QUAERITUR: When during Mass should people strike their breasts?

From a reader:

For those of us who attend the Tridintine form of the Holy Mass, we see the servers striking their breasts at several points in the liturgy.

In the Novus Ordo, where are appropriate points for the servers (or faithful) to do the same? In the upcoming revised translation, we have the restored “mea culpa” in the Gloria, but anywhere else? The recitation of “Lord have mercy,” or, “have mercy on us,” comes to my mind.

My bearded-Spock side suggests that during the Novus Ordo – especially considering how it is often celebrated – the faithful should be striking their breasts constantly.

That said, I think there is only one point at what the faithful are directed to strike their breasts: during the Confiteor in the penitential rite at the beginning of Mass.  New, corrected translation:

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.

But in the Novus Ordo, there are various options for the penitential rite.  I’m afraid that this isn’t always used.

That rubric about continuing, by the way, suggests to me that the people should strike thrice, and not just once.  Could one surmise that perhaps a good point at which to strike the breast might be the word “fault”?  Perhaps?  Three times?  I digress.

I suspect the servers, during the Novus Ordo, are imitating the priest who must also strike his breast at a point during the Roman Canon (1st Eucharistic Prayer).  Also, many priests have integrated from the older, traditional form of the Roman Rite, striking their breasts during the Agnus Dei and perhaps also the Domine non sun dignus, just before their own Communion.

St. Augustine said that at the mention of words such as “mercy” or “confess… confiteor his flock would beat their breasts so hard that the sound rumbled in the church.  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 Savior.

A realistic recognition of who we are and who we are not is a necessary starting point for all worthy prayer and liturgical worship.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

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

    Optime atque opportune scriptum, Pater; de hac ipsa re modo cogitabam dubitabamque. Mihi quidem placuerunt praesertim verba quae citasti illius Guardini, necnon ea Sancti Augustini.


    Vester in Christo, semet iugiter etiamque fortius pulsans (ac dignus!),

    [Pulsans pulsanti gratias pulso pulsanter.]

  2. Growing up my mother taught me to strike my breast during:
    Oh Lord I am not worthy to receive you-
    Is the gesture inappropriate at this time?

  3. Eric the Read says:

    I was taught by my father to strike my breast three times during the elevation of each of the Body and Blood during the consecration. Apparently my whole family on that side does it, as I found out at my grandfather’s funeral, but I haven’t seen anybody else do it. I still do it, on the grounds that it doesn’t hurt anybody and helps focus my attention on the Eucharist, but it strikes me as peculiar from time to time.

  4. Legisperitus says:

    In regard to the EF:

    Fortescue/O’Connell state that when the priest strikes his breast at the “Nobis quoque peccatoribus,” the congregation should strike the breast but the clergy (servers) should not.

    Also (pace Fr. Guardini), Fortescue/O’Connell describe correct liturgical breast-striking as a stylized action of touching the joined fingers of the right hand to the breast. [How delicate!]

  5. Legisperitus says:

    Personally, I wouldn’t regard any time as inappropriate for members of the congregation to strike the breast if moved to do so.

  6. disco says:


  7. pewpew says:

    In the Netherlands we strike thrice, also in the NO

  8. Centristian says:

    The way I look at if, if some worshippers may, with pastoral approbation, hold hands or lift up their arms during the Lord’s Prayer and at the Doxology, if they can grab and hug and shake hands and wave at each other endlessly at the Pax and make strange gestures at other points (charismatic-style waving hands during “praise” hymns are my favorite…or when one is slain in the Spirit), it should also be legitimate for worshippers who are…otherwise inclined…to make traditional gestures that aren’t necessarily strictly called for, such as striking the breast at the “Lamb of God”, or at the “Lord, I am not worthy.”

    Traditionally-inclined worshippers might also make the sign of the cross at the absolution following the Confiteor, at “cum Sancto Spiritu” in the Gloria, and at the the “et vitam venturi saeculi” of the Credo. Such worshippers might even opt to genuflect at the “Et Incarnatus” of the Credo, or perhaps even when a bishop blesses them while passing down the aisle at the recessional.

    Why let the charismatics have all the fun?

  9. I suspect this will make some people unhappy, and they will trot out the “this directive does not apply to me because [fill in the blank: “its out of date,” “its not an ex cathedra decision of the pope,” “things are all different for the NO after SP,” “there is a state of emergency in the Church,” “Pope X said something different,” etc., etc.] And I don’t care for the response myself, but that does not make it go away. All the questions asked were addressed in Notitiae 14 (1978), 534–535:

    n. 10. In pronouncing certain formulas as in, e.g., the Confiteor, the Agnus Dei, and the Domine non sum dignus, whether on the part of priests or on the part of the faithful, the gestures accompanying the words are not always performed the same. Some strike their breast with a triple strike when saying the aforementioned formulas, others once.
    Which practice seems that it should legitimately be retained?

    In this case it will help to remember these things:
    1) Gestures and words often tend to give significance to one another.
    2) In this matter, as in others, the liturgical restoration has pursued truth and simplicity according to the passage of Sacrosanctum Concilium: « The rites should be resplendent in their noble simplicity … » (SC, 34).

    While in the Roman Missal promulgated by the authority of the Council of Trent the words were very frequently also accompanied by minute gestures, the rubrics of the Roman Missal restored by the authority of the Second Vatican Council are noteworthy for their discretion with regard to gestures.

    Having said this:
    a) The words mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa which are found in the Confiteor are introduced in the restored Roman Missal by a rubric of this sort: All likewise … striking their breast, say … (OM, n. 3). In the former Missal, in the same place, the rubric read like this: He strikes his breast three times. It does not seem, therefore, that anyone has to strike his breast three times in pronouncing those words in Latin or in another language, even if mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa is said. It suffices that there be a striking of the breast.
    It is obvious also that only one gesture suffices in those languages in which the words for showing one’s fault have been rendered in a more simple manner, as, for example, in English, « I have sinned through my own fault », or in French, « Oui, j’ai vraiment peche ».

    b) The discretion of the restored Roman Missal is shown to be noteworthy also in the other texts mentioned, namely the Agnus Dei and the Domine, non sum dignus which by words of penitence and humility in one way or another accompany the breaking of the bread and the invitation to the faithful to receive the Eucharist.

    As it was said in response n. 2 of the Commentary « Notitiae » 1978, p. 301: where the rubrics of the Missal of Paul VI say nothing, it must not therefore be inferred that it is necessary to observe the old rubrics. The restored Missal does not supplement the old one but has replaced it. In reality, the Missal formerly indicated at the Agnus Dei, striking the breast three times, and in pronouncing the triple Domine, non sum dignus, striking the breast … says three times. Since, however, the new Missal says nothing about this (OM 131 and 133), there is no reason to suppose that any gesture should be added to these invocations.

    [Not a single reference to Summorum Pontificum. Interesting.]

  10. P.S. I think it might be time for a new dubium to be sent on how many times one strikes one’s breat at the Confiteor. Something tells me that the reply might be different now. But the above responsum is the current ruling.

  11. Fr. Augustine: You could write it in Latin!

  12. Michael J. says:

    At one time I thought I knew, at least as far as the Extraordinary Form of Mass was concerned. Then I read, “The Ceremonies of the Roman Rite Described”, by Adrian Fortescue, J.B. O’Connell & Alcuin Reid, O.S.B., and now I am more confused than before. There are a variety of answers depending on what type of Mass it is, who it is celebrated by, what the Choir is doing, if there is a choir or not, and so on. Ordinarily, I generally would strike my breast, which, by the way, should be done with an open right hand with fingers held straight and together, not with a fist, at the Confiteor, Domine non sum dignus, and not sure at this moment what, if anything, I am missing. Also, I own the, “Celebration of the Mass”, by Canon O’Connell, and I find that book the easiest to read and understand. I love to learn the Rubrics, but for one person to know them all is next to impossible.

  13. “Fr. Augustine: You could write it in Latin!”

    Salve reverentia, Pater, sed non optabam scribere: “Pater Augustine, Potes scribere hoc latine?”

    Sed Certe! Pro usu lectorum nostrorum plurium dedit versionem in vernaculari. Hic inde sequitur exemplar pristinum latinum publicatum in publicatione Congregationis, Notitia, anno 1978:

    10. In quibusdam formulis proferendis, uti v.g. Confiteor, Agnus Dei, Domine non sum dignus, tum ex parte sacerdotum tum ex parte fidelium gestus verba comitantes non semper iidem habentur: nonnulli in supradictis formulis dicendis triplici ictu pectus sibi percutiunt, alii vero semel.
    Quisnam usus legitime retinendus videtur?

    Haec in casu meminisse iuvabit:
    1) Gestus et verba saepe saepius vim sibi invicem conferunt.
    2) Hac in materia, ut in ceteris, liturgica instauratio veritatem et simplicitatem prosecuta est, secundum illud Sacrosancti Concilii: « Ritus nobili simplicitate fulgere debent … » (SC, 34).

    Dum in Missali Romano, auctoritate Conilii Tridentini promulgato, gestus etiam minimi frequentissime verba prosequebantur, Missalis Romani, auctoritate Concilii Vaticani II instaurati, rubricae discretione perspicuae inveniuntur quoad gestus.
    Quibus dictis:
    a) Verba mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa quae in Confiteor inveniuntur, huiusmodi rubrica in Missali Romano instaurato introducuntur: Omnes simul … percutientes sibi pectus, dicunt … (OM, n. 3). In priore Missali, eodem loco, rubrica sic sonabat: Percutit sibi pectus ter. Non videtur igitur quod ter sibi pectus percutere aliquis debeat, in proferendis latino vel alio sermone talibus verbis, etiamsi dicatur mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa. Sufficit quod percutio pectoris fiat.
    Patet etiam quod unus tantummodo gestus sufficit in illis linguis, in quibus verba ad culpam manifestandam simpliciore modo reddita sunt, uti, verbi gratia, lingua anglica: « I have sinned through my own fault », vel lingua gallica: « Oui, j’ai vraiment peche ».
    b) Missalis Romani instaurati discretio manifestatur praecipua etiam in ceteris memoratis textibus, scilicet Agnus Dei et Domine, non sum dignus, qui verbis aliquomodo paenitentiae et humilitatis fractionem panis et invitationem fidelibus ad Eucharistiam suscipiendam comitantur.
    Uti dictum est in responsione n. 2 Commentariorum « Notitiae » 1978, p. 301: ubi rubricae Missalis Pauli VI nihil dicunt, non ideo inferendum est quod servare oporteat antiquas rubricas. Missale instauratum antiquum non supplet, sed substituit. Revera Missale prius ad Agnus Dei indicabat: ter pectus percutiens; et in proferendo triplex Domine, non sum dignus percutiens: pectus … ter dicit. Cum vero Missale novum nihil de hoc dicat (OM 131 et 133), nulla ratio postulat ut his invocationibus gestus aliquis adiungatur.

  14. Opps. Make that “optabas” not “optabam” Its now late out here on the Coast …

  15. So we should strike the breast at least once, in whatever style one favors (and there are apparently many, which isn’t surprising in that kind of gesture, and probably we could trace American styles back to particular towns of origin of immigrant families or immigrant religious and priests). But if you want to do a threefer, there’s absolutely nothing stopping you.

    I gotta get my mom to instruct me in the favored style she was taught. I strike away when that Confiteor is used (not often) and when I remember (which depends on my alertness), but I’m sure it’s different every time, and kind of by guess and by gosh. Usually I do remember when I’m cantoring and the young priest uses the Confiteor, but I don’t know that anybody else does it. (Of course, it’s not like I’m rubbernecking when I’m up there, and when I’m not I can’t see what other people are doing. I’m sure a few folks do.)

  16. blaine says:

    the adoremus bulletin of feb2010 has a suggested summary of gestures/postures for Mass http://www.adoremus.org/Gestures.pdf

  17. Supertradmum says:

    Ok, I grew up and still do strike my breast three times times three. One at the Confiteor, through my fault-three times; again at the Agnus Dei, three times, and at the Domine, non sum dignus. However, over the years, I have picked up the habit of doing the same at the Elevation. This may seem excessive, and sometimes I leave off the Elevation, because it is not a habit, doing the other three regularly.

  18. Centristian says:


    “At one time I thought I knew, at least as far as the Extraordinary Form of Mass was concerned. Then I read, “The Ceremonies of the Roman Rite Described”, by Adrian Fortescue, J.B. O’Connell & Alcuin Reid, O.S.B., and now I am more confused than before. There are a variety of answers depending on what type of Mass it is, who it is celebrated by, what the Choir is doing, if there is a choir or not, and so on.”

    Yes, and there are a variety of answers to many rubrical questions, depending upon which rubricist one consults, or even upon which edition of any given rubrician’s work one happens to be reading. Fortescue, himself (who authored many revisions to his “Ceremonies…”), once complained–in the course of an hysterically amusing rant he once wrote concerning his many frustrations encountered during the course of the many years he felt he had wasted on the research of rubrics–about the arbitrary nature of so many rubrics, devised, as he once said, by “idiots” in Rome who put little or no historical research behind their decrees. He found himself so annoyed, at times, that he once said he might have better employed his time studying the arrival and departure schedules of a railroad that he would never ride on.

    While a general consensus exists with respect to the structure of the various ceremonies, it is also true that differences of opinion amongst rubrical experts have always obtained when it comes to many of the details (such as the correct way to strike one’s breast). It’s also possible for persons involved in managing ceremonies to interpret rubrics in different ways. It isn’t at all unusual to witness two seasoned MCs debating about the correct way to execute this rubric or that; I’ve seen it often enough.

    The point to consider, as Fortescue reminded his readers, is that rubrics exist for the clergy, and not the other way around. The rubrics exist to give structure and beauty to the ceremonies of the Roman Rite, not to cause confusion, disputes, and chaos in the chancel. Sometimes, a celebrant or a minister’s good sense just has to trump a perplexing and unclear liturgical directive.

    Another point to consider is that, as has been mentioned, expectations for worshippers in the pews are not the same as for those with liturgical roles in the sanctuary. I’ve attended Mass at traditional churches at which some parishioners incorrectly mimick the celebrant, at times, crossing themselves whenever he does and even even genuflecting whenever he genuflects (such as at his arrival at the altar or his departure therefrom). And, of course, the other side of the coin is worshippers at contemporary Masses who also incorrectly mimick the priest, for example when he raises his arms in prayer.

    No rubrician will ever write a guide for the rubrics of the faithful in the pews, however, I am sure, because there just aren’t very many expectations for us (and there really needn’t be). There’s nothing to it: we sit, we stand, we kneel, we strike our breast here, optimally (but if not, we don’t lose sleep), we Cross ourselves where indicated, and we leave. For us laity, it’s pretty simple and straightforward.

    If some worshippers differ from others here and there, one perhaps shouldn’t allow himself to be be too bothered by it (quietly annoyed, perhaps), in my view, since the laws governing what we do are all but matters of unwritten convention…convention that varies from place to place, I might add. In both traditional and contemporary liturgical environments, some worshippers will feel the need to go a bit further, at times, than familiar convention suggests, and will do odd things as a result.

    Given all of that, a worshipper who strikes his breast three times at the confiteor and one who strikes his breast only once (whether with a clenched fist or an open palm) could be said to be doing the same thing, when compared with worshippers who refuse to strike their breasts at all, but who will gladly raise their arms. In such a case, the breast-srtiking parishioners are both conforming themselves to the spirit of the liturgy and to their proper role in it, whereas the hand-raisers are introducing a novelty that does not conform to convention or to the proper expression of their role at Mass. We worshippers are not the celebrant of Mass, of course, and should avoid, therefore, mimicking the celebrant in physical expressions of presidential leadership. At the inauguration of a president of the United States, the crowd in attendance do not mimick the president and raise their right hand while repeating after the Chief Justice. The crowd are not the president. The crowd are the crowd. The crowd do, however, like the president, place their right hands on their hearts during the performance of the Star-Spangled Banner, for that is a gesture common to all citizens of all ranks.

    Striking the breast at “mea Culpa” and other places in the liturgy is hardly a gesture indicative of liturgical presidency, but is common to all, and it is also liturgically conventional. We all ought to join in that gesture, therefore. I am glad that the Pope encourages the laity to employ this ancient gesture at Mass even today, as indeed the liturgical texts indicate that we should. It isn’t even mere convention; in this case, it is actually written. Neither printed directives nor liturgical convention, however, endorse the lifting or holding of hands by worshippers, though.

    Strike away, then.

  19. Jamesblythe says:

    At the Oxford Oratory, the priest, deacon, subdeacon, clergy, servers at the Solemn High Mass (OF, Latin) on Sundays and Solemnities strike their breasts:

    (1) 3 times during the Confiteor
    (2) (some do, some don’t) Agnus Dei, at the two ‘miserere’s and the dona nobis pacem
    (3) at the Domine non sum dignus

    Hope that’s useful

  20. Sid says:

    When I became Catholic, I saw so many striking their breasts at the Ostentation Rite that I started doing this also. Only just recently was it pointed out to me that (1) the Ostentation Rite is a moment of pure adoration, not of penance; and (2) by focusing on one’s sins at the moment means focusing on oneself, not on Him. This makes sense, so I stopped striking my breast at this Rite.

    Also striking one’s breast during the Salve Regina at “O clement, O loving, O sweet” seems not right; it’s not a moment of penance.

    Yet I’m not questioning another’s piety, mind you!

  21. Joan A. says:

    3 strikes and you’re out.

    It clearly states in some missalettes for the NO mass we CURRENTLY use to strike one’s breast at the Confiteor near the beginning of Mass. In my parish, we strike once on “…sinned through my own fault.” A small segment of the congregation does this and the majority does nothing, apparently just having lost the custom over the years. The priest strikes just the same. He is recently retired. Our new priest does nothing.

    Now, as we see above, the New Translation goes back to the old wording. Isn’t it obvious to also go back to the old practice, and strike 3 times (instead of the current 1), so that each “strike” hits the breast at the word “fault”.

    Any other beating of the breast at various parts of the Mass, in prayers or such I suspect are customs from certain places or cultures, and therefore not necessary, or as some point out, even contradictory to what is being said. (This is the similar to people making the sign of the cross at all sorts of odd and individualized places in the Mass that is nowhere indicated in the rubrics or missals.)

    So, “3 strikes and you’re out” of breast-beating. Any more, in the NO, is superfluous.

  22. disc.s.thom says:

    Fathers Z and Augustine,

    1) The response from the Sacred Congregation for the Sacraments and Divine Worship came out in 1978.

    2) I would agree that we cannot simply disregard this instruction because of x, y, or z reason. However, as the instruction points out, as the IGMR is rather restrained, so too is the instruction. Even in the Latin it only says that it suffices to strike the breast once. Even when it speaks most authoritatively, it still does not give a number: “Sufficit quod percutio pectoris fiat.”

    I would read that it leaves it open to diversity, as the Missal of Paul VI is wont to do. It suffices to strike the breast once, but it does not forbid striking the breast three times. Of course, I many times despise the lack of direction in the rubrics and instructions of the revolutionized liturgy (it doesn’t seem appropriate merely to call it “revised”), yet this time its lack of specificity works in favor of tradition.

    Or am I missing something?

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