The Art of Celebration IV: The Penitential Act

Mass begins with our assembling together, and with the entrance procession and its song. Then comes the Sign of the Cross and the Greeting.

There may also follow some very brief introduction to the Mass of the day. These might usefully engage us with both the day we experience together and the Mass we are now celebrating. What is best to avoid is something which is a duplicate greeting, especially a second greeting that lacks the gravitas and beauty of the first.

If the priest and congregation have already greeted one another in words such as

The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ,
and the love of God,
and the communion of the Holy Spirit
be with you all.

And with your spirit.

to then go into

Good morning everyone,
Good morning, father.

not only seems redundant and lesser, it immediately leaves God out of things!

We can be much better helped into our celebration together if the greeting is followed by some acknowledgement of  the circumstances of our gathering (perhaps some important news event, perhaps something of the saint of feast day), and maybe to allude to a key theme in one of the readings, or from the Eucharistic Prayer chosen.

This is generally followed by the Penitential Act, with its own introduction provided – calling us to ‘acknowledge’ our sins and so as to be prepared for our celebration.

Brothers and sisters,
let us acknowledge our sins,
and so prepare ourselves to celebration the sacred mysteries.

The current English translation that gives us ‘so prepare ourselves’, clumsily overlooks the various things we have surely already done that we might be prepared to celebrate. The Latin lying behind the translation more accurately speaks of our being ready and prepared, able and apt from what we are to do.

It is helpful to notice the use of the word ‘acknowledge’ in the introduction. We come together as sinners – there is no getting away from that. And neither should we seek to get away from that, so we do, simply, acknowledge our being sinners – but not only ‘sinners’

Pope Francis engaged with the more when he chose at his motto, a phrase from a homily of the Venerable Bede – a phrase that might be rendered ‘sinners but chosen.’

We have come together as brothers and sisters in Christ, sinners who have been chosenand are being saved from our sin. Our celebration of the Penitential Act needs to do justice to both those things – our sinfulness and our being saved.

I said above that the Greeting and Introduction are generally followed by the Penitential Act. Let me briefly note when something else will replace it. First to note is the optional Asperges rite, which may be used on Sundays, and especially in Easter Time, blessing and sprinkling water as a reminder of Baptism. This will be the subject of another mini-essay in a few weeks time. Also it may be replaced by another rite particular to a particular celebration, for example the Procession or Solemn Entrance of Palm Sunday; or the occasional Rite of acceptance of Catechumens.

Back to the Penitential Act!

It is worth noting that the Penitential Act which we celebrate at Mass is a new rite, introduced to the Order of Mass following Vatican II, replacing what was a private rite of preparation for the priest and ministers. Now it is a properly communal  rite.

The Penitential Act is provided in three forms; first, the Confiteor; second, a brief responsory; and third, what might most helpfully be described as a Litany of Mercy. Each is followed by an absolution spoken by the priest and then by the Kyrie Eleison, except in the third case where the Kyrie is incorporated into the Litany itself.

Those preparing for a particular celebration of the Mass do well to note that there are choices to be made here. Which form is most appropriate to the particular occasion; to its place in the broader context of the seasons of the Liturgical Year; to the congregation and its needs.

There is plenty of room for different decisions to be made as to which form to use and when but a sensible general plan (pretty much as commended in our Bishops’ Conference, Celebrating the Mass) is to use the Confiteor in Lent; the responsory form during Ordinary Time, and the Litany of Mercy during the seasons of Advent, Christmas, and Easter.

The Confiteor most firmly expresses the seriousness of our sin (greatly sinned/most grievous fault); and its all-pervasiveness (I have greatly sinned, in my thoughts and in my words, in what I have done and in what I have failed to do. It also achieves a happy marriage of individual and communal dimensions of confession and of intercession – I confess but to God and to my brothers and sisters (which brothers and sisters are also confessing to me and each other); and we together ask for prayer from Our Lady, the Angels and Saints, and each other. A lot is happening in these few words.

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.

The brief responsory is, well, briefer. The same ‘notes’ are there, but expressed less vigorously or fulsomely.

The Priest says:
Have mercy on us, O Lord.
         The people reply:
For we have sinned against you.

         The Priest:
Show us, O Lord, your mercy.
         The people:
And grant us your salvation.

The third form of the Penitential Act is the one that most commonly misused. The Missal provides us with a Litany of Mercy.

         The Priest:
You were sent to heal the contrite of heart:
Lord, have mercy.       Or:    Kyrie, eleison.
         The people reply:
Lord, have mercy.       Or:    Kyrie, eleison.

         The Priest:
You came to call sinners:
Christ, have mercy.     Or:    Christe, eleison.
         The people:
Christ, have mercy.     Or: Christe, eleison.

         The Priest:
You are seated at the right hand of the Father to intercede for us:
Lord, have mercy.       Or:    Kyrie, eleison.
         The people:
Lord, have mercy.       Or:    Kyrie, eleison.

However it is not uncommon to hear instead a Litany of Faults!

For the times we have turned from our neighbour’s need…
For the times we have gossiped…
For the times we have not paid proper attention to what the Missal asks us to do…

The Litany of Mercy allows us to ask afresh for mercy, but it is principally a confession of acts of the Lord’s saving love.

The edition of the Roman Missal for use in England and Wales useful includes an Appendix of additional sample invocations for the Litany of Mercy which can be used in place of the sample text included in the Order of Mass. Useful, if you easily have access to a Missal! But here they are as a downloadable PDF. Each one a helpful remembrance of the saving love of God, not one a direct reminder of our faults.

I end this mini essay with consideration of the absolution spoken by the priest:

May almighty God have mercy on us,
forgive us our sins,
and bring us to everlasting life.

The General Instruction of the Roman Missal rather perfunctorily observes:

The rite concludes with the Priest’s absolution, which, however, lacks the efficacy of the Sacrament of Penance. (GIRM 51)

The absolution in the Sacrament of Penance confers forgiveness of sin. The absolution in the Penitential Act is different. In the Penitential Act we acknowledge our sin and engage with it afresh. So, in the Penitential Act, we also acknowledge God’s mercy and the salvation shared with us, in Baptism, in the Sacrament of Penance, in so many different ways, always for our benefit, and now once more to be received through the Eucharist, itself a sacrament of Reconciliation.

The absolution in the Sacrament of Penance neither petitions for forgiveness, nor is it authoritative declaration of new forgiveness, but it is a confident and encouraging statement of our hope in God’s ever-lasting mercy.

Thus reassured, on most Sundays of the year, the Church continues its prayer by singing its praise of God in the Gloria – the theme of our next mini-essay.

A log with links to previous postings in this series is kept here.


~ Excerpts from the English translation and chants of The Roman Missal © 2010, International Commission on English in the Liturgy Corporation. All rights reserved.
~ Commentary: (c) 2021, Allen Morris
~ Photograph: (c) 2018, Allen Morris. Detail of Fresco of people at prayer from Caesarea Maritima, Israel. Israel Museum, Jerusalem.


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