Sep 15, 2011

Exploring the Biblical Allusions in the Order of Mass: Penitential Act

Online Edition:
September 2011
Vol. XVII, No. 6

Exploring the Biblical Allusions
in the Order of Mass: Penitential Act

This article appeared in the July 2011 edition of the Newsletter published by the US Conference of Catholic Bishops Committee on Divine Worship [BCDW], and it appears here with the kind permission of Father Rick Hilgartner, executive directer of the BCDW secretariat. Future articles in the series will appear in the Newsletter.

For further information and resources on the revised translation of the Missal, visit the special web section on the Roman Missal, or a newly updated site,


In the coming issues of the Newsletter [of the Bishops Committee on Divine Worship], the various Scriptural allusions in the Order of Mass will be explored.  The Liturgy is fundamentally the Bible set to ritual, and one of the goals of Liturgiam authenticam was to raise this evangelical quality of the Liturgy.  To begin, we look at the Penitential Act, which occurs in the Introductory Rites.

A clear distinction must always be kept between the sacramental absolution received in the Rite of Penance and the ritual absolution performed during the Penitential Act at Mass.  The former is the application of Christ’s redemptive act to a member of the baptized who is duly contrite for sins and open to receiving God’s forgiveness.  The latter is a prayer of petition for God’s mercy to prepare us for the worthy celebration of the Eucharist.  In the Roman Missal, the latter has a new name.  It is now called the Penitential Act instead of Penitential Rite.  The word “rite” is commonly reserved for one of the Sacraments, e.g., the Rite of Baptism, the Rite of Marriage, etc.  The use of the word “act”, on the other hand, refers to a step or action that is a part of something larger.  Our communal “action” of acknowledging our sinful state is the first step toward thankfulness for God’s mercy, which is always greater than our sinfulness.  The pattern of the liturgy is a pattern for life: acknowledge one’s sinfulness, but then move on to acceptance of and gratitude for God’s merciful love.

On the USCCB’s Roman Missal web site there are many useful resources for the implementation of the new Missal, one of which is the scripturally annotated Order of Mass: -mass.pdf

Below are provided parts of the Penitential Act from that resource, with some relevant scriptural citations.

Form A (Confiteor)

I confess to almighty God
and to you, my brothers and sisters,
that I have greatly sinned,
in my thoughts and in my words,
in what I have done
and in what I have failed to do,

And, striking their breast, they say:
through my fault, through my fault,
through my most grievous fault;

Then they continue:
therefore I ask blessed Mary ever-Virgin,
all the Angels and Saints,
and you, my brothers and sisters,
to pray for me to the Lord our God.

Scripture citations

“Then David said to God, ‘I have sinned greatly in doing this thing. Take away your servant’s guilt, for I have acted very foolishly’” (I Chr 21:8). 

This is King David — the great sinner and repenter, who never doubted God’s mercy.  The word “greatly” in Latin is nimis and every other use of this word in the Roman Missal is in reference to the “great” mercy of God.  Think, for example, of Jesus’ words about the sinful woman: “her many sins have been forgiven, hence, she has loved greatly” (Lk 7:47).

“But the tax collector stood off at a distance and would not even raise his eyes to heaven but beat his breast and prayed, ‘O God, be merciful to me a sinner’” (Lk 18:13). 

The 1962 Missal called for striking the breast three times, but both the Latin text and the English translation of the current Missal call for only a single strike during the text given here.

Form B (Dialogue)

Priest: Have mercy on us, O Lord.
People: For we have sinned against you.
Priest: Show us, O Lord, your mercy.
People: And grant us your salvation.

Scripture citations

“Hear, Lord, and have mercy, for you are a merciful God; have mercy on us, who have sinned against you” (Bar 3:2). 
Let us see, O Lord, your mercy” (Ps 85:8a).
And grant us your salvation” (Ps 85:8b).

Form B is completed by singing or reciting the threefold repetition of the Kyrie, eleison (Lord, have mercy).

Form C (Tropes)

You were sent to heal the contrite of heart
You came to call sinners
You are seated at the right hand of the Father to intercede for us

Scripture citations

“[The Lord] heals the brokenhearted; He binds up all their wounds” (Ps 147:3). 

“Go and learn the meaning of the words, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’  I did not come to call the righteous but sinners” (Mt 9:13). 

“Who will condemn?  It is Christ (Jesus) who died, rather, was raised, who also is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us” (Rom 8:34).

The introductory rubric for Form C states, “The priest, or a deacon or another minister, then says the following or other invocations with Kyrie, eleison (Lord, have mercy).”  The chanting or recitation of the Kyrie tropes is not limited to the priest or the deacon.  Another minister — for example, a cantor — may chant the tropes to enhance the liturgy.  Secondly, the three tropes provided in the Order of Mass, as well as the other sets provided in Appendix VI of the Missal, are only given as samples.  The priest celebrant or other minister is encouraged to create tropes which could be inspired by the liturgical observance or the scriptures of the day or the particular needs of the local Church.



The Editors