The Act of Penitence: What’s changing?

| Father John Paul Erickson | July 5, 2011 | 1 Comment

The following is the next in a series of articles regarding the new Roman missal, which will be used in the United States beginning Nov. 27, the first Sunday of Advent.

It is best to face the facts: Jesus has favorites. The poor, the weak, the vulnerable — for these little ones, Christ has a special love, as he makes so clear in the Gospels.

One sign of such love is his startling solidarity with them: “Whatever you did to the least of these, you did to me.” Powerful words, indeed, and words meant to awaken within our own hearts a deep love and care for the poor. We ignore these words at our own eternal peril.

But then there is that other group of individuals for whom Christ has such passionate love and concern: the repentant sinners. This special love has been given to Christ by the Father himself, a love that is directly connected to Jesus’ appointed mission — to seek out the lost and to bring the wandering sheep at last to verdant pastures.

In the beautiful writings of St. Faustina, the canonized visionary who has bequeathed to the church the “Divine Mercy” image, we hear again and again of Christ’s thirst for souls, especially lost souls who feel their own sin crushing them with its dreadful weight.

Indeed, Faustina claims that these souls have a particular “claim” on Christ’s mercy. The greater the sin, the greater the mercy of God made manifest in Christ Jesus.

Christ’s particular love for sinners, despite our willfulness and pride, is a wondrous and liberating revelation.  It is, in fact, a critical component of the Good News.

Until the day we die, the Savior calls us back, always ready to welcome us and lead us into that loving communion with the Father that is every human being’s vocation. Until that moment of judgment that will mark our last day, the crucified hound of heaven chases and pursues us in a whole host of different ways, regardless of how we have failed or how many times we have said no to him.

Acknowledging our sins

And so it is right, one might even say advantageous, to begin the Mass with an acknowledgment of sin. We are called to admit and to claim as our own our arrogance, our lust, our vanity, our capacity to betray and to destroy, and our negligence, so that we might claim Christ as our own and be mercifully welcomed by him into his own prayer to the Father.

In a certain sense, we boast with Paul in our infirmities, so that the cross of Christ might shine ever more clearly and singularly in our broken life. In this is the scandal of the cross, and it is glorious.

We call this acknowledgment of sin that marks the beginning of Mass the “penitential rite.” Like most of the parts of the Mass, many of its words will be changing on Nov. 27, even as the fundamental meaning of the act remains the same.

Probably the most common form of the penitential rite used at Mass is “Form C,” that is, the trope or litany form — which begins with an acclamation connected to Christ’s mission and life, and proceeds to ask three time for his mercy: “Lord have mercy, Christ have mercy, Lord have mercy.”

They are powerful words, and we should listen to them when they are spoken, striving to make them our own. This form of the rite will actually not be changing at all.

‘Mea culpa’

But the church provides other options for this important moment. The first option given by the church, called “The Confiteor,” is an extended admission of sin, and a petition to our brothers and sisters for their own prayers.

In the new translation of this beautiful text, we will soon hear the phrase “through my fault, through my fault, through my most grievous fault.” This, of course, is a much more literal translation than we currently have of the actual Latin text — “mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.” Our current translation simply reads “through my own fault.”

This phrase, “mea culpa” is well known even by those who have little knowledge of Latin or the church’s liturgical prayer. It’s a public admission of fault.

To repeat the phrase three times is not simply a rhetorical flourish. This three-fold admission of guilt is fundamentally a cry for Christ, whose own love is “grievous,” even to the point of death, death on the cross. As people of hope, we admit our failures boldly and with the physical sign of striking the breast, an ancient sign of penitence.

Not sacramental confession

It is perhaps important to note that the penitential rite is not equivalent to the sacrament of confession. It is still the clear teaching of the church that serious sin must be confessed, integrally and to a priest, for absolution to be given and the sacraments received.

But like confession, when taken seriously the penitential rite trains us to love and to forgive. God’s forgiveness is not simply a gift meant for us alone. We are called to be shaped by this love, and to experience and ask for it often, so that we might give it often to others, especially those who hurt us or those toward whom we have an aversion.

You cannot give what you do not have. In the penitential rite, we ask for mercy, so that we might give it to others.

The glorious fact is that this Christ does come when he is called, in word and in sacrament, to comfort and to save. Indeed, it is such a glorious fact that immediately following our acknowledgment of sin we proclaim with full voice the gloria!

Father John Paul Erickson is director of the archdiocese Office of Worship.

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Category: New Roman Missal, Spotlight