Moving the Penitential Act

For at least 50 years liturgists have been discussing whether the Penitential Act in the Order of Mass ought to be repositioned. Although for centuries it was in the Prayers at the Foot of Altar and was carried from there into the Introductory Rites of the 1969 Ordo Missae, the proposal has been to move it to the end of the Liturgy of the Word. Placing it here after the scriptures have been proclaimed would give a better context for repentance. Or to put it another way, we may not yet be ready for repentance so early in the Mass.

Our Anglican sisters and brothers have of course had an act of repentance following the Liturgy of the Word since the 1662 Book of Common Prayer, and this positioning is maintained in Order 2 of Common Worship (Order 1 has introductory rites similar to the Roman Catholic Mass).

Not only would an act of repentance be better later on, but it would be followed by a sign of peace and reconciliation before moving into the Liturgy of the Eucharist. Once again, this has been proposed many times over the years, in accordance with Jesus’s own words “If you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.” (Mt 5:23-24).

Benedict XVI in his post-synodal apostolic exhortation Sacramentum Caritatis (2007) was not happy with the present positioning of the Sign of Peace, which he found could be disruptive (para 49). His footnote to this paragraph stated the following:

(150) Taking into account ancient and venerable customs and the wishes expressed by the Synod Fathers, I have asked the competent curial offices to study the possibility of moving the sign of peace to another place, such as before the presentation of the gifts at the altar. To do so would also serve as a significant reminder of the Lord’s insistence that we be reconciled with others before offering our gifts to God (cf. Mt 5:23 ff.); cf. Propositio 23.

That was twelve years ago, but the “competent curial offices” have not, so far as we know, produced a response to Benedict’s request….

We are fast approaching Ash Wednesday, a day when the Penitential Act is actually moved to the position we have been discussing. The Penitential Act is omitted on this day and replaced by the Blessing and Distribution of Ashes, which comes between the homily and the general intercessions. Even if the blessing and distribution takes places outside Mass, it still follows the Liturgy of the Word.

Can we hope that a future revision of the Missal will recognize that Ash Wednesday is a model in this regard, and that modifying the Order of Mass to reposition the Penitential Act and Sign of Peace at the end of the Liturgy of the Word could be of benefit to worshippers?


    1. I should clarify: the Kyrie in its classical sense on its own (viz. no. 7 in the Ordo Missae) is not integral to the Penitential Act as conceived in the conciliar reforms as such, and even with a move of the latter could be retained in its customary place in the Latin rite before the Gloria.

  1. I suppose if liturgy is just something we make up according to our own good ideas, rather than a form of prayer we receive from those who came before us, then this proposal would make sense. After all, modern people are shown consistently to have better ideas and to produce greater art than their predecessors. Just think of backwards people like Plato and Aristotle, Dante and Shakespeare, Bach and Mozart, and compare them with Rorty and Derrida, Cummings and Kerouac, the Beach Boys and Eminem. So too in the realm of liturgy: we definitely know better than the millennia of Latin Catholics who started off the liturgy with penitential preparation, or for that matter, Eastern Christians who can’t help chanting “Lord, have mercy” from the get-go.

    1. “the millennia of Latin Catholics who started off the liturgy with penitential preparation,” is inaccurate. The priest and minister(s) began their celebration of the Tridentine Mass that way. Meanwhile the choir, if there was one, was singing the introit, and the faithful–who knows? There was no PUBLIC, COMMON penitential rite in the Roman Mass until the issuing of the postconciliar Missal.

      As for the Eastern chanting of the Kyrie, it is not penitential but intercessory in its import.

    2. But Eastern Catholics, like Anglicans,.separate the Kyrie (before the Gloria) from the Penitential Rite (after the consecration). And historic Roman Catholic practice also puts the server’s Confiteor after the consecration, during the Communion of the Priest, not in the introductory rites–it is only the Priest’s Confiteor that is in the introductory rite.

    3. In the liturgy of St. John Chrysotom, the closest thing to the Roman “Confiteor” is really the prayer recited by all the faithful towards the end of the ceremony, just before receiving Holy Communion. In English language Divine Liturgy, it is usually recited thus:

      “I believe, O Lord, and I confess that Thou art truly the Christ, the Son of the living God, Who came into the world to save sinners, of Whom I am chief. I believe also that this is truly Thine most pure Body, and that this is truly Thine Own precious Blood. Therefore, I pray Thee: have mercy upon me and forgive me my transgressions, voluntary and involuntary, whether in word or deed, in knowledge or in ignorance. And vouchsafe me to partake without condemnation of Thy most pure Mysteries, unto the remission of sins, and life everlasting. Amen.
      Of Thy Mystical Supper, O Son of God, accept me today as a partaker; for I will not speak of the Mystery to Thine enemies, nor will I give Thee a kiss like Judas like Judas; but like the thief do I confess Thee: Remember me, O Lord, in Thy Kingdom.
      Let not the communion of Thy holy Mysteries be unto me for judgement or condemnation, O Lord, but for the healing of soul and body.”

      Then the Holy Communion is distributed as the healing of a soul and body made sick with sin.

      The frequent Kyrie eleisons, as well as simply asking for God’s mercy, serve the rhythmical function of the assembly’s assent to the intercessions chanted by the priest, somewhat, although not exactly, like the modern Roman rite’s Prayer of the Faithful, when we say “Lord, in your mercy., hear our prayer.”

    4. But somebody “made them up” and it must have seemed like a good idea at the time.
      How else did it happen?

  2. I like this idea and I think it is one that has traction potentially across traditional/progressive divides but there has been a response from Rome.


    I assume that you would maintain the Kyrie and Gloria in current position?

    Since we are discussing changing the Liturgy of the Word, perhaps we could also consider some more drastic changes? Prior to this post, I thought keeping the three year Sunday cycle is a must, but I wondered if it would be wise to drop one of the non-Gospel Reading and reform and the selection so that the reading (either OT or NT) would be better understandable as a stand alone Reading and perhaps also relate more directly to the Gospel. Many of the OT readings during Sunday Lent really do not work well as stand alones in my opinion.

    I would then move the responsorial psalm to before the Kyrie and drop the penitential rite (or move it as the article proposes). That way you would have three propers (psalm, kyrie, and Gloria) as the preparation. The entrance antiphons could be integrated into the responsorial psalm in some fashion. You could still have an opening hymn so those that support hymn singing and the use of the entrance antiphon would be both happy (or perhaps equally unhappy). During Advent/Lent, the Gloria could be replaced with the Beatitudes which was the suggestion of the 1998 missal and is an option to use in the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom and would maintain a Trinitarian hymn structure after the greeting.

  3. “That was twelve years ago, but the ‘competent curial offices’ have not, so far as we know, produced a response to Benedict’s request….”

    I would have thought that the CDW’s 2014 circular letter on the sign of peace (p. 27 in the link) counts as a response. The curial offices looked into the matter and decided a move was not the best idea.

    1. Yes, Aaron, you are right. I had overlooked this document, addressed as it was to the presidents of bishops’ conferences rather than everyone.

      The CDWDS did not, however, take into account the linked question of the Penitential Act; nor did they allude to this question when they consulted the bishops’ conferences about the Sign of Peace. Indeed, differentiating between a Sign of Peace before the presentation of the gifts and one before Communion appears to have led them to overlook the significance of John XXIII’s 1960 removal of “the second Penitential Act” before Communion.

  4. The exchange of peace after the prayers of the faithful is a an act of reconciliation.

    The exchange of peace after the Our Father is an act of community.

    Looks the same, feels different.

    Thank you Aaron for bringing to light that resource.

  5. Prior to the changes to the rubrics in 1960 there was an additional pre-Communion confession, sung or said by the deacon or server. I would argue that this was the true “Penitential Act” of the older Ordo Missae, and not the mutual confession that occurred during the prayers at the foot of the altar.

    1. Wasn’t that more the a function of what amounted to an insertion of the rite of administration of communion to the faithful (which for a very long time (cough) most typically occurred outside Mass) into the Mass?

      1. Yes. There is no administration of Communion to the faithful in the Tridentine Missal. That was one of the postconciliar reforms. KLS is right that the administration of Communion outside Mass was used instead, complete with its preliminary penitential act. John XXIII clearly thought it was superfluous and removed it;

      2. I think you & Paul Inwood are overlooking the Ritus Servandus section X subsection 6, which begins “Si qui sunt communicandi in Missa, … ”
        This is quite a lengthy prescription for the administration of communion in Mass. This section has not changed significantly between 1604 and 1962, when it is simplified and the Confiteor removed. And indeed there is a comparable section somewhere about the administration of communion at a Pontifical Mass.
        When the Reformers in England took audits of parish churches, Houselling cloths, for the administration of communion, are almost always listed, they were I think required under canon law.

  6. I’m a little surprised that despite all the talk of “our Anglican sisters and brothers,” you make no mention of the fact that the Divine Worship use of the Roman Rite in use in the personal Ordinariates keeps the penitential rite after the universal prayer of the faithful and before the beginning of the offertory.

    1. DW the Missal also has a much more ample confession then the Roman Confiteor, and said ‘meekly kneeling upon your knees’, and it cannot be onitted.

    2. Tom,

      That would be because the personal Ordinariates are technically no longer Anglicans, even if in some respects they continue to behave as if they were.

      1. Sure, but your whole thrust is that in the Roman Mass the penitential rite should be moved to the end of the liturgy of the word, and you talk about the chances of such a thing happening — but then your piece completely ignores (no doubt unwittingly) the fact the most recently promulgated form of the Roman Mass (and which one might note is legally-canonically situated within the ordinary form) does just that. It was a surprising omission, that’s all.

  7. I take it that the suggestion would place the Penitential Rite after the Prayers of the Faithful aka Universal Prayer/Bidding Prayers? A sort of liturgical caesura at that point?

    1. Michael,

      On Ash Wednesday, the penitential act (blessing and distribution of ashes) is followed by the general intercessions. This follows the Roman pattern whereby each main section of a rite ends with a collect prayer, in this case the concluding prayer of the intercessions. So the suggestion would be to do the same on other occasions.

      1. That’s interesting. No less an authority than Celebrating the Eucharist (Liturgical Press) has the “Liturgy of the Word” extending from after the Collect until after the Prayers of the Faithful; the “Liturgy of the Eucharist” then begins with the “Presentation and Preparation of the Gifts.” On that scheme, the Penitential Rite would come towards the end of the Liturgy of the Word, just before (the Creed and) the Prayers of the Faithful, thus set apart from the Offertory.

        On Ash Wednesday, the blessing and distribution of ashes falls naturally as a response to the summons to repentance expressed in the readings and the homily. I’m not sure that the sequence would be as natural on other days.

  8. The use of Mt5:23 in the context of the preparation of Eucharistic gifts, no matter how hollowed by time, appears odd. Jesus is talking about Temple worship and the Temple altar, the point is to be reconciled before entering the place of worship. Jesus appears to be giving a moral sense to purity, moving beyond notions of ritual purity.

    The sign of peace strikes me as a symbol of eschatological fulfilment following the two embolisms after the our father… grant us peace in our day…. grant us the peace and unity of your kingdom, the fulfilment of the expected future is then shared in the sign of peace; reducing it to a human peace-making is missing the mark, I feel.

    Relying on divine mercy at the start of each liturgical action within the liturgy is proper to many of the eastern rites. The giving of peace even as it takes place before the anaphoria has the aspect of announcing the eschaton witnessed in the anaphora (eg. Coptic rite of St Gregory) “You reconciled the earthly with the heavenly and made the two into one, and You completed the dispensation in the flesh.
    And You ascended to the heavens bodily, while You filled all with Your divinity.
    You said to Your saintly disciples and apostles:
    “My peace I give to you, my peace I leave with you””.

    Just a caution about not diminishing that eschatological aspect.

  9. While there may be precedent in the Anglican liturgy, far more important is the precedent set in the Roman rite, where the celebrant makes an act of contrition at the very beginning (in the postconciliar form, after the incensation, but this isn’t really essential). This has been apart of the Roman rite for at least 1,000 years.

    Moving the Kiss of Peace would make more sense, but it is still tinkering with the way we Romans have been celebrating Mass for 1,500 years, since St. Gregory the Great. Any disruptiveness that is cased by the Kiss can be solved by moderating its use and making it conform with the way it was traditionally done.

    1. As I mentioned in my comment above, “we Romans” never had a public, common act of contrition in our celebration of Mass until the postconciliar reforms. The minister(s) did one in private, but do we really want to preserve that sort of clericalist distinction?
      I think it is the Germans who for decades now have had a choice of Confiteor or Kyrie or Gloria for the Gathering Rite depending upon the celebration. Why does it take us so long to get going?

      1. Low Mass was what most Anglophone Catholics attended, and the servers (not clerics) participated in the act of contrition, indeed it was not unknown for a woman to make the responses, including the Confiteor (from outside the sanctuary, if no male was available). It may not have been technically a public common act of contrition, but psychologically it had that effect. I suspect that had been true for many centuries, and that Cranmer did not impose a penetential act which was not culturally already present. (though I am no historian of that or any other period)

      2. I’ve never gotten a clericalist vibe from the Prayers at the Foot of the Altar – it has usually struck me as being quite the opposite, in fact.

        If no common act of contrition ever existed in the roman rite, then maybe we should be asking why that was so and if adding one in the 1960s was a good idea in the first place.

      3. @ Jack
        “If no common act of contrition ever existed in the roman rite, then maybe we should be asking why that was so and if adding one in the 1960s was a good idea in the first place.”

        Bingo. The Consilium never proposed it, either, if I remember correctly: It was Paul VI. I firmly believe that this development, far from realizing its goal to purify our hearts to celebrate (a worthy goal, but psychologically too brief to accomplish it), has actually contributed to the decline of penitential disciplines overall (along with other reasons), because it encourages people to think “the Mass does everything.”

      4. @Rita
        I blame the Missal for describing the petition “Misereatur nostri …” as The absolution by the priest, if you have an absolution at Mass, why bother travelling in half an hour early to get one beforehand? Yes I know why, but does the average member of the congregation? We should use words in ways people understand.

      5. I would like to understand why you put “we Romans” in quotations.

        Nor do I understand this claim of clericalism. The confession originated as a preparation before Mass in the sacristy, and at some point around the 10th century it happened that the pope and others began to make the confession at the foot of the altar while the Introit was being chanted. The sacred ministers at the foot of the altar say it amongst themselves simply because they’re next to each other. Choir ceremony directs those that are not chanting the Introit to make the confession amongst themselves in groups (or there is the modern practice of saying it alongside the sacred ministers, which probably originated with the Dialogue Mass). This would naturally apply to the faithful if they so desired to take part in such prayers.

        The point is that it’s a preparation for Mass, not something that is done after the celebrant has incensed the altar and has officially begun his celebration of Mass. While I don’t particularly have a problem with the way it is done in the Ordinary Form, the two forms treat the confession of guilt differently.

      6. @ Anthony H.
        Thank you. I’m frustrated by this too. Confusing, and to no purpose. This language had to be clarified from the first, and ever after it has had to be explained away. Why not say what we mean? But, personally, I don’t think that eliminating this expression would get at the root of the problem I am talking about. The whole construction imports a mini penance into Eucharist; we ought to have a proper liturgical framework, as the RP offers, for a fuller experience of Penance in its own space and time. But instead we get our capsule dose at Mass, and people are finished!

      7. Not that anyone asked me (since I was 8 years old and not Catholic at the time) but I think a better, more traditional reform of the entrance rite would have been:
        introit/opening song
        The priest/server preparation could have been done in the sacristy beforehand. Penitence could be done in the confessional.

  10. In my context as a moderate Old Catholic, my jurisdiction has two practices for the peace.

    Most parishes have moved it to the transition between Word and Eucharist.

    Our religious order and my parish have moved the sign of peace to conclude the penitential rite.

    In our parish, we have adapted the prayer preceding the peace in the Roman rite to say ”…look not on our sins but the faith of your church and, through the Eucharist, grant to us, and to all your people, the peace and unity of the Kingdom where, with the Father and the Holy Spirit, you live and reign for ever and ever.”

  11. The different possible locations for the sign of peace seem to me to respond to two different biblical texts and perhaps should have different forms. Placed at the beginning of Mass or at the presentation of gifts the sign of peace (and the penitential act if it accompanies it) would be an expression of the command in Mt 5:23 ff to be reconciled with one’s neighbour before approaching the altar: this “peace” in a certain sense is generated by the forgiving action of the members of the community under grace, and the sign of peace can start within the congregation. But if the sign of peace remains in its present location it seems to me to correspond more to John 14:27 (My peace I give you), is less a sign of reconciliation than the reception of a divine gift, and would be better originating from the altar and being passed through the congregation.

  12. My presumption has been that giving the Confiteor to the entire assembly was part and parcel of a move to the awareness that it is the WHOLE assembly – with the presiding minister at the head of the gathered Body – who offers the sacrifice of praise. I’d hesitate moving it post-LOW, because it would make it seem like the altar of the Word is somehow less worthy than the altar of the Eucharist.

    1. Alan,

      My understanding is that the arguments that have been advanced over the years would actually give more worth to the table of the Word, rather than less. Instead of having a perfunctory, quasi-automatic “We’re sorry” act at the beginning of the celebration when folk are still tuning in, hearing the scriptures first would produce an “Ah! That’s why we’re sorry!” reaction. It’s about a context for repentance which is lacking at the beginning of the celebration.

      At the risk of derailing this thread, one of the postconciliar reforms that has never taken root is the insertion of a “liturgy of the Word” into the rite of reconciliation for individual penitents. Here, too, the idea behind the reform was to establish a context for repentance, as well as making sure that all sacraments were rooted in the proclamation of the word.

      However, most people either don’t know that they are supposed to select a brief reading that speaks to their life situation in some way before confessing their sins, or don’t see the point of adding more time to an occasion that they actually want to get over with as quickly as possible!

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