Mea Culpa has its values

I was considering doing a series of posts on the various “communal” prayers which are said at Mass.

It’s struck me for a while, now, that we Catholics, who begin each Mass with a Penitential Rite meant to free us from the lesser – not grievous or mortal – sins, have been short-changing ourselves by our choice in how we do it.

In most parishes today, the Penitential Rite will be a series of affirmations tied in to the Kyrie, so you might hear something like this:

“Lord Jesus, You are the Light of the World and our Salvation, Lord Have Mercy” (to which the congregation replies, “Lord Have Mercy”)

There follows two more affirmations coupled with the rest of the Kyrie: Christ have mercy; Lord have mercy. Then the priest says, “May Almighty God have mercy on us, forgive us our sins and bring us to everlasting life.”

And the congregation says: “Amen.”

There’s nothing wrong with that, of course. It’s not bad. But it is part and parcel of the whole, “never let us think ill of ourselves” mentality that has so distorted our concept of sin and its reality in our lives. While admitting to nothing, we tell the Lord that we know He’s great and merciful, and ask His forgiveness. Seems just a little too tidy, doesn’t it? A little too passive and bland? And a little too sterile?

Before this Rite selection became the standard, we had a different one – a prayer that demanded just a little bit more of ourselves, as we would recite together:

I confess to almighty God,
and to you,
my brothers and sisters,
that I have sinned through my own fault,
in my thoughts and in my words,
in what I have done,
and in what I have failed to do;
and 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 Rite itself used to be referred to as the Confiteor and pre-Vatican II it was also a munch longer – though not necessarily better – prayer. But compared to the newer, less self-accusing Rite that is so prevalent today, when you said this prayer, you were saying something about yourself that was utterly true. You were standing amidst the rest of your fellows and saying, “I blew it. I am all that is human and fallible, and I failed you, I failed myself, I failed God. Please pray for me.”

The prayer is a confession, but it’s also a great leveler. There may be an 80-year old in the pew before you, and an 8-year old behind you, but you’re standing in solidarity, recognizing that we’re all in the same boat, that we’ve all – sometime in the past week – done what humans do: we’ve screwed up. We see, too, that our actions do not happen in a vacuum, that when we screw up out of selfishness, or self-interestedness, or whatever, we affect the larger society in ways small and large. We realize that it’s beyond stupid to sit in judgment of one’s neighbor’s splinters when one is walking around like a right porcupine, oneself.

And we make ourselves just a little bit vulnerable, and vulnerability is often the crack by which grace can enter in.

I have sinned through my own fault,
in my thoughts and in my words,
in what I have done,
and in what I have failed to do;

Who can’t identify with that? Who can’t look back on a week and not shake their heads in self-disappointment at at least some of what one has done? And yet we come to Mass, to the Word, to prayer, to Communion, and we stand together…and we confess our commonality. We are more alike than we sometimes want to admit. And yes, we do things that create distance between each other, between ourselves and who and what we love. We create distance between ourselves and God. We sin.

At some point in every life, the ugly and dark stuff intrudes. Seems to me the best and healthiest way to deal with it, when it comes, is to have more than a passing acquaintance with it – if you’re acknowledging on a daily (or weekly) basis that what is lesser – and baser – exists and resides within our own hearts right next to all of our highest and purest ideals, you’re much less likely to be shocked or overwhelmed when you encounter the dark, either within yourself or within others. Or even within your town or your church or your government.

This is why the Catholic church urges daily (or at least weekly) examinations of conscience. It’s fallen out of practice, of course, like confession (which is the natural response to an Examination of Conscience). These days society and Dr. Phil tell us we are not to “dwell” on what we do wrong (”you just made a mistake…”) but to examine one’s conscience is not to “dwell;” it is not “wallowing in Catholic guilt,” as some would say. Rather, we examine the conscience in order to be in touch with that baser nature that exists within us – for to ignore it is to allow it to run amok at one’s own peril. Like a child whose parents won’t discipline him because it might make him feel bad, our unattended to conscience can do a lot of rationalized and relativistic damage to our souls and hence to our lives and the lives of those around us. If you’re attending to it – if you’re actually looking at what you’re doing – clearly and honestly – the self-awareness is helpful.

The thing is…it’s helpful, the examination of conscience; it’s a gift. But like many gifts, it’s a real pain in the ass, too. If you’re being honest with yourself, it’s a stinging anti-septic.

And if you’re not…well…then you can poison yourself.

The Confiteor is a useful prayer, a means by which one may start to do more than passively lay about, snug-in-grace, and start to actively, consciously work at doing better.

I need to do better. Just as soon as I’m done coughing up this gunk, I’ll talk about that.

On Confession.
On Confession, Part II

About Elizabeth Scalia
  • Joseph

    I think you are quite right Anchoress. I can attest to this from a Buddhist viewpoint, also. In one of the “foundation” practices of my own tradition, you focus for weeks, months or years on making an equivalent confession over 100,000 times.

    The point of this is to make an attitude of regret over wrongdoing second nature, so when you repeat the same confession rountinely three times during other practices, you don’t have to work at really meaning it. I can tell you from personal experience that this really works. The habit of confession and regret is driven so deeply into your mind that you cannot inhibit it, even though you may still act contrary to it.

  • Kevin

    Your post touched me deeply. I’m a lapsed Catholic whose returned to the faith after a 40-year “layoff,” and I’m facing my first confession in four decades. I’ve experienced what the Catechism (1431) refers to as “a salutary pain and sadness which the Fathers called animi cruciatus (affliction of spirit) and compunctio cordis (repentance of heart).” While there is a certain sense of dread in the prospect of facing my parish priest with the long litany of my mortal sins, your post emphasizes how necessary true self-examination and confession is to achieving not only God’s grace for myself, but true communion with my fellow “sinners for Christ.”

    I hope that you’re breathing easier.

  • Peregrine John

    This sort of thing is, when actually done, rather freeing. Or so it is for myself. The too-safe feelgood theology of recent times is unfulfilling and false-feeling, and I think this is why. As you point out, there is no need to be guilt-ridden; in fact, a true confession and its aftereffects leaves a conscience clean.

    If it doesn’t get confessed, it doesn’t get cleaned. Spackle over dry rot does nothing for a house nor, in any long term, anyone who lives within it. Glossing over one’s failings to achieve a seamless appearance of goodness is merely putting makeup over an infection. Why should one do such a thing and be surprised at not feeling whole?

    Mea culpa: once done, you’ve not only asked forgiveness of God, you’ve signalled your own soul that it can move on. Like the sting of an antiseptic or the sharp crush of therapeutic massage, one recognizes it as a “good pain” which is the feeling of poison leaving the body.

  • lsusportsfan


    As a Convert to Catholicism I am still wondering why we don’t say this as the norm during mass.

    By the way it appears that Rome wants us to say it more and in fact the (new) translation, which is actually trying to correct the translation is in the works. It appears that this shall be put back in in again

    through my fault, through my fault,
    through my most grievous fault.”

  • jakewashere

    The last time I heard it it was a little closer to what the Church wanted: “I have sinned through my fault / my own fault / my most grievous fault / in thought and in word / in the deeds I have done and those I have failed to do.”

  • sam

    At my church we actually do say this prayer at Sunday Mass. It usually brings tears to my eyes as I say it. It is a beautiful prayer…

  • Julie D.

    We also say this at every Mass. It is most humbling to reflect upon before the Mass really gets into swing (so to speak). :-)

  • mrmurph

    The fact that ”through my fault, through my fault,
    through my most grievous fault” might be put back into the Confiteor raises the troubling question: What tin-eared fools cut it out in the first place.

  • Renee P

    I may be a Protestant, but I know a good prayer when I hear one! I read it and tears came to my eyes. I think I will add that prayer to my personal devotions and recommend it to others. It certainly gets to the heart of the matter…

  • Mrs Peel

    In the Methodist church (I don’t know for sure about other Protestant churches), as part of Communion, we have a Confession and Pardon, which the entire congregation recites along with the leader. It goes like this:

    Merciful God,
    We confess that we have not loved you with our whole heart.
    We have failed to be an obedient church.
    We have not done your will,
    we have broken your law,
    we have rebelled against your love,
    we have not loved our neighbors,
    and we have not heard the cry of the needy.
    Forgive us, we pray.
    Free us for joyful obedience,
    through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

    Then we pray in silence, and then the leader says, “Hear the good news: Christ died for us while we were yet sinners. That proves God’s love toward us. In the name of Jesus Christ, you are forgiven!” We respond to him, “In the name of Jesus Christ, you are forgiven,” and then all say together, “Glory to God. Amen.”

    Nowadays, a lot of churches are dropping this part and jumping right into the bread and grape juice, especially in the “contemporary” services. Personally, I don’t feel right about taking Communion without having had the confession and pardon part first. That’s only one reason why I get up at 7 on Sundays to make the early morning service at my church.

  • Laura H.

    I, thankfully, attend a parish that still includes the Confiteor in the Mass. It is always for me exactly as you have described. It is certainly one of my ‘favorite’ times in the Mass as it hits me every time the way, again, you have described.

    To Renee P, should she ever see this comment: I bet you will see your life change as you begin to pray this prayer more and more often. It has certainly changed mine since stopping to think about what I say.

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