the confessional, and am aware of friends who’ve encountered it, but much less so in recent decades. And even from priests whose preaching might mark them as likely to indulge in it, it’s been relatively rare. I am also aware that, for confessors, the presence of scrupulants smacks the confessor in the face weekly, and may distort their view of how common it is among the faithful at large. I would venture that a much more common problem is not scrupulosity, but doubt about the efficacy of forgiveness or whether one can be forgiven – which while it may share some resemblance, is in substance something else.

  8. “It was clearly an effort on the part of the reformers to give the entire assembly an opportunity to begin Mass with an expression of humble acknowledgement of how great God’s mercy and love is in the face of our failings and sins–once reserved only for the priest and his servers.”

    Jack said this better than I could, so I am just repeating his words. This is the moment when our minds and hearts turn from ourselves to God. I can’t imagine it at any other place, certainly not after the readings. Those are not this first moment we see God, the time of “love at first sight.” Penitential acts can happen at other times, and other rites might happen at this time, but the transition from my miserable life to life with God happens first.

    My other problem is also hard to express. The Eucharist is the moment when our sins are forgiven. It is the moment when Christ died on the cross, when he rose from the dead. The reality of that moment is applied during absolution in a way different from in the Eucharist, but the Eucharist is the moment when Christ saves us, when our sins are forgiven. (And not Communion, but the offering of the Eucharist.) not sure how that fits into mistakes people might make about how sins are forgiven.

  9. “Form I is a personal expression of repentance and unworthiness.”

    Is it a personal expression if the whole congregation is saying the Confiteor together? The whole congregation says the Creed together and that’s not a personal expression of faith. There is no private/personal prayer built into the new Mass for the congregation, only for the celebrant and the deacon.

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