Breast-Beating During the Confiteor

And More on the Ave Maria

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ROME, DEC. 13, 2011 (Zenit.org).- Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum university.

Q: In the new translation of Mass according to the English-language Roman Missal, I find myself wondering about a certain lack of specificity in the Confiteor. The missal indicates that those reciting the prayer are to strike their breast at the point where they say, "through my fault, through my fault, through my most grievous fault." I am old enough to remember the threefold striking of the breast in pre-Conciliar days, but wonder if this practice has been maintained elsewhere in the Church by the other language groups that use the Roman Missal. Is there a generalized practice? Or is the perceived lack of specificity in the new missal merely an indication that one strike of the breast is expected? -- A.L., Gallitzin, Pennsylvania

A: The perceived lack of specificity is in the original Latin rubric which says, "[P]ercutientes sibi pectus," whereas the extraordinary form specifies that the breast should be struck three times.

There is, however, a slight but noticeable change in translating this rubric. The former translation, with only one admission of fault, said that the faithful should "strike their breast," thus specifying a single strike. The current translation says, "[A]nd striking their breast, they say:" before the triple admission of fault.

This use of the gerund indicates a continuous action, and so I would say that even if a number is not specified in the rubric, the use of a dynamic expression implies that the number corresponds to the times one admits to personal faults. I think that this is also what would come naturally to most people in any case.

This would be confirmed by the practice in Spanish- and Italian-language countries, which have always maintained the triple form in the "I Confess." The Spanish missal translates the rubric as "golpeándose el pecho, dicen:" which could mean either once or several times. In these countries it is also common practice for priest and faithful to strike the breast three times.

Although the Second Vatican Council requested the removal of "useless repetitions," it must be said that not all repetition is useless. Some forms of communication necessarily use what is technically called redundancy, that is, reinforcing the signal carrying a message more than would be strictly necessary in order to overcome outside interference and stress its importance.

The triple repetition of words and gestures in the Confiteor could be considered such a case. With the former translation it was fairly easy to omit the gesture of striking the breast or pay scant attention to its meaning. The triple repetition underlines its importance and helps us to concentrate on the inner meaning of what we say and do.

It must be admitted, though, that the above argumentation is not watertight, and a single strike could also be a valid interpretation of the rubric.

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Follow-up: The Ave Maria at Funerals

In the Nov. 29 piece on the Ave Maria I said that it "has not been used as an official liturgical text in the Mass." I referred, above all, to the complete text of the Ave Maria.

One reader pointed out, however: "While not used completely, the first portion of the prayer ('Ave Maria, gratia plena, Dominus tecum: benedicta tu in mulieribus, et benedictus fructus ventris tui') is appointed in the Graduale Romanum as the Offertory for the Fourth Sunday of Advent, the solemnity of the Immaculate Conception, and as the first option for the Offertory in the Common of the Blessed Virgin Mary. With that in mind, would it not then be perfectly legitimate to use a version of Ave Maria as an Offertory on those occasions?"

Regarding funeral liturgies in general, a Chicago reader asked: "My cousin recently passed away and the family turned to me to help arrangements for the Mass. I did some research in his home city to find a church that offers more traditional liturgy and found one that regularly offers a Novus Ordo in Latin with a sacred-music choir. I called the parish, requesting a simple requiem Mass for my cousin, with Gregorian chant and perhaps some sacred polyphony, and was flatly refused. I was told that the parish could offer a 'regular' funeral Mass with a hymn like 'Amazing Grace' or 'On Eagles' Wings,' but that it would not be possible to offer a requiem Mass. As someone who chants in a schola, I know that the chants for the traditional requiem Mass are not complex (Kyrie, Sanctus, Angus Dei, In Paradisum); I was not asking for Mozart's Requiem with a full orchestra. My question is, do the faithful have a canonical right to a requiem Mass with Gregorian chant (assuming that there is a competent and available cantor, which in this case there was)? Or must we be subjected to the banal sentimentality of hymns like 'On Eagles' Wings' or a Protestant hymn like 'Amazing Grace' at the funerals of our loved ones due to the will of the pastor?"

I would be loath to interpret the pastor's reasons for refusing the requiem Mass; he might have had other good motivations in this particular case.

In general, however, I would say that while it is not possible to speak of an absolute "right" of the faithful to a particular form of Mass, one can say that the faithful do have a right to the Mass as proposed by the Catholic Church. Since the texts of the requiem Mass are all officially approved and found in the liturgical books, there is, in general terms, no good reason to refuse to allow their use in any funeral celebration if there is someone who can execute them.

Even if the Mass itself is celebrated in the vernacular, the common parts and the proper texts can all be sung in Latin. Also, since these texts often correspond to the official antiphons, they would have preference over any other hymns or songs.

It must be admitted that there is a poignancy and pathos in imploring God that the angels lead the deceased in paradisum (into paradise) to be welcomed on arrival by the martyrs and introduced into the heavenly Jerusalem that is not quite captured by songs such as "On Eagles' Wings."

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Readers may send questions to liturgy@zenit.org. Please put the word "Liturgy" in the subject field. The text should include your initials, your city and your state, province or country. Father McNamara can only answer a small selection of the great number of questions that arrive.