Confiteor

Parish Diary

Fr. Peter Daly

2/14/01

 

One of the memories of my childhood is serving early morning mass.

Before entering the sanctuary, the priest and server engaged in a little dialogue called the “prayers at the foot of the altar.”  Those prayers ended with the “Confiteor.”

In English the opening words of the Confiteor are “I confess.”  Half way through the prayer, accusing ourselves of sinning “exceedingly” in “thought, word and deed,” we servers struck ourselves on the chest saying  “mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa” (through my fault, my fault, my most great fault).

I was reminded of this recently when celebrating mass in Spanish.  Even today in that language the Confiteor includes the triple confession of fault, “por mi culpa, por mi culpa, por me gran culpa.”

Italian is much the same, only, more dramatic.  The masses I remember from my time in the seminary in Italy included the formula, “per mia colpa, mia colpa, mia grandissima colpa.”  The Italians, being Italians, usually accompany these words by a dramatic striking of the breast three times, with every wider arcs, building up to the big flourish with grandissima.  (Italy is not a country, it is the set of a huge opera.)

With Lent upon us, I can’t help wondering, however, if our English (and rather anemic) version of the Confiteor, hasn’t lost something of the sense of the original, that our Latin brothers and sisters have retained.

Maybe that tells us something about our culture.   We don’t mind being victims but we don’t like being held responsible.

Ritual can help.  It can teach.  Part of the reason for ritual is to express things we find hard to say. 

We live in a “weasel worded” culture.  Words don’t keep their plane meaning.  “Is” does not necessarily mean “is.” 

Gestures, like striking the chest, are hard to fudge.  They say,  I am a sinner.  I am the one who is at fault and nobody else.”

If I say, “Through my fault, through my fault, through my most grievous fault,” it is pretty clear who is responsible, especially if I am pounding my chest in sorrow at the same time.

We tend to gloss over the penitential rite in the mass.  It is a subtle change in word and gesture that may reflect something what is going on in our culture.

There is a diminishing sense of our responsibility for sin?

Sin still exists.  The world is full of it, but “I’m not taking full responsibility for it.”  We seem to project our responsibility outward onto others or circumstances?  I was stressed or depressed.  He drove me too it. 

In our desire to feel good about ourselves, have we lost the ability to take the “rap” when we do wrong?

Perhaps the lines are shorter at confessionals because of this.  Most priests will tell you that the content of confessions has changed over the years.   No longer do people “accuse themselves of the following sins.”  Now they start off confessing their own sins and end up confessing the sins of their neighbor.

It goes something like,  I lost my temper at my spouse but let me tell you why they had it coming.”

That’s not a confession.  It is a press conference with a “spin doctor.”

Maybe we uptight Anglos can’t quite get do the dramatic gesture, but it might be healthy to recapture a sense of what the old gestures and words were saying. 

“I have sinned through my own fault” and while I am beating my chest in sorrow, I can’t be pointing my finger in blame.  It is nobody’s fault but my own.