ROME, JAN. 10, 2012 (Zenit.org).- Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum university.
Q1: During the celebration of the Eucharist, when the Confiteor is said, I have been observing in formation houses and religious communities that if the congregation consists only of males they say, “I confess …, and to you my brothers,” and if females only they say, “I confess …, and to you my sisters.” Is this practice correct? — T. P. Shillong, India
Q2: At Mass, at the penitential rite, I have seen priests, when saying, “May Almighty God have mercy … ever-lasting life” raise their hands as a kind of blessing or absolution. Is that proper? — A.P., Margate, Florida
A: The first question involves the particularities of the English language. In many languages, the masculine form does double duty and can refer to just males or to a mixed group. Thus, for example, in Latin, Spanish and Italian it is only necessary to use the equivalent of “brothers” to refer to the whole assembly.
In English “brethren” can serve this purpose and in fact may be used to introduce the penitential rite. However, perhaps for stylistic reasons, it was not included as part of the “I confess.” Thus in the English translation we say “brothers and sisters.”
Some contextual adaptation is foreseen in the rubrics, when Mass is celebrated with only one acolyte. In this case priest and acolyte say “to you my brother” in the singular. Therefore, I think it is theoretically possible for a male community to use simply “brothers” when no women are present.
Another question is whether it is pastorally advisable to do so given that liturgical expressions are habit-forming. If, on some occasion, there are men or women from outside the community present at the celebration, then the change could easily lead to confusion.
The case is different for a female community because at Mass at least one brother will always be present, the celebrating priest. Therefore the standard formula should be used. Nor, as a general rule, should the priest change the gender of the liturgical greetings if celebrating for a women’s community.
With regards to the second question, the General Instruction of the Roman Missal, No. 51, reminds us: “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.”
No gesture is prescribed in the rubrics, and it is presumed that the priest will remain with hands joined. Any gesture which might imply that the words grant absolution should be avoided so as not to confuse the faithful.
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Follow-up: Breast-Beating During the Confiteor
In the wake of our opinion (see Dec. 13) that the new translation of the Confiteor (“I confess”) would allow for a triple striking of the breast, several readers pointed out an official reply from the Holy See on this topic which I had overlooked.
As one California reader pointed out: “Not that I like this responsum, but it is the final word that I know of on this. Gerunds, etc., are speculative; this is direct and clear.”
The text, published in Notitiae 14 (1978), 534-535, says:
“n. 10. In pronouncing certain formulas as in, e.g., the Confiteor, the Agnus Dei, and the Domine non sum dignus, whether on the part of priests or on the part of the faithful, the gestures accompanying the words are not always performed the same. Some strike their breast with a triple strike when saying the aforementioned formulas, others once. Which practice seems that it should legitimately be retained?
“In this case it will help to remember these things:
“1) Gestures and words often tend to give significance to one another.
“2) In this matter, as in others, the liturgical restoration has pursued truth and simplicity according to the passage of Sacrosanctum Concilium: «The rites should be resplendent in their noble simplicity …» (SC, 34).
“While in the Roman Missal promulgated by the authority of the Council of Trent the words were very frequently also accompanied by minute gestures, the rubrics of the Roman Missal restored by the authority of the Second Vatican Council are noteworthy for their discretion with regard to gestures.
“Having said this:
“a) The words mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa which are found in the Confiteor are introduced in the restored Roman Missal by a rubric of this sort: All likewise … striking their breast, say … (OM, n. 3). In the former Missal, in the same place, the rubric read like this: He strikes his breast three times. It does not seem, therefore, that anyone has to strike his breast three times in pronouncing those words in Latin or in another language, even if mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa is said. It suffices that there be a striking of the breast.
“It is obvious also that only one gesture suffices in those languages in which the words for showing one’s fault have been rendered in a more simple manner, as, for example, in English, «I have sinned through my own fault», or in French, «Oui, j’ai vraiment peche».
“b) The discretion of the restored Roman Missal is shown to be noteworthy also in the other texts mentioned, namely the Agnus Dei and the Domine, non sum dignus which by words of penitence and humility in one way or another accompany the breaking of the bread and the invitation to the faithful to receive the Eucharist.
“As it was said in response n. 2 of the Commentary «Notitiae» 1978, p. 301: where the rubrics of the Missal of Paul VI say nothing, it must not therefore be inferred that it is necessary to observe the old rubrics. The restored Missal does not supplement the old one but has replaced it. In reality, the Missal formerly indicated at the Agnus Dei, striking the breast three times, and in pronouncing the triple Domine, non sum dignus, striking the breast … says three times. Since, however, the new Missal says nothing about this (OM 131 and 133), there is no reason to suppose that any gesture should be added to these invocations.”
I had already mentioned in my earlier reply that a single striking was a valid interpretation, and this official response confirms this.
At the same time, I think this official pronouncement fails the reality test. More than 33 years have gone by since the response was issued and practically everybody using Latin, Spanish and Italian strike their breasts three times at the Confiteor, no matter what the rubric says or fails to say.
I think that the same is going to happen in English now that the triple form is restored, and it would be an exercise in futility on behalf of bishops and priests to attempt to oblige the faithful to do otherwise.
Nor would I consider the attempt a good thing in itself. People will naturally do this, and I believe it makes the sign of striking the breast more meaningful.
The present rubrics are clear about not striking of the breast during the Lamb of God, and the practice is now uncommon. The fact that the Agnus Dei is often sung makes it less natural to strike the breast than in the staccato beat of the Confiteor.
At the same time, there are very good arguments to defend the practice. The then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, for example, wrote the following in his book The Spirit of the Liturgy: “During the Agnus Dei (Lamb of God), we look upon him who is the Shepherd and for us became the Lamb and as Lamb, bore our iniquities. At this moment it is only right and proper that we should strike our breasts and remind ourselves, even physically, that our iniquities lay on his shoulder, that
‘with his stripes we are healed'” (page 207).
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