Every day, it seems, we hear of some new travesty committed by the human members of the Church. Less dramatic, of course, are the constant reminders we all have of our human nature, weakened by sin. As we prepare for our solemn celebration of Christmas, of Emmanuel (“God-with-us,”), now is a perfect time to express our constant need for God’s mercy and forgiveness. We do this as individuals and as Church. We are a humble and humbled Church, and like our ancient ancestors in the faith, we acknowledge our sinfulness publicly. The tradition of the Latin Rite includes a penitential rite as part of the introductory rites of every Mass.
For the record, I fully embrace the teachings of the Second Vatican Council; all of them. As Pope Francis said recently, the teachings of the Council are the magisterium of the Church. Significant among those teachings are the principles of liturgical reform established in Sacrosanctum Concilium. In the subsequent liturgical reforms based on these conciliar principles, the former “prayers at the foot of the altar” were removed, except for an abridged form of the Confiteor. This became part of an expanded penitential rite, consisting of several forms available to the priest, with the simplified Confiteor being simply one of those options. Thus, the Confiteor may be prayed in some locations and not others, or at certain times of the year and not others. What I am about to suggest may surprise some people. Nevertheless, as I have reflected on the current state of the Church, it seems appropriate to restore the Confiteor as a mandatory part of every celebration of the Mass of St. Paul VI. To be clear, what I am suggesting is a modest revision to the Mass of St. Paul VI. I am most certainly not proposing a wholesale return to the pre-Conciliar Missale Romanum.
What follows is an excerpt from my forthcoming book from Paulist Press (paulistpress.com), Courageous Humility: Reflections on the Church, Diakonia, and Deacons.
A Humble Church Confesses
There is a longstanding liturgical tradition that offers, I believe, a rich opportunity to express personal and communal acknowledgment of our sinfulness and need for God’s mercy and forgiveness. For many centuries, before the post-conciliar liturgical changes, the Mass of the Roman Rite included preparatory prayers known as the “Prayers at the Foot of the Altar.” They involved the priest and the altar servers; the servers represented the people and spoke on their behalf. Often, the priest and servers were the only people present at the Mass. Even on Sundays, with greater numbers of the laity present, they were silent; it was still the servers who spoke the prayers on their behalf. With the priest and servers praying antiphonally (in Latin, of course), the prayers consisted of two major groups of prayers: first, Psalm (42) 43 (Introibo ad altare Dei), and second, the Confiteor. Today, in the reformed liturgy, we still have the option of praying a shortened form of the Confiteor as part of the Penitential Rite at Mass; however, the former practice was much more expressive.
At the end of Psalm (42) 43, the priest bowed with a “profound bow” and began the Confiteor. It is a fuller, richer form of the prayer than we use today:
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, my brothers [et vobis, fratres], that I have sinned exceedingly, in thought, word and deed: through my fault, through my fault, through my most grievous fault. Therefore I beseech blessed Mary ever Virgin, blessed Michael the Archangel, blessed John the Baptist, the holy Apostles Peter and Paul, all the Saints, and you, brothers [et vos, fratres], to pray to the Lord our God for me.
The “brothers” to whom the priest is speaking are the servers (or, at a Solemn High Mass, the Deacon and Subdeacon). When he refers to them (twice), the priest—still bowing—rotates to each server in turn. As soon as the priest finished the Confiteor, the servers immediately prayed, “May Almighty God have mercy upon you, forgive you your sins, and bring you to life everlasting.” The priest then stood upright, and the servers took their turn, bowed profoundly, and prayed the same Confiteor, only this time referring to the priest (et tibi, Pater and et te, Pater) rotating toward him as he had toward them. When the prayer was complete, the priest offered the same prayer that the servers had prayed for him: “May Almighty God have mercy upon you, forgive you your sins, and bring you to life everlasting.”
I have provided this detailed description to apply it, with some modification, to our Mass today. Of course, today, we celebrate the Ordinary Form of the Mass in the vernacular; there is no need to change that. Similarly, in the past, the priest and servers were facing ad orientem. Today the Ordinary Form is usually celebrated versus populum, and this would continue. My suggestion works most powerfully if bishops, presbyters, deacons, and other ministers face the people and vice versa. Finally, the servers will no longer speak for the assembly; the assembly will speak for themselves.
Here’s my suggestion. The Mass begins as customary. The presider then invites the assembly to penitence, as we do now. However, after the invitation, the clergy (any and all bishops, presbyters, and deacons) would bow profoundly toward the altar (representing Christ) and the people (also a sign of Christ’s presence), praying the full, older version of the Confiteor. When the clergy have finished, and while they are still bowing, the whole assembly would pray over them: “May Almighty God have mercy upon you, forgive you your sins, and bring you to life everlasting.” (For anyone concerned about laypersons and deacons offering this prayer, I would simply point out that it was the young altar servers who offered it for centuries!) Then the clergy would stand upright while the assembly bows profoundly and prays the full, older Confiteor in turn, with the priest praying for God’s mercy when they are finished. In today’s world, such an act of mutual confession and plea for God’s mercy would be a powerful and much-needed form of reconciliation.
I am posting this on a day when a new report has been released that details still more dissatisfaction with organized religion in the United States and a dramatic increase in those who refer to themselves as “nones.” The question people of faith must answer is, “Why do people no longer find religious faith necessary in their lives?” Certain commentators like to blame cultural influences. While this may be accurate to some degree, I believe it is wrong to absolve organized religion from all blame. As church, we no longer capture the imagination of people. St. Augustine wrote of the “attractiveness” of the church and its message; that attractiveness has been lost for many people. “Church” is identified as corrupt, criminal, irrelevant, and hypocritical.
What I am suggesting is not a panacea. However, restoring a profound and solemn expression of our sinfulness and need for constant conversion may go a long way in restoring some measure of confidence in a humble Church. Let’s bring back the Confiteor.