If you are a liturgical nerd, this week’s letter is for you. For the rest of you, feel free to quickly skim this letter or go right to the very last sentence… and receive my apology for such a long letter about such a small part of the Mass. My intentions are to help clarify this small point that has baffled many, including myself, and to get some sense of direction prior to our upcoming workshop on the Archdiocesan Liturgical Handbook(ALH).
When the Roman Missal (think the big red book the priest reads from at Mass) was updated and released for use amounts a decade ago, there were many changes to the wording of the prayers as well as to the rubrics (think instructions) of how to offer Mass. One that seemed clear to me was at the beginning of the Mass, the Introductory Rite, when we confess our sins. The first option for that rite is called the Confiteor (“I confess…”). In the previous (1970 ed.) Missal, it clearly instructed the faithful to recite, “through my fault,” once, and to strike the breast once at that moment. The current (2011 ed.) Missal returned to the three-time repetition of this phrase, yet the rubric did not clearly change to include three strikes of the breast. So, during those first months with the new Missal, I guided the faithful to maintain a single striking of the breast. Now, fast forward almost a decade: our new ALH instructs the faithful to strike the breast three times (1.13.1). So I inquired with Msgr. Gerard O’Connor, our archdiocesan Director of the Office of Divine Worship and principle author of the ALH. He reaffirmed the guidance from the ALH and sent me a link where this was addressed by a professor in Rome who was asked about this small issue. The moderator, Fr. Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum University offered this response about the ambiguity of the new rubric in this regard:
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. (for an even more expansive response, go to ewtn.com/library/liturgy/zlitur388.htm).
So, the rubric is not absolutely clear from what Fr. McNamara shares, though there are common traditions that lean us towards one option. This is where the ALH, General Instructions to the Roman Missal(GIRM), and our Director of the Office Divine Worship are helpful. Msgr. O’Connor shared with me an important section of the GIRM which offers guidance regarding liturgical postures in liturgy:
A common bodily posture, to be observed by all those taking part, is a sign of the unity of the members of the Christian community gathered together for the Sacred Liturgy, for it expresses the intentions and spiritual attitude of the participants and also fosters them (42).
And then Msgr. O’Connor concludes with the reason the ALH offers the guidance it does in this regard:
I think that given the centuries tradition (paying attention to the traditional practice of the Roman Rite) on the triple striking of the breast and the fact that it has been more or less universally adopted again in the English speaking world, we explicitly mentioned three times. Thinking back we should have left it as just ‘striking’. But I think in practical terms, desiring a common approach for the faithful “A common bodily posture, to be observed by all those taking part, is a sign of the unity”, we should encourage the three strikes.
So, while one striking of the breast once fulfills the rubric at the Confiteor, three times may be in more harmony with the intent of the rubric and tradition of the Church.
Fr. William Holtzinger