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:
Presentation of the Lord (February 2)
Whenever a rite of blessing and sprinkling of water is used instead
Mass with Baptism
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.