Monday, May 27, 2019

Why the Confiteor Before Communion Should Be Retained (or Reintroduced)

The Confiteor at the start of Mass
In this article, I will defend the fittingness of the repetition of the Confiteor by the ministers immediately before their communion — sung by the deacon and subdeacon at Solemn Mass, said by the acolytes at the Missa Cantata and Low Mass. I shall argue that it not only deserves to be retained, but that it should be used everywhere in the usus antiquior, and not omitted.

Before moving to this question, let us consider for a moment why there ought to be a double Confiteor at the start of the Mass, in the penitential section at the foot of the altar, prior to the ministers’ ascending the mountain of the Lord to offer the twofold sacrifice: first, the verbal sacrifice of the readings, followed by the unbloody sacrifice of the Lamb of God.

At first glance, it might appear that there should be only a single Confiteor of priest and people together, and indeed, this is what the Novus Ordo Missae provides, having relied on scholars to purge it of “useless repetitions.”

Nevertheless, the double Confiteor is far from useless. It strongly brings out the dialogical nature of liturgical worship, where the celebrant acts as a mediator for the people, and where each member of the body is praying for the other. The doubling formalizes the mediation as well as the mutual assistance. It reinforces the humility needed in the celebrant, who confesses his sins alone coram omnibus, and also exhibits the dignity of the servant who says to the master: “May almighty God have mercy on thee, and having forgiven thy sins, lead thee to eternal life.” It reflects the truth of cosmic and ecclesiastical hierarchy and pushes against one of the dominant errors of our time, that of democratic egalitarianism, which lumps everyone together into an undifferentiated mass (or Mass).

Bishop Athanasius Schneider once told of a Low Mass he was offering in Africa at a large traditional Catholic school for girls. When he had confessed his sins, he heard all these little girls say to him, in perfect Latin, “Misereatur tui omnipotens Deus, et dimissis peccatis tuis, perducat te ad vitam aeternam.” He was overcome with feelings of humility, littleness, and joy. This experience of the priest confessing his own sins in front of the people—or, for that matter, the bishop, or the pope—is something we could use a great deal more of in the Church today, together (of course) with the confession of the people. And all of this in the humbling and strengthening presence of the saints invoked by name, twice: “Blessed Mary ever-virgin, St. Michael the Archangel, St. John the Baptist, the holy apostles Peter and Paul, and all the saints” — not (as we were just saying) lumped together in an undifferentiated mass of “all the angels and saints,” mentioned only once, for efficiency’s sake. There are no shortcuts in penance and forgiveness.

Now, moving to our main topic — the Confiteor before communion — it was not only the repetition at this moment of something that had “already been done” earlier in the Mass that the liturgical reformers objected to; it was rather the impression that the communion rite for the faithful is “tacked on to” the Mass as an extrinsic piece rather than something intrinsic to it. Eliding the communion rite(s) was a way of underlining the unity of liturgical action.

Yet the old practice makes theological sense, at least from the vantage of the dogmatic teaching of the Council of Trent. The communion of the offering priest is essential to the completion of the sacrifice in a way that the communion of no one else is. In fact, the obscuring of this point by having a single communion rite in which the priest announces “Ecce Agnus Dei” prior to receiving Christ and distributing Him to the faithful is among the many factors that have contributed to the obscuring of the difference in kind between the ministerial priesthood and the priesthood of the faithful.

Moreover, one should not evaluate this practice only from a low Mass standpoint, but also from the Solemn High Mass, the normative Mass of the Roman Rite. Seeing the priest flanked by his close companions, the deacon and the subdeacon, with the deacon chanting the Confiteor, throws into sharp relief how the sacrifice is essentially complete with the communion of the priest, who stands in for Christ the High Priest, and that the further communions are an extension of this sacrifice to the ministers and the faithful, a sacramental “rippling out” comparable to the rippling out of the Pax, the gesture of peace, passed down from on high — much as the higher angels communicate illuminations to lower angels.

The one offering brings the sacrifice to completion by himself partaking of the sacrificial Victim. No other communion is necessary for this completion, although obviously the Church rejoices in the participation of as many faithful as are in a state of grace and prepared to receive Our Lord. The scholastic distinction between intensity and extension is helpful here. For example, the separated soul in heaven fully possesses beatitude intensively, but when the body is reunited to it in the resurrection, that happiness will overflow into the flesh and so the beatitude will be greater extensively, i.e., it will have a greater extension.

The separate communions of priest and people, with the Confiteor as a visible and audible caesura, is the liturgy’s way of representing the dogmatic truth spoken of by Pope Pius XII in Mystici Corporis Christi when he distinguishes between the “objective redemption” that Christ accomplished in full on the Cross and the “subjective redemption” of Christians, which occurs through the application of the merits of His Passion to our souls in the sacraments of the Church. St. Thomas speaks of this point often, as when he explains why the faithful need not receive the chalice: “The perfection of this sacrament does not lie in the use of the faithful, but in the consecration of the matter. And hence there is nothing derogatory to the perfection of this sacrament, if the people receive the body without the blood, provided that the priest who consecrates receive both” (Summa theologiae III, q. 80, a. 12, ad 2). “Our Lord’s Passion is represented in the very consecration of this sacrament, in which the body ought not to be consecrated without the blood. But the body can be received by the people without the blood: nor is this detrimental to the sacrament, because the priest both offers and consumes the blood on behalf of all; and Christ is fully contained under either species, as was shown above (q. 76, a. 2)” (ibid., ad 3).

This aspect of the usus antiquior points unambiguously to the essence of the Mass as the re-presentation of the Sacrifice of the Cross at the hands of the ordained minister, and forcefully sets aside the Protestant conflation of the Mass and the Last Supper, i.e., the simple identification of the Eucharist with communion — an error so ubiquitous in our day that Catholics not only take it for granted but are unaware that there is any other way of thinking about the matter.

Again, at a high Mass, the faithful are usually not able to hear the Confiteor of the priest and the servers at the beginning, as these preparatory prayers in the sanctuary are muffled under the soaring sound of the Introit. Thus, when the deacon sings or the servers say the Confiteor right before communion, everyone is able to hear it and make it their own, since there is nothing else “covering over” this action.[1] Holy Mother Church offers all the faithful one final opportunity to bow low before the altar, express contrition for sins, call upon saints and angels as intercessors, and receive a minor absolution prior to approaching the Sanctissimum, the Most Holy One, before whom even the Cherubim and Seraphim veil their faces. Thus we see that this Confiteor is both theologically appropriate and spiritually profitable.

To my mind (and probably, I’ll admit, for quite incidental reasons), the suppression of this Confiteor before communion in the missal promulgated by Pope John XXIII serves as the “poster child” of all that went wrong during that strange no-man’s-land between Mediator Dei (1947) and the imposition of the Novus Ordo (1969). In this period of two decades, official papal language still paid lip service to the binding force of tradition and the non-negotiable good of continuity, while at the same time three Popes in succession permitted changes to the liturgy — at first tentatively and in smaller ways, but subsequently growing in audacity to embrace whole sacramental rituals from top to bottom — that led with a kind of inevitability to the jettisoning of the historic Roman Rite and its replacement by the “modern papal rite” (as Gamber calls the Novus Ordo).

Let there be no mistake about it: the incremental changes of Pius XII and John XXIII to the Mass and its rubrics — the abolition of most octaves and vigils, multiple collects, doubled lections, the “Benedicamus Domino,” folded chasubles, etc. — are also corruptions, even if lesser corruptions than Montini’s, and deserve to be rejected by those who care for the Roman Rite in its integrity and plenitude just as readily and easily as the more egregious novelties of the late sixties.

A last consideration, since we are on the subject of the Confiteor and the role of penitence in the rite of Mass: I read in an article at PrayTell about the proposal, fashionable among today’s “with-it” liturgists, to move the penitential rite to after the “Liturgy of the Word.” Their theory (fine on paper, as always) is that we should first hear the Word of God summoning us to faith and repentance, and then express our acceptance of the message in the Creed and a penitential rite immediately prior to the Liturgy of the Eucharist. Probably the sign of peace would be moved into this intermediate section as well, so that we can take care of all the Eucharistic preliminaries at once.

Now, I have two reactions to this idea.

First, this proposal and any other like it would make sense only if liturgy is just something we make up according to our own brilliant ideas, rather than a form of prayer we receive from those who came before us and whom we revere as our fathers in Christ, from whom we receive the faith together with its enactment in rites. And surely this is a tempting view, since modern people are seen consistently to have better ideas and to produce greater art than their predecessors. Just think of primitives like Plato and Aristotle, Dante and Shakespeare, Bach and Mozart, and compare them with Rorty and Derrida, Cummings and Kerouac, the Beach Boys and Eminem. We are clearly in a better position to design liturgy than the men who built Hagia Sophia or Notre Dame Cathedral.

What is astonishing to me is that such proposals can be made, let alone taken seriously. Do we know better than the millennia of Latin Catholics who started off the liturgy with penitential preparation—or for that matter, Eastern Christians who can’t help chanting “Lord, have mercy” from the get-go? But we can forgive them and, well, ignore them; after all, among professional liturgists, Byzantines get a pass for everything, no matter how outlandish; the more litanies, processions, blessings, and chants, the better. The East is the exotic “other” whose presence allows us to loathe ourselves in a perpetual inferiority complex, which prompts us to “act out” irrationally from time to time by lopping off another ancient feature that connects us with the East.

Second, in an irony that repeats itself on a regular basis, what the fashionable liturgists say they want is already present in the unreformed (I mean, pre-1962) traditional Mass. They say they want a moment, after the Word and before the Eucharist, in which to express our repentance. The old Mass gives us the Confiteor before communion and the threefold “Domine, non sum dignus...” with the minor absolution from the priest. The old rite, embodying a deep instinct for symmetry, has in that sense two penitential rites: the one prior to receiving the Word, and the one prior to receiving the Word-made-flesh.

The more we ponder the inherited liturgy, the more riches we find in it, and the less we are inclined to tinker with it or accept the tinkering of others, bereft of the fear of God the Father, the love of Christ the High Priest, and the unction of the Holy Spirit. We give thanks to the Most Holy Trinity for beginning to deliver His people from the seventy-year Babylonian captivity of liturgical reform (ca. 1948–2018), stretching from Pius XII’s creation of the committee that would produce the neo-Tridentine Holy Week to the year when Ecclesia Dei granted permission to the ICKSP and FSSP to return to the unreformed Holy Week. We are coming full circle at last, and there is no turning back.

(Portions of this article are excerpted from my lecture at St. Mary’s in Norwalk, “Poets, Lovers, Children, Madmen — and Worshipers: Why We Repeat Ourselves in the Liturgy.”)


[1] Needless to say, if it is to serve a corporate purpose, the Confiteor needs to be heard at this point rather than mumbled or muttered into the acolyte's sleeve. No need for loudness; an articulate voice and a reasonable pacing will suffice to make the prayer audible even in a large church. For more thoughts along these lines, see my article "Two Modest Proposals for Improving the Prayerfulness of Low Mass."

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