Penitential Rite in the Mass

And More on the Confessional

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ROME, APRIL 27, 2004 ( Answered by Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum Pontifical Athenaeum.

Q: I would like to ask about the penitential rite at Mass. May any music that speaks about asking for pardon be played at this moment? Or should only music which incorporates the forms «Lord, … Christ, … Lord have mercy» be used? — M.C., Petropolis, Brazil

A: To answer your question I think we may be inspired by the new Roman Missal in Latin. The abundant musical notations supplied in this missal encourage eventual vernacular translations to follow suit.

While awaiting future translations, the Latin text can still be a guide as to the extent of using music in the Mass. For the penitential rite the missal provides simple Gregorian chant notations for the usual greeting («As we prepare ourselves …») and for the conclusion («May Almighty God have mercy…»).

The greeting of the penitential rite may vary, and some missals provide a wide variety of texts. Likewise the priest may also substitute other similar words. However, this need not exclude his singing the greeting. The musical form is that of the simple chant which usually does not require musical notations and demands only basic musical ability.

There is no musical notation provided for the «I confess» of the first form of the penitential rite. It would appear that when this form is used it is intended that all recite it rather than sing it.

The second form of the penitential rite — «Lord, we have sinned against you» — receives a complete musical accompaniment in the new Roman Missal which means that it may also be sung in the vernacular according to any setting approved by the episcopal conference or the local bishop.

In both of these forms the penitential rite is always followed by the «Kyrie» («Lord / Christ / Lord have mercy») which should be sung whenever possible. It may be sung according to any Gregorian or approved vernacular setting, of which there are many.

The priest may intone the first part of each «Lord / Christ have mercy» with the people responding. If necessary he may be substituted by a cantor or by the choir.

The third form of the penitential rite incorporates the «Kyrie» within it, preceded each time by a brief invocation. Many variant texts of the invocations before the «Lord / Christ / Lord have mercy» are found in the vernacular missals, often adapted to the liturgical season.

Musically the invocations may be recited by the priest to be followed by the singing of the «Lord / Christ / Lord have mercy» as indicated above. However the invocations may also be sung either by the priest or by a cantor with the people and choir responding with «Lord / Christ / Lord have mercy.»

If the musical response requires it, the words «Kyrie» (Lord) or Christ may be repeated more than once before singing the «eleison» (have mercy). However, the order of the three invocations «Lord / Christ / Lord» should always be respected.

Priests and other pastoral agents should make full use of the ample possibilities provided by the missal itself and not substitute other songs or invented penitential rites for the celebration of Mass.

Also the «Kyrie» should always be present in some form, either after the «May almighty God,» or as part of the penitential rite itself. The rubrics, however, foresee the possibility of omitting the penitential rite, and sometimes the «Kyrie» when another rite — for example, Morning Prayer of the Divine Office — is joined to the celebration of Mass.

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Follow-up: Anonymity in the Confessional

In the wake of our article on anonymous confession April 6) a Byzantine-rite priest from Minnesota reminded me that all the Catholic and Orthodox Churches that use this rite maintain the earlier practice of face-to-face confessions. The rite of penance foresees that the priest place his «epitrakhil» (stole) on the penitent’s head. Thus the Latin-rite confessional is almost unknown among them.

I was not unaware of this difference, but I did not think of mentioning it since the context of the original question referred directly to the use of the confessional.

Here, I will take the opportunity to answer some other related questions that arrived previously.

A consecrated woman from Nebraska asked if it would be sinful for a woman to go to confession in an office or visiting parlor or for a priest to make an appointment to hear confessions in such a location.

In Church law, Canon 964, Paragraph 1, specifies that the proper place for hearing confessions is a in a church or oratory. The principle reason for this disposition for having the confessional in a church is to emphasize the sacred and ecclesial nature of the sacrament, for, like all sacraments, it is not a totally private affair but a celebration of the Church.

The second paragraph of Canon 964 states that within the church the seat for the sacrament is a clearly visible confessional provided with a grill between priest and penitent.

The bishops’ conference may establish norms allowing confessionals to be built in such a way as to allow anonymous or face-to-face confessions.

Paragraph 3 says that confessions should not be heard outside a confessional except for a just cause. A just cause need not be grave or exceptional but any weighty or congruous reason that makes this possibility advisable.

Therefore, ordinarily, confession should be celebrated in a church or oratory. But confessing in a parlor or office would not be sinful unless this was done out of explicit disdain for Church law, which is not the case here.

However, even in those cases where this practice might be allowed, it may not always be prudent. In general, if a priest has to confess outside of a confessional, he should procure an office or parlor that is not completely closed or unobservable from without, although assuring the necessary protection of the penitent’s privacy.

A correspondent from Canada asked if confessions were to be discouraged during the Easter triduum.

This idea is of relatively recent coinage stemming from the fact that Mass is not celebrated on either Good Friday or Holy Saturday. Some liturgists argue that since the Mass is the center of the Church’s life, hence no sacrament should be celebrated.

Although there are specific norms regarding not celebrating sacraments such as baptism, confirmation and matrimony during these days (and even here exceptions may be made for very grave reasons), there are no canonical or liturgical restrictions to celebrating reconciliation or the anointing of the sick.

In fact, No. 13 of the Introduction to the Rite of Penance explicitly states: «Reconciliatio penitentium omni tempore ac die celebrari potest» (The reconciliation of penitents may be celebrated at all times and days).

Indeed we have the example of Pope John Paul II who, in spite of his physical limitations, did not miss hearing confessions in St. Peter’s on Good Friday this year, a practice he has followed almost every year since his election.

Why this idea about no confessions has flourished is hard to say, since pastoral experience has shown that these days are among the most fruitful for the sacrament of reconciliation.

As Pope Paul VI said in a discourse to priests on April 20, 1978: «Priests may be obliged to postpone, and even leave aside other activities due to lack of time, but never the confessional.»

Another reader, a catechist from Michigan, asked if candidates in the RCIA may receive the sacrament of penance before they have been formally initiated into the Church.

In this case we are dealing with Christians validly baptized but who have not yet made their solemn entrance into the Catholic Church nor received the sacraments of confirmation and Euch

This case is already foreseen in the appendix to the Introduction to the Rite for the Christian Initiation of Adults.

Norm No. 9 stipulates that if the candidate is to admitted to the Catholic Church during Mass (the usual practice), then beforehand, the candidate, having considered his personal condition, confesses his past sins after having informed the priest of his proximate admission.

Any priest with faculties for hearing confessions may receive this confession.

Thus, not only may the future Catholic make his confession before being formally received but in general he or she should do so.

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Readers may send questions to Please put the word «Liturgy» in the subject field. The text should include your initials, your city and your state, province or country.

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