Form A, “I confess…”
Form A [of the Penitential Act], known as the Confiteor (the first word of the prayer in Latin), is a penitential prayer in two parts. The first part of this prayer is an act of confession of personal sin to God, in the midst of the whole assembly.
Confíteor Deo omnipoténti et vobis, fratres,
quia peccávi nimis cogitatióne, verbo, ópere et omissióne:
I confess to almighty God Ps. 51:5-6; Luke 15:18; 1 John 1:9
and to you, my brothers and sisters, Jas. 5:16
that I have greatly sinned 2 Sam. 24:10
in my thoughts and in my words, Wis. 1:3; Jas. 3:8-10
in what I have done and in what I have failed to do, Rom. 7:15-20; Jas. 2:17
Although it is said by all the congregation together, it is a personal prayer. The Confiteor is one of only three places in the Mass where we pray in the first-personal singular (I) rather than the first-person plural (we). We confess our sins not only to God but to all those present. Talk about accountability! Even though we are not naming our sins to those around us, we are admitting our guilt to them. The Confiteor is inspired by David’s sorrowful plea for mercy in Psalm 51.
We confess that our sins are of thought and word, of omission and commission. Jesus never had an evil thought, never spoke an evil word (not even when He was chastising the Pharisees for their blindness), never did anything wrong, and never failed to do the right thing. It’s a tough act to follow, but with the grace of God – which comes to us especially through frequent sacramental Confession and reception of Holy Communion – we can be built up “to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ.” (Eph. 4:13)
The first half of the Confiteor ends with an admission of personal guilt for our sins. As we say these words, we strike our breast three times in a sign of penitence:
mea culpa, mea culpa, mea máxima culpa.
through my fault, through my fault, Sir. 20:2b
through my most grievous fault;
The repetition of this admission of guilt adds to its severity. We do not say “The devil made me do it, the devil made me do it, you can bet the devil made me do it,” but accuse only ourselves for our sins. We beat our breast with a closed fist, like the tax collector who prayed from his heart, “God, be merciful to me a sinner!” (Luke 18:13) Concerning the gravity of these words and this gesture, Cardinal Ratzinger wrote:
We point not at someone else but at ourselves as the guilty party, [which] remains a meaningful gesture of prayer. … When we say mea culpa (through my fault), we turn, so to speak, to ourselves, to our own front door, and thus we are able rightly to ask forgiveness of God, the saints, and the people gathered around us, whom we have wronged. (The Spirit of the Liturgy, p. 207)
Rev. Romano Guardini explained that the meaning of this gesture of contrition depends upon it being done properly:
To brush one’s clothes with the tips of one’s fingers is not to strike the breast. We should beat upon our breasts with our closed fists. … It is an honest blow, not an elegant gesture. To strike the breast is to beat against the gates of our inner world in order to shatter them. This is its significance. … “Repent, do penance.” It is the voice of God. Striking the breast is the visible sign that we hear that summons. … Let it wake us up, and make us see, and turn to God. (Sacred Signs)
The Douay Catechism (from 1649), a question-and-answer catechism on the doctrines of the Church, included a chapter expounding the essence and ceremonies of the
It explains that the reason for striking the heart is “to teach the people to return into the heart” because it “signifies that all sin is from the heart, and ought to be discharged from the heart, with hearty sorrow.” (p. 125) Mass.
In the second half of the prayer, we invoke the communion of saints as we ask for the prayers of the whole Church:
Ideo precor beátam Maríam semper Vírginem,
omnes Angelos et Sanctos, et vos, fratres,
oráre pro me ad Dóminum Deum nostrum.
therefore I ask blessed Mary ever-Virgin, John 19:26-27; Jas. 5:16
all the Angels and Saints, Heb. 12:1,22-24; Rev. 5:8; 8:3-4
and you, my brothers and sisters, 1 Th. 5:25; 1 John 5:16
to pray for me to the Lord our God. 1 Sam. 12:23; Bar. 1:13
In Hebrews 11, we are given a tour of God’s Hall of Fame, a list of men and women who, by their faith in God, “received divine approval.” The list includes Abel, Noah, Abram, Sarah, Joseph, Moses, and Rahab. At the end of the list, we read:
Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God. (Heb. 12:1-2)
We learn something very encouraging from this passage: the saints in Heaven are witnesses to our lives on earth, witnesses who cheer us on and pray for us, that we might endure the trials of this life and join the saints in Heaven having won “the crown of life which God has promised to those who love him.” (Jas. 1:12) The prayers of the saints and angels in Heaven are of great worth to us, because the saints have been perfected and have “washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb” (Rev. 7:14) and the angels rejoice greatly when a sinner repents. (cf. Luke 15:7) See chapter 7 (“Profession of Faith”) for more about the communion of saints.
But we don’t only ask the Church Triumphant (in Heaven) for their prayers, we also ask one another for prayers. The next time you say these words at Mass, take a moment to look at the people around you: you are asking these people, sinners though they are, to pray to God for you, a sinner.