Why the Confiteor is one of the most beautiful and important parts of the Mass
The section of the Roman Catholic Mass called the Penitential Rite is insufficiently appreciated. This part contains, among other things, the prayer known as the Confiteor. Its name comes from the first line, which, in Latin, is Confiteor Deo omnipotente…, in English translated as “I confess to Almighty God….” The Confiteor is the source of the phrase, mea culpa (mea culpa, mea culpa, me maxima culpa — i.e., one confesses that one has sinned “through my fault, through my fault, through my most grievous fault.”
A special virtue of this section of the Liturgy is that it is an opportunity for members of the Church to pray for one another. When I was younger, I understood the Confiteor, along with the Kyrie eleison, Christe eleison (Lord have mercy! Christ have mercy!) which comes later, as being mainly concerned with seeking forgiveness for ones own sins. But with age comes a growth in instinctive concern for others; you look around and see what difficulties and burdens others bear, and, if you have a heart, you naturally want them to be helped. As this charitable concern develops, the Mass takes on new meaning and importance.
Whose soever sins ye remit, they are remitted unto them; and whose soever sins ye retain, they are retained. (John 20:23)
Just think of what the verse above implies. Look at the suffering and the burdens others bear — whether those be their sins, or the consequences of those sins, or the guilt and shame their sins produce. And then consider the possibility that you may be an agent in removing those burdens and effecting their healing. Have you never noticed how real benefits may come to others as the result of your prayers? What if no-one else on the entire the planet is praying for these individuals? That may easily be the case! Can you not bring yourself — indeed, can you not resist the compassionate urge — to pray for them?
To give a personal example, suppose I’m at Mass and I see people in the congregation with serious obesity problems; these days, I’m afraid, that’s an all too common experience. Now God has given me the gift of physical fitness and a strong personal motivation to exercise. This is a grace not everyone has. It is a blessing, and I’m extremely grateful for it. But I have been overweight before, and therefore know that these people suffer very much because of obesity. It’s perfectly natural, then, for me to pray for them.
Now it might be objected, “Aren’t you being judgmental here? On what basis are you apparently equating their health issues with sin?” The answer is that I’m taking a very broad view of sin; it might be better to call the issue here moral imperfection, or even an insufficiency of moral strength. We need to strip ‘sin’ of its judgmental connotations in any case. The original Greek word for sin is hamartia, which means ‘missing the mark.’ It’s appropriate, then, to see the alleviation of obesity, depression, substance abuse, or many other things people suffer from as subjects of prayer in the Penitential Rite.
It is of some interest to note changes in the liturgy apropos of this. Before the reforms of the 1960’s and 70’s, the Mass was, of course, still said in Latin. People may not remember this detail, but in the traditional Tridentine Mass the Confiteor was actually prayed twice. First the priest recited it to the assistant(s) or altar servers, confessing his sinfulness and pleading for the intercession of “Mary ever Virgin, blessed Michael the Archangel, blessed John the Baptist, the holy Apostles Peter and Paul” and “all the Saints.” In conclusion he further asked, “you brethren, to pray to the Lord our God for me.”
In response, the assistant(s) — representing the entire congregation — prayed,
May Almighty God have mercy upon you, forgive you your sins, and bring you to life everlasting.
To which the priest said, “Amen.”
Then the assistant(s) recited the Confiteor, changing only the last phrase by asking “you Father, to pray to the Lord our God for me.” The priest then prayed the same response as the assistant(s) had to his Confiteor, to which the latter responded, “Amen.” Then the priest, making the sign of the cross, prayed:
May the Almighty and merciful God grant us pardon, absolution, and remission of our sins.
To which the server(s) replied, “Amen.”
This detail actually signifies something momentous: that the priest and congregation, symbolized by the assistant(s), are praying, interceding with God, for each other’s forgiveness.
The present form of the Roman Catholic Mass includes only one Confiteor, said jointly by the priest and congregation. In theory, nothing has changed spiritually: all are praying both for themselves and for each other. But the present liturgy leaves this more ambiguous. If not instructed in the matter, people may misunderstand, and think they are only praying for their own forgiveness.
At one level, it’s perfectly understandable and ordinary for people to be so intent on confessing their own sins and seeking forgiveness that the reciprocity of the Confiteor escapes attention. Yet Christians in this respect are called on to be more than ordinary. They are called to be priests, a priestly people (1 Peter 2:5–10; cf. Exodus 19:6); and one vital function of a priest is to intercede with God for the welfare of others.
Moreover, an exclusively self-oriented confessional attitude fails to recognize a fundamental principle of the psychology of forgiveness, a detail to which Scripture pointedly calls our attention: that forgiving others and being forgiven ourselves are so integrally related as to literally be two aspects of the same thing. Let us recall some relevant passages:
Confess your faults one to another, and pray one for another, that ye may be healed. The effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much. (James 5:16)
For if ye forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you:But if ye forgive not men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses. (Matthew 6: 14–15)
Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy. (Matthew 5:7)
Note that we are not just called to forgive those who have trespassed against us, but also those sins others commit that might not involve us at all.
Sometimes we might think that the connection between forgiving and forgiveness is merely a kind of reciprocal justice: if we forgive, then we’ve done a good deed, and our reward is to be forgiven in exactly the same degree. But the connection is actually much stronger. In a sense, our holding onto grudges, or even just a ‘stinginess’ in wishing forgiveness for anyone, automatically carries with it a burden of moral imperfection, if not outright sin. Said another way, the moment we earnestly pray for others’ forgiveness — not just those who have harmed us, but those who need forgiveness in any way and for any reason — we ourselves come into right relation to God and with ourselves. And whatever burdens we have imposed on ourselves by being out of right relation are removed.
This shouldn’t be taken to imply that an awareness of our own sinfulness isn’t terribly important. Quite the opposite: the more cognizant we are of our need for forgiveness, the more enthusiastic and willing we are to forgive others, as this is a small price to pay indeed. If we fully understood this principle, we would beg and thank God for the opportunity to forgive others!
Perhaps at this point some will expect me to suggest that we should restore the Tridentine Mass, but that is by no means my point. In fact, I think the liturgical changes have been, in the main, for the better. It seems sufficient for the Confiteor to be said once — provided that people are aware of all that’s going on. I believe it proper to say that the main focus of ones prayer here should be for others’ forgiveness. That is the object of our prayer. The action of our praying for others is itself implicitly the prayer for our own forgiveness — so that both needs are being met at the same time.
I do believe, however, that, with the present liturgy, special attention needs to be given to instruct people about the dual nature of the Penitential Rite. Further, some things I’ve read online seem to suggest that in certain diocese and/or at certain times, the Confiteor is omitted from masses. If so, then it seems to me very important that whatever is used in its place emphasize and encourage the dual aspect of praying for forgiveness.
I wrote at the outset that this is something momentous, but have yet to fully explain why. Consider this principle of each forgiving another — of striving to do this oneself, and of coming to regularly expect that others approach you in the same way — carried to its logical extreme. That is, imagine a society where this principle became conventional, usual, regular. In that case the whole orientation of the individual towards others and society in general would be transformed, and for the better. Inasmuch as the ability to heal by forgiving is natural, and human beings are naturally social and gregarious, then an ambient recognition of this principle would amount to a revolution in human consciousness, individual and social. We would achieve in practice what is yet only latent and dormant in our collective potential. We would change as a species.