The Value of a Good "Mea Culpa"

Reposted, by request, from 2007:

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 neck, 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.

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  • George Sipe

    Good points Elizabeth. I’m a recent convert (February 7th) and feel the Catholic focus on sin is very helpful. It makes me think about it much more specifically and personally than I had before.

    In learning the Confiteor, one thing I didn’t focus on at first was “through my own fault.” I was taking it as simply an admission, but upon reflection see it is bigger than that. It is not only an admission but one taking full responsibility and doing so specifically without excuses or implicating anyone else. Forget thinking “yes, I sinned but do so less than I used to” or “it is not my fault alone.” Maybe everyone else gets this, but it was a small revelation to me when I figured it out!

    The upcoming new English translation of Mass is truer to the Latin making this even clearer – “through my fault, through my fault, through my most grievous fault.”

    Another thing that occurred to me while learning it was, among other things, we are also asking our brothers and sisters to pray for us and are asked ourselves to do likewise. The Hail Mary seems to be a wonderful fit, particularly with these intercessory requests also including Blessed Mary.

    Just some random thoughts…

    Finally, we say the Confiteor in our parish about half the time. A friend in RCIA at a neighboring parish reports that they use it every time. It sure would be easier for us new folks if this was consistent (or at least predictable)!

  • Old Biddy

    In my parish we still say the Confiteor at the 6:30am weekday mass. I too think its such a good prayer. I also like the part that goes “And I ask…you, my brothers and sisters, to pray for me…” It reminds me that it’s not just about me asking for forgiveness for myself (me-me-me), but everyone around me is seeking forgiveness and that I should be praying for them as well.

    Whenever I become discouraged with all the evil out in the world, I remember my brothers and sisters who, though sinners, are seeking the Lord humbly.

    Isn’t it cool that church is packed on Ash Wednesday?

  • Peter

    I often attend the Spanish language mass here, and we say the older version (in Spanish, of course ;), complete with the patting our chests with the palm of our hand (not quite a “slap”). I have come to appreciate if for the reasons you state, and I feel like something is missing when I attend a mass in English and we recite the newer version. However, at the mass I attended last Sunday, I recall we recited at least the first part of the older version, up to the “what I have failed to do.”

  • Nan

    We still say the confiteor.

    Old Biddy, Father says that people show up for Ash Wednesday because they think it’s a holy day of obligation.

  • Patrick

    Our parish in Charleston, SC recites the Confiteor at Sunday morning mass; I’ve never heard a single word against it. We also sing the Kyrie, Gloria, and Sanctus in Latin (some better than others!) For me it creates a more “serious” tone during the one hour a week we are all together.

  • DaveW

    We also still say the confiteor. I find it to be a very important part of the Mass.

  • TeaPot562

    I prefer having the Confiteor – new version – to going directly to the Kyrie. The new version points out that we may sin in terms of “What I have failed to do”, and not just sins of commission. Recall that both Luke (in the story of the rich man and Lazarus) and Matthew (Ch. 25, V: 31-46) specify that sins of omission can be serious, and have eternal consequences. This was NOT picked up in the pre-Vatican II confiteor.

  • Manny L.

    We say the Confiteor at our church, at least on Sundays. i can’t speak for during the week. I definitely prefer it over that wishy-washy one. I didn’t know there was any variation elsewhere. I agree with above, there’s something to asking our brothers and sisters and the Blessed Virgin to pray for us. I hope they don’t take it away at my church.

  • Old Biddy

    Nan– They may think Ash Wednesday is a holy day but they sure don’t show up in such numbers on other holy days, not even close.

  • C.

    The old Confiteor was much better because it was followed by the Minor Absolution (“Indulgentiam, absolutionem…”), which according to St. Thomas served to absolve from venial sins and thus prepare the soul for Holy Communion. The Confiteor was, in fact, repeated at the Mass just before the faithful received Communion. Both of these were omitted in the new Mass.

    There were a number of other qualities to recommend it as well. I encourage anyone to study the matter.

  • A Clark

    Out here in the heartland (southern Indiana) the Confiteor has always been included in the Mass in our parish. Our new priest, though, has reminded us that when we say “through my own fault” we are to strike our hearts with our closed right hand to emphasize the point. I am a recent convert to Catholicism (raised a Baptist) and I have to say that I could not imagine the Mass without the Confiteor. I think it is essential for all of the reasons you have mentioned.

  • By the Sea

    I had always thought the Confiteor was supposed to be said in addition to the Kyrie. Was it officially dropped, or just “dropped”? Having remembered when it was always said at Mass, I’ve always had the impression that for some reason it had become politically incorrect to say it. Several years ago it was kind of faded out of the Mass. Who gave the approval? It is still rarely said in any of the churches near where I live, but I agree, it should be said.

  • Blake Helgoth

    i thought there was directive put out a year or 2 ago that said both should be done at every Mass. I’ll check into that.

  • Thirst for Truth

    In our diocese the Confiteor is said at week day Mass only…also before Vat.II when we prayed it we did not, as TEAPOT652 mentioned,distinquish in words between sins of ommision and comission and yet they certainly were distinctly taught. The ejaculation “through my fault, through my fault, through my most grievous fault,”while striking the breast was an emphasis missing today of sinful admission not only to God but to “Blessed Mary, ever Virgin,to Blessed Michael the Archangel, to Blessed John the Baptist, to the holy apostles, Peter and Paul, and to all the saints. Brevity may be the soul of wit..but it does has its short-comings when it comes to expressing one’s sinfulness and contrition.

  • Joe Hicks

    I always liked that prayer as it allowed expression of guilt, not simply smoothing it over.

    Here’s one that is also beautiful, the precommunion prayer from the Liturgy of St. John Chrysotom

    I believe and confess, Lord, that You are truly the Christ, the Son of the living God, who came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the first. I also believe that this is truly Your pure Body and that this is truly Your precious Blood. Therefore, I pray to You, have mercy upon me, and forgive my transgressions, voluntary and involuntary, in word and deed, known and unknown. And make me worthy without condemnation to partake of Your pure Mysteries for the forgiveness of sins and for life eternal. Amen.

    How shall I, who am unworthy, enter into the splendor of Your saints? If I dare to enter into the bridal chamber, my clothing will accuse me, since it is not a wedding garment; and being bound up, I shall be cast out by the angels. In Your love, Lord, cleanse my soul and save me.

    Loving Master, Lord Jesus Christ, my God, let not these holy Gifts be to my condemnation because of my unworthiness, but for the cleansing and sanctification of soul and body and the pledge of the future life and kingdom. It is good for me to cling to God and to place in Him the hope of my salvation.

    Receive me today, Son of God, as a partaker of Your mystical Supper. I will not reveal Your mystery to Your adversaries. Nor will I give You a kiss as did Judas. But as the thief I confess to You: Lord, remember me in Your kingdom.

  • Sally Thomas

    We say it at every Mass, daily and Sunday. On Sunday we sing the Kyrie as well; during the week it’s just the Confiteor, and on Thursdays we have it in the Extraordinary Form.

    I infinitely prefer the Confiteor to the other formulation, which always seems so disjointed to me. “God, let us tell You something about You which You already know, and then ask You to have mercy on us, because — ? We feel like it.”

    One of the few things I actively miss about being Anglican is praying this:

    Almighty God, Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, Maker of all things, Judge of all men; We acknowledge and bewail our manifold sins and wickedness, which we from time to time most grievously have committed, by thought, word, and deed, against Thy divine Majesty, provoking most justly Thy wrath and indignation against us. We do earnestly repent and are heartily sorry for these our misdoings; The remembrance of them is grievous unto us; The burden of them is intolerable. Have mercy upon us, have mercy upon us most merciful Father; For thy Son our Lord Jesus Christ’s sake, forgive us all that is past, and grant that we may ever hereafter erve and please thee in newness of life, to the honor and glory of Thy name. Through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

    “The burden of them is intolerable” pretty much gets at the heart of it, I always think. Though if I had to go back, I know I’d miss the Blessed Mary Ever-Virgin and all the angels and saints praying for me to the Lord our God.

  • Peter

    I find that striking one’s breast (Mea Culpa) is an effective sign that one is at fault and begs forgiveness, e.g., when you have nearly knocked another shopper down in the supermarket car park.

  • Rosemary A.

    I’ve noticed we rarely, if ever, pray the Confiteor since the arrival of our new pastor. There are other disquieting changes. We are moving back to our home state soon, where Catholics are everywhere. But here, this is the only Catholic church in town. Being able to receive the Body and Blood is the most important thing, but I truly miss the Confiteor.

  • Joe of St Therese

    I think the older version could improve with one simple line et omissione , and the old confiteor would be perfect. In the spanish translation it’s more faithful to the Latin text, one of the reasons I go to spanish Mass sometimes.

    The Confiteor either form is one of my favourite prayers as a Catholic