More about the new, corrected version of the Confiteor

Elsewhere I answered a question about the new, corrected ICEL version of the Confiteor.  I said I would post something more about the Confiteor.  Liberals will hate this new version, by the way.  We have already seen that (here).

Here is something I wrote for my weekly column in the UK’s best Catholic weekly, The Catholic Herald.

And With Your Spirit
by Fr John Zuhlsdorf


The first major change people will notice in the new, corrected English translation for Holy Mass will be, as we saw last week, the response “And with your spirit”.  After that, in many places – depending on the penitential rite option chosen by the priest – the next major change will be to the Confiteor (“I confess”). I suspect younger priests will more and more choose this option.

Our English word “confess” comes from the Classical Latin confiteor, confessus, “to acknowledge, confess, own, avow (an error, mistake, or a fact previously denied or doubted, etc., implying a sacrifice of will or a change of conviction”.  In ancient Christian Latin, a confessio was the witness, unto death, made by a martyr. Confiteor was used for recognition of the greatness of God, and then later recognition of one’s faults.  When we speak of a Confiteor now, we mean the public declaration, together with others, of our own fallen sinful state at the beginning of Mass.

In Matthew 18 Our Lord urges us to make peace with each other before coming to the altar of sacrifice.  In Luke 18 He tells the parable of the tax collector who beat his breast in the temple, calling himself a sinner.  When we enter the holy precincts of a church for the sacred action of Mass, we should have a healthy sense of our unworthiness which leads to outward expressions in our worship or sorrow and thanksgiving.

That said, try reading this aloud.

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.

Note the changes.  We will now admit in English, as Catholics have done together for centuries in Latin, that we have not merely sinned, we have “greatly sinned”.  The strong, uncommon word “grievous”, echoing pre-Conciliar hand missal translations, emphasizes that even a lesser sin is a true offense against God’s love.

The most dramatic difference in the new, corrected translation will be the reintroduction of the provocative three-fold mea culpa.  And we are to strike our breast.  Please do strike your breast!

In 5th century North Africa, the great Doctor of Grace St. Augustine of Hippo (d. 430) observed in a sermon (s. 67.1) how the people automatically beat their breast whenever they heard the word confiteor.  In another place he said they struck themselves so forcefully that the sound resounded in the church.  The 20th century writer of the Liturgical Movement, Romano Guardini (d. 1968) wrote in his 1955 work Sacred Signs:

“To brush one’s clothes with the tips of one’s fingers is not to strike the breast.  We should beat upon our breasts with our closed fists. … It is an honest blow, not an elegant gesture.  To strike the breast is to beat against the gates of our inner world in order to shatter them.  This is its significance. … ‘Repent, do penance.’  It is the voice of God.  Striking the breast is the visible sign that we hear that summons. … Let it wake us up, and make us see, and turn to God”.

The future Pope Benedict XVI wrote in Spirit of the Liturgy (p. 207): “We point not at someone else but at ourselves as the guilty party, [which] remains a meaningful gesture of prayer. … When we say mea culpa (through my fault), we turn, so to speak, to ourselves, to our own front door, and thus we are able rightly to ask forgiveness of God, the saints, and the people gathered around us, whom we have wronged.”

We oh-so-modern Catholics will benefit from clear talk about sin and the physical action of beating our breast to counteract the “I’m Okay, You’re Okay” rubbish so prevalent today. We need Mass precisely because we are not “okay”. Sinners need a Saviour. A realistic recognition of who we are and who we are not is a necessary starting point for all worthy prayer and liturgical worship.

The revised, corrected translation of the Confiteor will have a greater impact on us as we begin to pray at Mass.  It will remind us more forcefully that we should be in the state of grace before receiving Holy Communion. The improved translation will, over time, repair a sense of continuity with our forebears as well as strengthen our need for a regular examination of conscience, frequent sacramental confession, and deeper gratitude during Mass.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. vox borealis says:

    The more faithful translation is wonderful, but I am far more pessimistic that we will ever hear it. Already at most parishes—at least in my observation—the default penitential rite is the “Lord, you have fill in with some happy, uplifting message about healing or lifting up, Lord have mercy…” I think even more priests will choose this option over the “new” confiteor with more emphasis on sin and fault.

  2. Dr. Eric says:

    “Two men went up into the temple to pray: the one a Pharisee, and the other a publican.
    The Pharisee standing, prayed thus with himself: O God, I give thee thanks that I am not as the rest of men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, as also is this publican. I fast twice in a week: I give tithes of all that I possess. And the publican, standing afar off, would not so much as lift up his eyes towards heaven; but struck his breast, saying: O God, be merciful to me a sinner. I say to you, this man went down into his house justified rather than the other: because every one that exalteth himself, shall be humbled: and he that humbleth himself, shall be exalted.” -St. Luke 18:10-14

  3. Legisperitus says:

    Sed contra, I’m positive I read somewhere (Fortescue?) that liturgical breast-striking is the “touching of the joined fingers” of the right hand to the chest. No mention of a thumping fist.

  4. stjmen says:

    Now if only we could get our priest to choose that rite, but as we don’t even use the “old” translation of the Confiteor, I’ve little hope that we will ever get to use the new translation.

  5. Mark01 says:

    Father, are we to strike our breasts three times as we say through my fault, through my fault, through my most grievous fault, or just once. I would think three times, but what do I know.

    [Look at it this way. In the older form of Holy Mass, the Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite, the priest and others who recite the Confiteor strike their breasts three times. I’m just sayin’….]

  6. vox borealis: My experience regarding the form of the penitential rite is that it (like other liturgical matters) is largely a generational matter.

    Most young priests–ordained since 2000–in my observation use the confiteor penitential form more often than not (just as most of them frequently use the Roman Canon). Most older priests typically use an actually non-penitential form of the rite (just as many of them frequently use EP II). (Of course, there are exceptions both ways.)

  7. Fr. Z – Your point about younger priests choosing to say the confiteor is spot on. My wife and I have been at our NO parish for over two years now. Yesterday, we had our new associate pastor for mass for the first time. He graduated from the seminary in 2010. For the first time since we have been at this parish (and we have a pretty conservative pastor who has taken courses on the EF), we heard the confiteor with the new associate. To be quite honest, it caught me off guard, and definitely caught many other parishioners by surprise, many of whom I suspect by the volume of the congregation’s response haven’t heard the confiteor in many, many years. It was a very pleasant surprise.

  8. Frank H says:

    Henry, youngcatholicstl;

    Further agreement here!

    I have see our newly ordained parochial vicar celebrate Sunday Mass once, and daily Mass four or five times now, in the last couple of weeks. So far he has used ONLY the Confiteor, and ONLY the Roman Canon. Plus, although I wasn’t able to be there, today he said an Extraordinary Form Low Mass in out 2005 vintage church. Absolutely remarkable!

  9. jasoncpetty says:

    Legisperitus, that’s what I thought.

  10. RuariJM says:

    “Liberals will hate this new version, by the way. ”

    I don;t have a problem with it, Fr Z. In fact, I rather like it – I was rather sad that the previous version missed out ‘to you, my brothers and sisters’ and the triple-strike. While our sins offend and hurt God, they are also likely to have hurt other people, too.

    Is that me being right-on traditionalist or a bit wishy-washy liberal? [I call it… a good start! o{]:¬) ]

  11. This is a good place to point out that the ordinary form has a leg up on the extraordinary form in this particular prayer. I just don’t think that having a server supply this response in place of each and every member of the congregation saying it aloud with his own lips is as effective, and saying it in the vernacular has far more impact than saying it in Latin, provided that those in the congregation actually think about what they are saying (which, of course, is more likely in the vernacular, although most people actually do know the meaning of mea culpa).

    I will also add that in my long and storied travels to many, many parishes over the years, I have not seen any neglect of the Confiteor, even by older priests. The ordinary form option that is most neglected is “B,” so much so that on the rare occasions where it is used, the congregation does not usually know the response to “Lord, show us your mercy and love.” I know of only one priest who uses “B” on a regular basis (in fact, almost always). Options “A” and “C” get roughly equal use in my experience.

  12. Byzcat says:

    Fr Z, I wish the Church would just dump the Novus Ordo and go back to the “Extraordinary Form” rather than jumping through all of these hoops to try to correct what is, in many respects, uncorrectable. I was 9 years old when the mass was changed overnight. It was horrible then. It has not improved with age. I left the Roman Rite to go to the Byzantine Rite because I could no longer endure the liturgical abuses and the terrible lack of reverence at all of the local parishes. Fortunately, subsequent to my change of Rite there is now a local priest who offers the Latin Mass during the week which I frequent when when the Divine Liturgy is not celebrated. I always loved the beginning of the priest’s prayers at the foot of the altar: “Introibo ad altare Dei…” It still makes me weep.

  13. Gail F says:

    Let me add to the chorus: My pastor doesn’t use the confiteor now, so the new translation will not make any difference.

    Like vox borealis, all we get is, Lord, “you are a God of mercy (or something similar),” Lord have mercy. Christ, “you understand us in our weakness (or something similar), Christ have mercy… Not bad in itself, perhaps, but EVERY WEEK???

    It seems to me that the folks who think “The Church overdid it with the guilt thing” fail to notice that the Church is now overdoing it with the “We are great” thing. The Church MUST have overdone it at one time, because so many people I have talked to are convinced it still does — despite never hearing about sin or Hell or anything for 50 years.

  14. wecahill says:

    I agree with Byzcat – just go back to the old rite. If not all at once, then just use the old Confiteor, with its invocation of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Blessed Michael the Archangel, Blessed John the Baptist, the Holy Apostles Peter and Paul, and all the saints…. This clearly reinforces the ‘vertical’ dimesnion of our existence, and not merely the ‘horizontal’ as in confessing “to you, my brothers and sisters”. In the old Confiteor, the priest confesses to “vobis fratres”, whereas the congregation, as one, confesses to “tibi Pater”. These mutual confessions retain a sense that we have sinned against each other, while keeping the proper perspective, that our sins are primarily offenses against God and heaven.

  15. Centristian says:

    “To brush one’s clothes with the tips of one’s fingers is not to strike the breast. We should beat upon our breasts with our closed fists. … It is an honest blow, not an elegant gesture.”

    At the traditionalist seminary I attended many years ago, we were instructed that it should, in fact, be an elegant gesture, open-palmed and silent, and not an actual thumping of the breast with a closed fist. I suppose it’s a matter of one school of thought vs. another. I’m partial to the former. It will be a moot point, though, if the Confiteor isn’t opted for by the celebrant. I believe I can count on one hand the number of times I encounter the Confiteor at Mass in the course of a year, which I think is unfortunate. I wish it were not optional.

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