Efficacy of the Penitential Rite

And More on Dramatic Readings

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ROME, JUNE 28, 2005 (Zenit.org).- Answered by Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum Pontifical University.

Q: What is the efficacy of the penitential rite in the Mass as far as the forgiveness of sins are concerned? One prominent priest in our area advanced the reason for the reduction in Catholics going to confession is because of the penitential rite. — J.W., Buffalo, New York

A: This subject is clearly addressed in No. 51 of the General Instruction of the Roman Missal:

«Then the priest invites those present to take part in the Act of Penitence, which, after a brief pause for silence, the entire community carries out through a formula of general confession. The rite concludes with the priest’s absolution, which, however, lacks the efficacy of the Sacrament of Penance.»

Thus it is clear that the absolution formula that concludes the act of penance is not sacramental absolution and in no way dispenses from the obligation of confessing grave sins before receiving Communion.

Only recently have some people purported the theory that this rite absolves sins and could substitute confession. It is certainly possible that such a defective catechesis regarding the sacramental nature of this rite could contribute to a falling away from the sacrament of reconciliation.

However, I do not believe that the fault can be laid at the door of the rite itself. Some form of general admission of sin and unworthiness has formed part of the Mass since earliest times. It has always been seen as a positive element of confession, petition of forgiveness, and interior purification before entering into the celebration of the sacred mysteries.

The non-absolutory nature of the penitential rite does not mean that venial sins are not forgiven during this rite; they are also forgiven by receiving Communion and by the other intercessory prayers of Mass.

This forgiveness is due to the general reparatory nature of all positive acts of prayer, sacrifice, devotion and worship which in some way create a positive counterbalance to those common sins, defects and imperfections which plague our daily lives.

Since participation in Mass is infinitely the greatest form of reparatory and intercessory prayer that a human being can undertake, it is clear that his or her venial sins are likewise forgiven during Mass.

This is not true of mortal sins because the state of grace is necessary in order to receive Communion and fully benefit from the other blessings of the Mass. These sins ordinarily require sacramental confession and absolution to be forgiven.

Moreover, even a person in a state of mortal sin is not deprived of all graces while attending Mass.

Such a person may still, for example, receive the grace of being moved by God’s Word, by the homily, or by one of the prayers and hence gain a deeper knowledge of the state of his soul, of God’s great mercy, and thus find courage to seek forgiveness.

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Follow-up: Dramatic Readings at Mass

Our piece on dramatizing the readings (June 14) brought in some interesting annotations.

An English-speaking priest writing from Belgium offered the following valuable suggestion based on experience:

«When teaching lectors and seminarians, I have found it useful to tell them to think of themselves as ‘being on the radio’ rather than ‘performing on TV.’ This causes them to think how best to use their voice to proclaim the Word of the Lord, undistracted by ‘looking at the congregation, facial movements, gestures, etc. This approach allows the reader to take account of the listeners, making as clear as possible the sense of the text in front of them — when God is speaking via their mouth. It also allows them to realize that the ‘spoken Word’ they speak is God’s Word alive and so the most important thing. It also avoids the temptation to ‘dramatize the text.'»

Another priest, hailing from Australia, asked: «Is there a special case for the reading of the Passion on Palm/Passion Sunday and on Good Friday? The lectionary approved for use in Australia has the parts marked for various readers. Is this not dramatic reading? Is it permissible?»

In a sense the reading of the Passion on Palm Sunday and Good Friday are exceptions that allow for certain dramatic elements while still falling far short of acting. The readers or cantors retain the traditional sobriety of the rite and avoid facial expressions and gestures.

These readings may be rendered using three readers, or cantors, each taking the part of specific characters. One reader takes the role of narrator, another, usually the priest, speaks the words of Our Lord, and another all of the other characters.

In some cases a choir or even the assembly may be added to undertake the part of the multitude or when several Gospel characters speak at once.

The «dramatic» and spiritual effect on the assembly when it is they, and not just a reader, who cry out «Crucify him» can be quite moving and might bring out more clearly the responsibility of each one’s personal sinfulness for our Lord’s Passion.

At the Vatican, the Passion on Palm Sunday has been sung, for several years now, in Italian, by three deacons and a choir. The deacons maintain a sober tone although with slight variations for each personage. The choir sings the part of the multitude in polyphony.

On Good Friday the same process is followed but using the traditional Latin chants with the Sistine Choir doing the solemn polyphony. In both cases the Passion lasts about 50 minutes.

This system of dividing up the readings into parts is also sometimes allowed for Masses with children if such a process facilitates comprehension (see No. 47 of the Directory for Masses with Children).

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Readers may send questions to news@zenit.org. 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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