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Introductory Rites: The Penitential Act
The Penitential Act
The priest invites everyone present to acknowledge their sins in order to prepare themselves to celebrate the sacred mysteries of the Mass. When we become believers, we don’t stop being sinners; the battle against temptation and sin will be waged until the last day of our earthly life. Even the greatest saints, as they grew in holiness, saw the gravity of even the slightest sins. Therefore at the start of the Mass, we come clean together that we haven’t always lived as we should.
The only two confirmed cases of people who never sinned are Our Lord himself and the Blessed Virgin Mary. Extenuating circumstances, a bad day, raging hormones don’t let us off the hook: with humility we confess that we’re still struggling and need Our Lord’s help to get the most out of receiving him in the Eucharist. We don’t go into details out loud, as we would in the Sacrament of Penance, but we do acknowledge our faults and failings, and usually, after the priest’s invitation, there is a moment of silence to reflect on what we’ve done or omitted before we perform a penitential act together.
The Confiteor (“I confess”)
The most common prayer formula to make an act of Penance is known from its first word in Latin, the Confiteor (Roman Missal, “Order of Mass”, n.4):
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, …
By reciting this prayer together, we acknowledge before God and before our family and friends that we have sinned. We have all sinned, and in saying this prayer together we encourage each other to come clean, knowing we’re not alone. Sin isolates us from God and from others, and penitence helps us to start reuniting with our fellow believers again in a holy way.
Sometimes we convince ourselves that as long as we’re not killing anybody, we’re okay. The Confiteor makes a point of helping us say we’ve done something wrong, and it helps us examine ourselves when we think everything is okay: have I never offended God or others in my thoughts? In my words? Have I not done something that I should have done? Everyone in that broad span of areas of spiritual growth can find some room for improvement, and the need to ask for forgiveness.
This is also a moment to remind ourselves how sorry we are for past, forgiven sins as well.
And, striking their breast, they say:
… through my fault, through my fault, through my most grievous fault; …
It’s not enough to just admit we’ve sinned; we have to acknowledge that it was bad that we have sinned, that we are responsible for our sins. We can’t place the blame on anyone else. Others can influence us and condition us, but the final decision is made freely in my heart, just as I have to decide freely in my heart to denounce what I’ve done and turn back to God.
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.
We pray for each other for divine forgiveness, and we ask the entire Church, on earth and in Heaven, to help us and to help others. This reminds us that conversion is not something we can do on our own. We not only need human help but divine help as well. God has to forgive us, and the more intercessors are helping us and putting in a good word for us, the better.
Absolution by the Priest
The priest actually gives us absolution at the conclusion of the Penitential Act. However, the General Instruction of the Roman Missal reminds us (n.51) that this absolution is not the same as the one performed in the Sacrament of Penance. Some sins, due to their seriousness, rupture the communion we have with God and with our fellow believers (cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church [CCC] , nn.1440 and 1457), which is why the Sacrament of Penance is also known as the Sacrament of Reconciliation and has the effect of reconciling us with God and with the Church.
Serious sins should be taken to the Sacrament of Penance as soon as possible, and if you have a doubt about whether a sin is serious enough to warrant the Sacrament, go to the sacrament and ask a priest for guidance. Even when we’re not committing serious sins, the Sacrament of Penance is a source of mercy and sacramental grace that can help us overcome our little faults and failings (cf. CCC, n.1458; and Pope Pius XII, Mystici Corporis, n.88).
Blessing and Sprinkling of Holy Water
Sometimes, especially on Sundays and during the Easter season, the Penitential Act may be replaced by the blessing and sprinkling of holy water (Roman Missal, “Appendices”, II). This reminds us of our Baptism, not only because Easter is usually the period when adults are received into the Church through that sacrament, but also because it reminds us that the first time our sins were wiped away was the day of our Baptism. We didn’t commit Original Sin, but it had an effect on us that needed to be addressed. Those baptized as adults received the grace of all their past sins being wiped away as they became children of God through water and the Holy Spirit.
The formula varies, but the introductory prayer is common in this rite:
Dear brethren (brothers and sisters), let us humbly beseech the Lord our God to bless this water he has created, which will be sprinkled on us as a memorial of our Baptism. May he help us by his grace to remain faithful to the Spirit we have received.
Along with remembering our Baptism, we also pray to remain faithful to the gift we received that day: the gift of the Holy Spirit, of a life in communion with God and with believers. In a spirit of penance, we also ask for the grace to not squander those gifts. The focus shifts from asking for forgiveness for present sins (the Penitential Act) to remembering the forgiveness we’ve already received and renewing our desire to remain faithful to God.
As the holy water is sprinkled on those gathered for the celebration the mercy and favor of God is once again raining down upon us, even if the drops don’t hit us where we’re standing. This is why blessing ourselves with holy water is such a precious tradition: it reminds us of the mercy we’ve received and makes it tangible, just as the sacraments bring us even greater gifts through visible signs.