One of the seemingly strangest parts of the Catholic Mass happens at the beginning. The priest says something like, “let us acknowledge our sins and so prepare ourselves to celebrate the sacred Mysteries.”
It sounds like a contradiction: on the one hand he indicates that we should think of the bad things we’ve done and yet he also mentions a celebration of something holy. Most of us don’t think of celebrating the holy by considering our faults.
If we consider the Mass as a participation in the Liturgy of heaven — the eternal praises of God the Father and God the Son in the Holy Spirit — then it is logical that to do something so unearthly and remarkable, we ought to prepare by confessing the things that have made us unworthy to be in such great company.
Anyone would shower before entertaining company after having worked outside in the August heat. Similarly, the early Christians figured they should prepare to enter the heavenly praises, and to receive the Lord in the Eucharist, by considering the things that made them unworthy to do so and begging God for forgiveness. This is why, “Lord have mercy,” is prayed after the “I confess.”
The Confiteor, Latin for, “I confess,” is found first in the oldest liturgical books as a preparation of the priest before Mass.
As early as the 10th century, and perhaps well before this, the Confiteor is extended to all the people present as a sign of organic development in the understanding of the Mass as celebration of all Christ’s disciples.
The Confiteor has appeared in diverse translations throughout the centuries.
We currently say, “I confess to almighty God and to you, my brothers and sisters.” Before the reforms of the Second Vatican Council we confessed also to Mary, Sts. Michael the Archangel, John the Baptist, Peter, Paul, and all the saints as a reminder that they are already in God’s presence, singing His praises and interceding for us.
One of the things often mentioned in popular culture that has its roots in the Confiteor prayer is mea culpa, my fault. We sometimes hear that a public figure has released a mea culpa, to indicate an apology.
At Mass, we used to repeat this three times, saying, “mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa,” meaning, through my fault, through my fault, through my most grievous fault. This was dropped in the current English translation as we say only: through my own fault.
When we begin to use the revised translation of the Mass this November, we will once again return to citing our faults three times. The new translation will say, in part, “I confess to almighty God and to you, my brothers and sisters, that I have greatly sinned, in my thoughts and in my words, in what I have done and in what I have failed to do: through my fault, through my fault, through my most grievous fault.”
It might sound strange at first, but it actually reflects something profound about our Catholic faith. Recall the principle about which we’ve reflected before: the rule of prayer is the rule of faith. Thus what we pray should reflect what we believe. This is true especially in the Liturgy. Hence we say, “who art in Heaven,” when we pray the Our Father. This reflects our belief that we pray to God, who is above and over all.
For Catholics, there are two types of sins, or faults. In 1 John 5:16-17, the apostle says, “If anyone sees his brother sinning, if the sin is not deadly, he should pray to God and He will give him life. This is only for those whose sin is not deadly. There is such a thing as deadly sin, about which I do not say that you should pray. All wrongdoing is sin, but there is sin that is not deadly.”
Tradition dictates that we classify these two types of sin — deadly or non-deadly — as mortal and venial.
A mortal sin is one committed with full knowledge and consent of the will. Premeditated murder would be a prime example, but even something like purposefully desecrating a crucifix would fit the bill. Venial sins are the accidental, everyday sins.
Saying, “through my fault, through my fault, through my most grievous fault” is a way of reminding the believer that there are different types of faults and sins.
The individual praying might not necessarily be guilty of a mortal sin, but even amongst the venial, accidental sins, some are more grievous before the Lord than others.
The revised “I confess” will help remind us that our faults have varying effects on our relationship with God and neighbors.Father Bryan Babick, SL.L., is the vicar for Divine Worship and the Sacraments for the Diocese of Charleston.