The Penitential Act

By Father Kevin Kennedy


As we continue our series on the Mass, begun last month, we reflect on the reality of our human condition in relation to God. Of course, the key is our acknowledgment that in the celebration of the Eucharist we are, in fact, in the presence of God. Without that conscious awareness, grounded in faith, we are prevented from experiencing true prayer and instead remain locked within a self-manufactured prison of falsehood and arrogance.

In our first article we examined the contrasting attitudes of the Pharisee and the Publican in the story told by Jesus (Lk 18:9-14). Although he has entered the temple to pray, the Pharisee does not act as if he is in the house of God. Indeed, his self-referential musings really have nothing to do with God. He is essentially talking to himself, and all about himself.

On the other hand, the Publican sees himself in the light of God’s infinite holiness. In the presence of that light, he is keenly aware that he has been brought by his Creator from nonexistence into being and that he is a fallen human creature, weak and sinful. His response to these realities is a primal yearning for forgiveness, reconciliation and healing as he exclaims; “O God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” The Pharisee leaves the temple the way he entered it; empty and alone, whereas the Publican leaves justified in the sight of God. As we examine the introductory rites of the Mass, we take as our model and guide the figure of the Publican, whose faith and humility were extolled by the Lord.

The Mass begins as the assembly of God’s people, the church, gathers together and sings the entrance chant. This is followed by a powerful expression acknowledging that we are, indeed, in the presence of God. The priest celebrant leads the community in reverently making the sign of the cross. We begin the liturgy not by focusing upon and celebrating ourselves, but with a bodily sign through which we express our belief in God who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit. In sacred Scripture, a name represents the essence of a person. By invoking the name of God we stand in his presence in order to offer him our praise, thanksgiving and petitions.

After greeting the assembly, the presider invites us to pray the penitential act in one of several options. The community is called to acknowledge sins in order to prepare to celebrate the sacred mysteries. Unlike the Pharisee who never acknowledged any unworthiness or personal sinfulness in the presence of God, we realize that we are entering into a special encounter with the Lord requiring preparation through confession of our sins and transgressions and asking God’s pardon.

The confession of sin is personal (“I confess”), but also a communal act. We acknowledge the different areas in which we can sin, namely, our thoughts, our words, what we have done and what we have failed to do. The fundamental reference point for an integral examination of conscience is the law and commandments of God. The striking of the breast three times emphasizes personal guilt, repentance and sincere sorrow for sin.

Finally, the celebrant invokes God’s mercy and asks that he forgive the sins of the gathered assembly. This prayer, however, is distinct from the formula of absolution in the sacrament of reconciliation (penance), which is required for the remission of grave (mortal) sins. In future articles we will examine the close connection between the sacraments of penance and the Eucharist.

The penitential act is concluded by the members of the assembly making their own the sorrowful prayer of the Publican: “O God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” In the form of a repetitive litany the priest and the people ask the Lord to have mercy upon all as, with trust and confidence in his goodness, they seek his pardon and peace.

Father Kevin Kennedy is pastor of Our Lady of Fatima Russian Byzantine Catholic Church, administrator at St. Monica-St. Thomas the Apostle Parish in San Francisco and formation adviser and spiritual director at St. Patrick’ Seminary & University.