Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy and sacramental theology and director of the Sacerdos Institute at the Pontifical Regina Apostolorum university.
Q: During the COVID pandemic, as I have been attending various parishes for weekday Mass, I see a variation at the act of contrition. Is it both the clergy and the congregation who strike their chests three times, or only the congregation? I notice that some of the priests do not strike the chest at all, and others place their hand on their chests without striking. – J.L., Ann Arbor, Michigan
A: The rubrics are not specific on this point. the Latin rubric in the ordinary form says: “[P]ercutientes sibi pectus,” whereas the extraordinary form specifies that the breast should be struck three times.
There is, however, a slight but noticeable change in translating this rubric. The former translation, with only one admission of fault, said that the faithful should “strike their breast,” thus specifying a single strike. The current translation says, “[A]nd striking their breast, they say […]” before the triple admission of fault.
In Spanish- and Italian-language countries, which have always maintained the triple form in the “I Confess,” the most common practice is for priest and faithful to strike the breast three times. The Spanish missal translates the rubric as “Golpeándose el pecho, dicen […]” which could mean either once or several times.
In spite of this, however, the general rule is for there to be a single striking of the breast as vouched for in an official reply by the Congregation for Divine Worship. 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.”
The above response would also hold true for the current English translation.
At the same time, I think this official pronouncement fails the reality test. More than 33 years have gone by since the above response was issued, and 50 since the publication of the new missal, and practically everybody using Latin, Spanish or Italian strike their breast three times at the Confiteor, no matter what the rubric says or fails to say. The divergences among parishes observed by our reader in an English-speaking context reflects a natural tendency.
In the end, I think that the custom of the triple striking at the I confess will probably prevail, 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).
Finally, it is possible that priests will sometimes be less vigorous in striking the breast, not due to deficient compunction, but because they are wearing portable microphones and wish to avoid having the penitential gesture reverberate around the church.
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