As seen in a previous post on the revision of the Creed in the 2011 Missal, at the point when we move from the Mass of the Catechumens (Introductory Rites and Liturgy of the Word) into the Mass of the Faithful (Liturgy of the Eucharist) each individual member of the faithful makes a confession of faith, both re-affirming commitment to the Faith acknowledged at Baptism, and thereby re-assuring the other faithful that he or she is able to take part in the mysteries and approach the altar of the Lord for Holy Communion.
However, at the beginning of the Mass of the Catechumens, before the proclamation of God’s word, all present – the curious, the catechumen, the faithful – make another confession, this time of individual sinfulness. Though the Missal offers several options for this Penitential Act, the first and more traditional option is the common recitation of the Confiteor (literally, “I confess”):
I confess to almighty God,
and to you, my brothers and sisters,
that I have sinned through my own fault,
in my thoughts and in my words,
in what I have done,
and in what I have failed to do;
and 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.
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,
through my fault, through my fault,
through my most grievous fault;
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.
The first thing to note (though it need hardly be said for those who have read the previous Missal Moments) is that the new translation is more faithful to the Latin original, and it as simple as that. The significant changes are italicized for ease of reference.
The adoption of an accurate translation of the Confiteor has not been universally welcomed. One lay Catholic woman in New South Wales, writing originally to The Tablet, even opined that the restored emphatic acknowledgement of sinfulness would be, for children, a form of psychological abuse! This hysterical reaction reflects two prevalent and related problems in some parts of the Church – a loss of any sense of sin, and thus a consequent impoverished understanding of Christian life and salvation.
For it remains a truth that will never change and can be ignored only at our spiritual peril, that Catholics, baptised as we are into the community of salvation which is the Church, are nevertheless united with all the rest of humanity in at least one inescapable characteristic: we are all still sinners. It was our helplessness before sin that prompted God in his love to send his Son to enact a love for us that covers not just a multitude, but all our sins (see 1 Peter 4:8). That act of profoundest love, the laying down of his life for his friends – the greatest possible love (see John 15:13) – occurred when Jesus gave himself up for us on the Cross. His submission to bodily death is our liberation from eternal death, his self-sacrifice is our atonement. We share in the effects, the fruit, the abundance of love that flow from this sacrifice when we take part in the memorial of the Sacrifice of the Cross which is the Mass.
So it was humanity’s sin that brought Christ to the Cross, the sins not just of those who lived before Christ but also of those who lived after him: earthly time is not a factor here. How more fitting could it be that we take time to acknowledge our share in the sinfulness which led to the Cross of Christ before we share in the saving fruit of that Cross? Really, this is pretty basic, scriptural Christian spirituality. St John put it perfectly in his first letter (1 John 1:8-9),
If we say, “we are without sin”, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we acknowledge our sins, He is faithful and just and will forgive our sins and cleanse us from every wrongdoing.
That alone could stand as the justification for the Penitential Act at Mass! The basic spiritual principle is timeless. In the Old Testament, to take just one example, we find in the Book of Proverbs (28:13):
Whoever conceals his transgressions will not prosper, but he who confesses and forsakes them will obtain mercy.
By confessing our sinfulness at the beginning of Mass, we indeed prepare ourselves to celebrate the mysteries, to receive in fullest measure the remedy for our sin which is the Cross of Christ: the Eucharist is the Cross made present to us and effective for us.
So when we discount sin, when we refuse to acknowledge the depth of our need to be delivered from it, then no doubt one could join with the young lady referred to above in saying,
No-one today in their right mind – unless perhaps they have just murdered someone – is going to harp on about “my fault, my fault, my own most grievous fault” while beating their breast, especially if they are reflecting on ordinary everyday thoughts or words that most Mass-goers might be expected to have. The picture the words give of breast-beating illiterate peasants with cloth caps and mud-clotted boots is like something out of Monty Python.
The temptation is stronger to cry rather than laugh when reading these words. There seems to be near to no sense of sin in her. What need does she feel for Christ, one might wonder? Is Catholicism just for a warm inner glow and feeling good about oneself? The depth of theological ignorance here is matched by that of scriptural ignorance. Who can forget the Pharisee and the publican Jesus mentioned (Luke 18:10-14):
Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, “God, I thank thee that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week, I give tithes of all that I get.” But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, “God, be merciful to me a sinner!” I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other; for every one who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted.
Is the publican here rightly to be seen as a breast-beating, illiterate, cloth-capped, mud-spattered peasant? Or is Jesus perhaps encouraging us to be like that very same publican, humble in repentance? I blush for the woman.
If we look into the lives of the saints, the heroes of our faith, sinners who knew it and so overcame their sin by allowing God to overcome it in them, there we find time and again that the closer they get to God, and the holier their living, the deeper their penitence, the greater their sense of sin. Indeed they have a downright horror of their sinfulness. Probably their sinfulness consisted in the “ordinary everyday thoughts or words that most Mass-goers” evidence, according to our starry-eyed lady. Yet they had a horror for their sinfulness. In fact I suspect that if this lady stopped awhile to examine her conscience without any preconception of her own righteousness, she might find much worse than mere everyday thoughts and words. Certainly I find in my life much worse than this – hardness of heart, failure to forgive, hypocrisy, failure to keep even minimal and easy promises, evasion of prayer, moral lapses of all kinds. Maybe these are everyday and ordinary, but they are not trivial. No one can progress spiritually, indeed no one does justice to God, without addressing these sins, striving to overcome them with the help of God’s grace which he freely bestows on us in the sacraments. It is a spiritual truth that the closer a person gets to God, the stronger is his or her sense of sin and of the vast difference between divinity and humanity. St Therese of Lisieux found even a comparison with the saints revealed the chasm between her and them, quite apart from the greater chasm between her and God:
You know it has ever been my desire to become a Saint, but I have always felt, in comparing myself with the Saints, that I am as far removed from them as the grain of sand, which the passer-by tramples underfoot, is remote from the mountain whose summit is lost in the clouds.
(Story of a Soul, Chapter 9)
So is it psychological abuse to teach a child to confess sin and to repent of it? Only if teaching a child to acknowledge wrong-doing and seek forgiveness from God can be seen as abusive. A child’s sins are not great, but most children experience their naughtiness as profound when it is brought home to them. It is even greater when they realise that their naughtiness has consequences for their relationship with other people. And there are consequences for their relationship with God also, for what we do to the least of our brethren we do to Christ, after all. But the difference is that God, unlike too many of us, will always accept our word of sorrow, will always forgive us if we are sincerely sorrowful for our sin, will always clear the slate. To teach children this is surely to liberate them from the weight of guilt by revealing that no matter how unforgiving the hearts of people they may come across, God always forgives the contrite sinner.
If our catechesis stops at “you are a sinner”, then yes, we have something approaching abuse. But good catechesis includes God’s unreserved Word of forgiveness to the repentant sinner, which is Christ. Perhaps this lady has failed to see that the Confiteor does not stand alone, but is part of a liturgical movement from sinfulness to confession, then to the elevating power of God’s word, and so to the cleansing and strengthening grace of Christ himself received in Communion. In this the liturgy reflects Christian life itself.
The Gospel as first proclaimed was “Repent, and believe the good news” (Mark 1:14-15). In fact, there is no good news for us unless we repent. Until we repent, we hear only a rumour, not the Good news in all its liberating clarity. So too in our liturgy, we first renew our repentance that we might renew our sharing in the mystery of God’s loving grace in Christ.