Is the Confiteor an obligatory part of Mass?

The Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI published a letter earlier this week regarding the report on abuse in the Archdiocese of Munich-Freising. This post will not deal with the important issue of abuse in the Church, but, given that this is a liturgical blog,  I would like to comment on a liturgical assumption that seems to be made in the letter.

The Pope Emeritus speaks about the Confiteor or the “I confess” in the Order of Mass.  He says:

I am increasingly struck by the fact that day after day the Church begins the celebration of Holy Mass – in which the Lord gives us his word and his very self – with the confession of our sins and a petition for forgiveness. We publicly implore the living God to forgive [the sins we have committed through] our fault, through our most grievous fault. It is clear to me that the words “most grievous” do not apply each day and to every person in the same way. Yet every day they do cause me to question if today too I should speak of a most grievous fault. And they tell me with consolation that however great my fault may be today, the Lord forgives me, if I sincerely allow myself to be examined by him, and am really prepared to change.

This could give the impression that the Confiteor is an obligatory part of the Introductory Rites of the Eucharist.  However, it is not that simple.  The prayer is an option and not obligatory in the current form of the Roman Missal.

The prayer entered the Order of Mass during the Middle Ages as part of the prayers at the foot of the altar.  It was prayed by the priest and the deacon and later the priest and the altar servers.  Over the centuries it proved to be very popular with clerics and often different orders added many saints to what almost became a litany within the prayer. Prior to the Council the prayer started with a list of saints (albeit a much-shortened list than many found in medieval liturgical sources): “I confess to Almighty God, to blessed Mary ever Virgin, to blessed Michael the Archangel to blessed John the Baptist, to the holy Apostles Peter and Paul, to all the Saints, and to you, brethren, that I have sinned exceedingly.”

But while in its origins this is a private prayer. During the Dialogue Mases of the earlier part of the twentieth century it began to be prayed by the assembly.  After the Council the current abbreviated form of it was added to the Order of Mass and was to be prayed by the whole assembly.

But it does not have to be prayed in every Mass and I would go as far as saying that it shouldn’t be prayer in every Mass. In my experience many celebrants automatically use this prayer at the start of each and every Mass (even when forbidden by the rubrics).

The Order of Mass in the current Roman Missal presents a Penitential Act as the norm, but there are occasions where it ought not to be used.  However, even if the majority of Masses have a Penitential Act, this Penitential Act has three equal forms. The Confiteor is in the first form of the Penitential Act.  The second form has the liturgical dialogue: “Have mercy on us, O Lord. For we have sinned against you. Show us, O Lord, your mercy. And grant us your salvation.” The third form has the Kyrie invocations “You were sent to heal the contrite of heart: Lord have mercy…” A note in the Order of Mass suggests that “from time to time on Sundays, especially in Easter Time, instead of the customary Penitential Act, the blessing and sprinkling of water may take place … as a reminder of Baptism.”

During the Mass of the Easter Vigil, arguably the most important Mass in the Church’s year, there is no Penitential Rite.  During Funeral Masses, the rites of the Reception of the Body replace the Penitential Act when the Body is received at the start of Mass. Likewise, in the Second Typical Edition of the Order of Christian Matrimony, the Introductory Rites of the OCM replace the Penitential Act. During Midnight Mass, the Proclamation of the Birth of Christ takes the place of the Penitential Act. The General Instruction on the Liturgy of the Hours (#94) tells us that when Morning Prayer, Evening Prayer or Prayer During the Day is prayed immediately before Mass the penitential rite is omitted. This means that communities that habitually join the celebration of the Hours to Mass might never pray the Confiteor during Mass.

Personally, as I celebrant, I do use the Confiteor but not exclusively. I usually pray it at Masses with a penitential theme and on Fridays (and during Advent and Lent on Wednesdays as well). But I realize that it is one among many options. The other two regular options are also beautiful expressions of communal penance that the Christian assembly deserves to hear and pray regularly.

I wonder what the experience and opinions of PrayTell readers is? Is the Confetior prayed in almost all Masses you attend? Do you think it should be prayed more or less? Are there times or situations when it should be used more or less?

38 comments

  1. Growing up, the third form was far and away most common. The Confiteor was a distant second (and I have known people my age who never heard it growing up), but has become much more popular within the last twenty years in my experience. I have literally never heard the second form used in any Mass I have ever attended.

    Out of curiosity, is the Kyrie forbidden when the penetential rite isn’t used?

    1. I think it usually is, although when one of the Hours of the Liturgy of the Hours immediately precedes Mass, the Kyrie is optional. However, I have rarely heard the Kyrie in those instances.

  2. Form C has been far and away most common. I haven’t encountered Form B in decades.* Form A is less uncommon than it used to be. The sprinkling rite is most common from Easter 2 through Eastertide, and sometimes on the Baptism of the Lord.

    * Which to me is somewhat sad because it is lovely. The absence of may be a small example of how rarely celebrants and liturgical ministries appear to review the options actually provided by the Missal for many parts of the Mass.

    1. I imagine Form B’s lack of use also has to do with the congregation likely not knowing the responses. If a priest busted it out on a random Sunday, I don’t even know if the weekday Mass crowd would be able to chime in with the right words.

      1. Yes, there’s a negative feedback loop at work in this case. It’s probably not the only example of that in typical parish liturgical practice…we can’t or won’t use option N because the people are unfamiliar with it…. It’s in the nature of ritual to be familiar, yet how artificially do ministerial choices combine to constrain that familiarity?

  3. I almost always use the Confiteor. It is the most traditional form of the Penitential Act and the one that seems most closely to express the Act’s purpose. When I was a pastor, I also liked to use Form B as an occasional alternative, but it is unfamiliar to most congregations and so can only be usefully used when people have been prepared beforehand. For that reason, I never use it where I am not the pastor. The invocations in Form C are very nice in themselves, but not particularly penitential. Also, by including the Kyrie, Form C implicitly makes the Kyrie a penitential prayer, which historically, I believe, it has not been.

    1. There really isn’t anything particularly traditional about the Confiteor as a public penitential act. Before the advent of the dialogue Mass in the mid-twentieth century, it was part of the private preparation of the priest and ministers, not part of the public liturgy. It was only for a couple of decades before the Council that some people in some places began participating in it, and then only at Low Mass. I suppose from the perspective of the priest it might seem traditional, since they recited it both before and after the reforms, but from the point of view of the people it was an innovation.

      Funny enough, if you’re looking for a public penitential act at the beginning of the liturgy, your real precedent is found in the Protestant Reformers, almost all of whom prefaced their liturgies with a public confession of sin (meant, I suspect, to replace the system of private confession and penance). If I recall correctly, Klaus Gamber saw this as one of the signs of a covert Protestant agenda behind the reforms.

      1. I agree with you, but I think it is considered traditional primarily because it is more connected textually to the traditional Mass, and also allows the Kyrie to be more easily sung using older settings (while Form C does not).

        I agree that a public penitential act is out of step with the old Mass, though the Confiteor was said prior to the people’s communion before the 1962 revision of the Missal (though, I do not know if it was ever common for the people to say it). However, there seems to be no other option other than Rite A that roughly approximates the traditional opening rites.

        I don’t know what was most common before the 60s for Low Mass, but I have never attended a Low Mass where the Prayers at the Foot of the Altar were said audibly. It isn’t at all unusual for the congregation to still be singing the processional hymn over them. Like most things with the old Mass, the people have a general freedom to participate in whatever way is most relevant to them – they may sing the hymn if it is still going, pray a private prayer, or follow along and do all the motions with the priest and servers.

  4. Our one priest (two parishes) uses all three, maybe 2. less than the others, weekdays and Sundays.
    Incidentally I think the following rubric “The absolution by the priest follows” is a pernicious untruth. How can it be an absolution when it is identical to what I, as an altar boy, used to say to the celebrant in the 1950s? It is pernicious because it is printed on out pew cards, where people can be read it and assume that their sins have been absolved, since not one in ten thousand will have read the disclaimer in GIRM.

    1. I do agree that the rubric or worship aids should not call this “absolution” because it is a petition rather than a declaration, but I have taken it as an acknowledgement of the reality that our venial sins have been forgiven by participating in and receiving the Eucharist. I worry that most Catholics carry on not knowing with certainty that they have been forgiven if their venial sins, burdened with guilt and a punishing conceptualization of God, rather than many believing a mortal sin has been forgiven by receiving the Eucharist or hearing that prayer.

  5. Ideally, I would drop the penitential rite from its current place within the entrance rite. Have the introit psalm, Kyrie, Gloria, and collect. Move it to before the Presentation of the Gifts or before the introit. But given the current rubrics, the best practice I have seen at a few parishes is to use form C during Ordinary Time and Form A during Advent, Lent, and most Solemnities.

    My personal experience is the C is most common followed by Form A (not too far behind in the parishes I frequent). I have seen Form B only a few times and it always confuses the congregation. Over the Christmas season, an African priest used the Confiteor, but apparently the musicians had already planned to use Form C in sung form. So after the penitential rite, the Kyrie was sung with tropes.

    1. I must admit that I have only used the Confiteor only a handful of times in 57 years but not really for the best of reasons. It is my personal protest against those who still push the latin. As a young altar boy in the forties and fifties I remember kneeling along side the priest rushing to mumbly the Confiteor faster than the kid kneeling on the other side of the priest. These were the good old days of Latin. It was said that our kindly old pastor’s record for a daily Mass was less than 10 minutes. Two very short readings, no homily, no prayer of the faithful, etc.

      1. How nice to know that should the ultimate goal of Traditiones Custodes come to be, and the beautiful and reverent Latin Mass I attend is ended, that I might be stuck attending Masses designed to “protest” me because I refuse to be pushed out of the Church. Makes the mythical ten minute Low Mass sound real good.

  6. We use Form C almost exclusively on Sundays.
    Several years ago (when the revisions to the Roman Missal came out), we started using Form A during so-called “Winter Ordinary Time” mostly for variety, but also so the assembly would learn the new formula for when they encounter it somewhere else (such as at weekday Masses and at other parishes).

    I find this the more interesting question: how often are people “striking their breast”? The rubrics suggest just once, but I look around and see people doing it three times!

    1. I have used form C almost exclusively for as long as I can remember. I do so because I believe it better expresses the fact that in it the church is acclaiming God’s mercy. Form A makes it appear that this prayer and its absolution take the place of sacramental confession. My recollection is that form A got a big push from reform the reform advocates when the 2011 translation emerged, thinking that it represented a restoration of tradition. I think it’s fascinating that form B is almost never used. It’s simple and to the point.

    2. Pre-2011, my experience was that no one struck their breast at all during the confiteor. Post-2011, with the threefold mea culpa, I’d say 75% strike their breast, and of those, 90% do it three times.

  7. The story is told that the late Cardinal Heenan, Archbishop of Westminster, would often use Form B.

    Looking over the top his tri-focals and fiddling with his ring, he would announce (remember this is the pre-2011 translation):
    “My brothers and sisters, to prepare ourselves to celebrate the sacred mysteries let us call to mind your sins.” After a brief pause, he would continue:
    “Lord, they have sinned against you. Lord, have mercy…..”

    1. The same man who was bishop of Leeds when it was known as The Cruel See.
      There are very many “amusing” stories about him.

  8. In a more serious vein, the Penitential Act is a missed opportunity. If we are going to have this part of the rite at all, at least select among the options available (Forms A, B, C, Blessing and Sprinkling of Water) the one that chimes in best with the scriptures of the day.

    Parishes default to the Confiteor because they want a sung Kyrie to follow, but it is quite possible to have the invocations of Form C, spoken or chanted, interspersed with sung Kyries, whether Gregorian or other.

    A major problem with Form C is that many pastors are in the habit of using it for acknowledging sinfulness. For example: “For the times when we have failed to ….. Lord, have mercy.”

    This is not what this form of the penitential act is about. A brief look at the examples given at the back of the Missal shows that every single one is about the wonderful things that Christ did/does for us, and not about our own unworthiness. One distinguished liturgist described Form C as 90% about acclaiming the mirabilia Dei and only 10% about our sinfulness. In the 1998 Sacramentary, this option was in fact entitled “Proclamation of Praise”.

    We need to get back to using this Form for its intended purpose, rather than as a catalogue of our own awfulness, which would be appropriate in a penitential service but not in Form C at Mass.

    1. Form C, yes, but…Form C (in its correct version, where the tropes are entirely coherent with the Kyrie eleison etc.) is hardly a penitential act at all, defined by GIRM n.51 as “a formula of general confession”. The distinguished liturgist, I imagine, found the 10% in the introductory remark and the conclusion/absolution.

  9. I have noticed a regional variation: when I went to parishes in Latin America and Southeast Asia, the Confiteor was extremely common (whatever the language). In some parts of Western Europe and North America, not so much.

    Re: Paul Inwood – unfortunately that terrible custom of “For the times we have done X” has crept into a few vernacular missals. For example, the Spanish missal in Argentina which has some 25 options for Form C does this quite frequently: “Por nuestra falta de fe”, “Por nuestro egoismo”, “Por las injusticias sociales”.

  10. I think Form B got a reputation for being “confusing” because in the old translation its first line was indistinguishable from the beginning of Form C. This is no longer the case. Also, Form B allows for the sung Kyrie as well.

    I believe that St. John Cantius in Chicago uses it for most of their Ordinary Form/Novus Ordo/Missal of Paul VI Sunday Masses, whether in Latin or English.

  11. How long, in your experience, is the pause for reflection (if any) between “. . . celebrate the sacred mysteries” and Form A, B, or C? I tend to go 10 seconds or more, probably still influenced by the previous Sacramentary’s C “. . . let us call to mind our sins.” It makes a difference in how the rite is felt as penitential in character.

  12. Just wondering. I quite like Form B (Have mercy on us, O Lord. . . ). It is followed by the Kyrie. As many have pointed out, many Catholics simply don’t know the responses.
    I have always thought that it would be beautiful sung. Does any one know if there are any nice arrangements of the dialogue that segues into a sung Kyrie?

  13. I’m a 43 year old cradle Catholic layman. Up until my 30s, I rarely heard Form A (only when there was to be a sung Kyrie) and I don’t think I’ve ever been to a Mass where I’ve heard Form B. Form C was the dreary Novus Ordo default, especially at daily mass.

    In fact, there was a kind of informal rule for this in the 1980s, 1990s, and early 2000s. At a daily mass, the priest would use Form C and EP 2. At a Sunday or Holy Day Mass, the priest would use Form C and EP 3. At the latter with a sung Kyrie, he would use Form A and EP 3. It went without saying the Roman Canon was kept safe, legal, and rare. These “rules” were universal across priests and dioceses. Amazing how the mind searches for a rubric even amidst a sea of options.

    Incidentally, Form B is traditional. It comes from the dialogue between the priest and the server from the Prayers at the Foot of the Altar.

    I agree with whoever said that Pen Rite A/the Roman Canon at every single Mass has become the norm for younger, more traditional priests at the Novus Ordo. It came up right around the 2011 translation, the height of the Reform of the Reform movement.

    I also agree with whoever said that the Pen Rite should be moved from where it is in the Novus Ordo. He is correct that the proper order of things should be Introit/Kyrie/Gloria/Collect. Might I suggest a way to square the circle here is to suppress Pen Rites A through C entirely, and instead restore the Confiteor (with the traditional absolution formulas) done after the priest has consumed the Precious Blood. This would be a traditional reform of the Novus Ordo that goes beyond even the 1962 books (since the pre-communion Confiteor was by default suppressed therein). It also allows the original Introductory Rite order of Mass that the Consilium first proposed before Paul VI shoved the current Pen Rite in there, somewhat awkwardly and contrary to its traditional place.

  14. This traddy does not see the controversy here. I pray the confiteor with the servers at Mass, both at the beginning of Mass and at the beginning of the people’s communion. (Yes, I know that the 1962 Missal does not include the confiteor before communion, but many priests still expect it. Also many priests say benedicamus Domino on days without the Gloria when the 1962 Missal prescribes the Ite every day. This is how we trads roll.)

    I have my own personal Dialogue Mass every Latin Mass I go to. I whisper the responses so as not to disturb my fellow parishioners. Don’t assume that everyone at the vetus ordo is a mindless blob.

    Back on topic. The novus ordo I go to on the off days almost always uses the confiteor (amen that!) It doesn’t take that much longer to say the confiteor really, especially in the novus ordo short version. Option ‘C’ always strikes me as a time-shortcut that priests use on weekdays to maximize their time for preaching. In a similar vein, I always prefer when a priest uses EP III on the weekdays rather than EP II. It’s what, like an extra minute or two to recite EP III? I realize that saying the Canon on weekdays isn’t feasible much of the time. Yet EP III has so much of that sacrificial language and hostia proclaiming goodness that’s at the heart of the meaning of the Mass. Dr. Luther would have little problem with EP II, and that is the problem with EP II.

  15. What puzzles me about the direction that this thread has taken is the lack of historical awareness. An ecumenical council by a vote of 2147 to 4. All the particular churches were challenged to reform their inherited rites in the light of the ecclesiology renewed by the council. Paul VI shepherded that reform for the Roman Rite. His promulgation of the reformed Missal abrogated the Tridentine version except for particular dispensations, especially for age. Benedict XVI”s attempt to reject that process has been ended by Francis. There is only one lex orandi for the Roman Rite. Suggesting how to make certain details of it be more Tridentine without reference to a theological justification seems to me to be pointless. For example, the objection to EP II, based upon one of the most ancient eucharistic prayers that we possess, as being somehow more Lutheran than Catholic is baseless.

    1. The overstating of the reforms called for by Vatican II is no longer sustainable. The reforms of the Mass called for by Sacrosanctum Concilium were actually quite modest, not the revolution that is often portrayed. The Council shows its intention for a modest reform when it stated: “The Council also desires that, where necessary, the rites be revised carefully in the light of sound tradition.” As for the continuing validity of the Council of Trent, it is cited a number of times and SC expressly states: “The dogmatic principles which were laid down by the Council of Trent remaining intact…”

      There is also a growing understanding of the distinction of the reforms called for by the Council and the revision of the Mass promulgated by Pope Paul VI. To question the prudence of the latter is in no way a rejection of the Council. (Many here at Pray Tell implicitly question this themselves when they suggest even more radical reforms.) The handing down of sound tradition is the only justification that is needed. It is those who would reject this tradition, in whole or in part, who need to justify their suggested reforms.

      In a time when more of the faithful have access to the actual documents of the Council and honest critiques of what has come afterwards, just crying out “Vatican II” is no longer accepted. Those yearning for a return to a traditional form of worship—which is theoretically possible even with the new Mass—have as much to say as those who seek a more radical reform.

      1. Since I was a young adult when Vatican II and the subsequent process of reform occurred, I can only share with you how eagerly the progressive charactr of the liturgical component of that reform was welcomes by ordinary Catholics. More importantly the pace of that reform accelerated precisely because the bishops had to deal with the desire of their flocks to be able to enter into that “full, conscious, and active participation” in worship to which the Council had called them–without having to learn a foreign language. Liturgical reform was an idea whose time had come; were there mistakes made? Of course, but if we believe that the Spirit is guiding the Church, such a heartfelt desire to participate seems clearly a product of the Spirit at work.
        As for “honest critiques,” I judge them by two criteria: historical awareness and accuracy and a deep sense of Christian charity.

      2. You have made my point. While the process of reform was initiated by the Council, the resulting effects were driven not by the decrees of Vatican II itself but by rising expectations that went beyond the limited reform that the Council foresaw. I too remember the days when the reforms were implemented. And while there were indeed many who applauded all that happened, there were likewise many who were upset by it; many to whom the advocates of reform have continually turned a deaf ear. Today the Spirit can be seen leading a new generation yearning for a return to a traditional form of worship. The mere invocation of “Vatican II” will not stall this movement. It is time to enter into a true dialogue and let all voices be heard.

    2. Celebrating the current rite in continuity with previous iterations is not a rejection of the process begun at Vatican II and carried forward by the popes. It was not Benedict XVI but John Paul II who added the instruction that gestures and posture should be informed by, inter alia, “the traditional practice of the Roman Rite” (GIRM 42), and by this he did not mean “the tradition stretching back to the Missal of Paul VI.” The current Ceremonial of Bishops, which JPII also promulgated only about a decade after Paul VI’s death, demonstrates reference to traditional practice by describing “hands outstretched” and “hands joined” in terms of older liturgical books – in fact, it says expressly that “‘Hands joined’ means” what is prescribed by the 1886 Caeremoniale (CB 107, note 80). To suggest that Francis’s assertion of one lex orandi excludes intentional continuity with older editions would not only sit uncomfortably next to Paul VI’s apostolic constitution Missale Romanum but would moreover constitute a rejection of the lex orandi of the very Roman Rite to which Francis is calling us to be faithful. Considering that the liturgical books themselves regard a certain degree of continuity with past forms to be a good (one might say, a feature, not a bug), the burden of proof lies with one who would challenge concerns of continuity as an element of the “common spiritual good” pursued in light of “the needs, the preparation, and the culture of the participants” (GIRM 352).

    3. To address your claim about EPII, even the missal itself that was shepherded by St. Paul VI states that EP II should primarily be used on weekdays in conjunction with the other Eucharistic Prayers and that EP I and EP III should be the main workhorses on Sundays and Solemnities (with EP IV being added to the mix during Ordinary Time). By the reformed missal’s own standards, its regular use on Sundays is a misuse of the missal. Considering the difference in recitation time between EP II and EP III is probably a minute (or perhaps even less), best pastoral practice would use only EP II on weekdays without a memorial being celebrated, as memorials would be better suited to EP III which allows for the saint to be mentioned.

      Also as an side, the main connection of the “Apostolic Tradition” base text with EPII is in the preface, not in what follows the Sanctus. This preface also shows up in the missal as the first common preface and can be used with EP I and EP III as well.

  16. At risk of nitpicking, I would caution against describing the Confiteor in the missals prior to 1969 as “private.”

    Less importantly, for centuries prior to the development of the dialogue Mass, the rubrics of low Mass prescribed that the prayers at the foot of the altar, until the Aufer a nobis, be said “clara voce.” Bracketing whether this rubric was actually followed and how exceptional, on paper, low Mass was considered to be, there were practically numerous occasions on which this penitential act was designed to be a “public” confession in the sense of “heard by all,” even if not confessed by all.

    More importantly, we ought to maintain clarity that all liturgical prayer is “public” – the eternal offering of the whole Christ and thus pertaining to, even when not voiced by, the entire people of God. Every prayer for which the rubrics prescribe a low voice is therefore both “secret” and “public” at the same time. This terminology helps to distinguish from elements added (whether audibly or not) by personal initiative and which consequently are not part of the whole Church’s offering in the same sense as the liturgy proper. Thus most of the offertory was once a conglomeration of apologiae snuck into the liturgy, but eventually these were codified and prescribed and thereby became part of the Church’s *public* prayer. Nowadays, so-called “blessings” during the Communion Rite are visible and/or audible to others yet (apart from potential force of custom) remain private acts of intercession. So if one would not refer to a “private Mass” or “private Baptism,” one also should not refer to the confession in the ordo Missae since the earliest printed missals as a “private” prayer.

    1. Aaron: “[T]here were practically numerous occasions on which this penitential act was designed to be a “public” confession in the sense of “heard by all,” ” even if not confessed by all. (my emphasis)

      I am not sure what you mean by what I have italicized. If I recite the confiteor with the servers or clerics at the beginning of the vetus ordo, am I not also making a personal confession of venial sin? It’s true that most worshipers at the vetus ordo, especially at Low Mass, aren’t making the responses. Still, that doesn’t preclude me from confessing my sins.

      1. Jordan,
        On the most basic level I meant what you indicated, that most worshipers will not be making the responses.

        But my “designed” was meant to express a stronger claim that, to my mind, this practical fact was in conformity with the rite, which did not envision the lay faithful in the nave praying that Confiteor . It seems to me, anyway, that while the acolyte at low Mass has absorbed both the responses of the sacred ministers and those of the schola/faithful, in the prayers at the foot of the altar – which at solemn Mass are said by the ministers while the people are singing the introit – he is taking the place specifically of the sacred ministers rather than representing the lay faithful. At the very least one can note that, even if the lay faithful were *permitted* to pray the Confiteor with the server(s), the bishops did not expend conspicuous effort in promoting the practice.

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