Immediately after the greeting offered by the priest, the Congregation is invited to an Examination of Conscience. All must humbly admit, acknowledge, and confess that we spiritually fall short. In blunt, we are all sinners. However, that is precisely the reason for Jesus’ coming to earth.
Jesus came to save us from sin and its logical consequences. Actually, the Name of Jesus means Savior. The primary purpose for Jesus’ coming and Presence among us is precisely that—to save us from sin, to save us from the clutches of the devil, to save us from sadness, and to save us from the eternal punishment of Hell.
Humble Recognition of Sin
Pope Pius XII made this assertion: “The sin of the century is the loss of the sense of sin.” If we never come to reality and conclude that we are indeed sinners, then it is impossible for Jesus to actually save us. The sick person will never be healed by the Doctor until he tells the Doctor about his symptoms. Sinners must humbly admit that they commit sins and hurt God and themselves, as well as others, by sinning.
The Penitential Rite is a pivotal moment in the Mass. Before actually praying the Penitential Rite, there should be at least a brief time for silence. Incidentally, sacred Silence in Mass must be understood, valued, appreciated and lived out in the Mass. Indeed, God does communicate to us in silence.
It may appear obvious—but unfortunately not to all—that those brief moments of silence should be used as a means to examine our own individual conscience. (Not that of our neighbor!) It is the moment of truth, when we come to terms with the fact that we indeed are sinners and in great need of God’s Infinite Mercy. But let us rejoice in the encouraging words of Scripture, from Saint Paul to the Romans: “Where sin abounds, the mercy of God abounds all the more.” (Romans 5:20)
Then what naturally follows this Sacred Silence is the Penitential Prayer. In a word, this Penitential Prayer is really an Act of Contrition that we are making, humbly begging for God’s mercy because all of us are sinners—with the exception of Jesus and His Immaculate Mother Mary! Jesus so ardently desires to shower His Infinite Mercy upon all of sinful humanity.
Probably the most commonly used Penitential Act chosen by most priests and prayed by the Congregation is that of the Confiteor—“I Confess…” which, in large part, is attributed to Saint Augustine.
I confess to almighty God
and to you, my brothers and sisters,
that I have greatly sinned,
in my thoughts and in my words,
in what I have done,
and in what I have failed to do;
through my fault, through my fault,
through my most grievous fault;
therefore I ask blessed Mary ever-Virgin,
all the Angels and Saints,
and you, my brothers and sisters,
to pray for me to the Lord our God.
It would be a splendid practice to spend an extended period slowly meditating upon the content, phrases, and words in the Confiteor. Indeed, much fruit can be derived from this spiritual exercise.
What then are some golden nuggets that we can glean from our meditation upon the Act of Contrition in the Mass, or, if you like, the Confiteor? The following are a few:
First, it is that I humbly admit that I indeed am a sinner—no denial, but humble and honest admission and confession. Similar to King David in Psalm 51 who admits his sin of adultery and murder in the humbly inspiring Psalm, no doubt one of the best Acts of Contrition ever composed.
2. Sin Offends God
This humble admission of sin is first addressed to God. This is the proper order, that when we sin, first and foremost we recognize that our sin is theological: it is an offense against Almighty God.
3. Social Dimension of Sin
Then we confess not only to God but also to our brothers and sisters that we have sinned. Not only does sin offend Almighty God, but there is a social dimension to sin. Our sin has wider repercussions, like the concentric ripple effect of a stone launched into the middle of a pond.
Responding to the question that Cain makes to God: “Am I my brother’s keeper?” The response is a resonant yes! We are responsible for our actions. We are called to always strive to give a good example to all our brothers and sisters. But unfortunately, we give scandal. For this, we beg our Almighty and merciful God for pardon and mercy.
4. Four Ways That We Can Sin
The Liturgical Act of Contrition continues, helping us to make a thorough Examination of Conscience by offering four different ways that we can actually sin. Those four ways are the following: Thought, Word, Deed, and Omission.
There is ample food for thought here; better yet, much material to examine our conscience and even motivate us to have recourse to Sacramental Confession sooner rather than later.
There is indeed a battle for our mind today more than ever! Why not make a thorough Examination of Conscience on your thought-world?
We all must humbly admit that we are not always 100% proud of our thoughts. All too often our thought world reeks of sin because of what we put into our mind and the famously wandering and uncontrolled imagination. Of course, not all bad thoughts are sinful. However, if we give consent to impure or sinful thoughts—lust, avarice, envy, anger, pride—then they are transformed into actual sins that should be brought to the Sacrament of Confession.
Our aim and ultimate goal should be to implement two Pauline verses: “Put on the mind of Christ” and “You have the mind of Christ.”(1Cor 2:16) Reception of Holy Communion is the most efficacious means to implement and activate these two Pauline imperatives!
Jesus states unequivocally: “Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks” (Lk 6:45), and “every word that issues from our mouth will be judged” (Mt 12:36). Though this exercise might be exceedingly painful, you might rewind your day, from start to end, and review all the words that issued forth from your mouth—which really means your heart.
Were these words expressed with anger or bitterness? Were they motivated by pride or envy? Did they wound others? Were they displeasing to God? This might be a painful but necessary and eye-opening experience.
7. Deeds—What I Have Done
In our vast range of experience, there are many good deeds that we can do. We should strive to live out the Corporal and Spiritual Works of Mercy. (Read Mt. 25:31-46) However, in our actions, we all too often fall far short. The Greek word for sin is Hamartia—meaning “missing the mark”. As in the case of an archer, with bow and arrow and target. Often, not only do our actions miss the mark, but they hit the wrong mark and can do great damage. Lying, adultery, violent actions, stealing, drinking and drugs, and so many others.
There is a good chance that many of us have never been truly aware of how many sins we have committed due to omission! By omission we mean the following: not doing or carrying out what we should be doing. We are negligent in the obligations of our state of life.
All too often, the root is that of the sins of sloth or laziness. How many parents sin due to being remiss in the Religious Education of their children. Delaying Baptisms, infrequent Confessions, late First Communions, and all too frequently not teaching and training their children in the all-important art of prayer.
9. Through My Fault (3 Times)
The prayer continues with the humble and personal admission that my sin is mine and not others! In other words, we are blaming nobody except ourselves—like King David in Psalm 51—for the sins that we have committed. We must accept and assume personal responsibility for our own personal sins and not point the finger at others.
10. Striking the Breast
Then the Church invites all of us to make a concrete penitential gesture by striking our breast with our fist three times. How important it is for us to realize the importance of engaging our whole person in prayer: our mind, our affections, and even our bodies in our prayer experience.
11. Asking for the Prayers of All
Then this short but powerful Penitential Prayer concludes in a way in which we become beggars—imploring, supplicating others to intercede on our behalf and to pray for us. Saint Augustine reminds us that we are all beggars before God. We all must constantly beg for His Infinite mercy in all times and places. Let us go through the list of those people that we want to pray for us.
12. Blessed Mary Ever Virgin
Our Lady has many titles, but most pertinent in the context of this prayer are the titles: “Our Lady, Refuge of Sinners” and “Our Lady of Mercy, our life, our sweetness and our hope.” Lifting our eyes to Mary and begging for her prayers to attain mercy and forgiveness for our sins is a most efficacious prayer.
13. The Angels
How often do you pray to the Angels? We know the names of three of the Archangels: Michael, Gabriel and Raphael. However, there are myriads of angels in Heaven who are waiting for our prayers to them so that they can run to our rescue. Let us not forget them! Call upon all the angels!
14. The Saints
Finally, to round off this family-affair, we should not neglect to invite our heavenly friends, guides, models and intercessors—that is to say, the saints—to pray for us. While they lived on earth, they were struggling sinners who allowed the grace of God to conquer their own sinful tendencies. Now they bask in God’s glory and run to the rescue of those on earth who call out to them in their need.
Indeed, how many missed and neglected graces do we miss because we forget to invite the saints to be with us, walk with us, intercede for us, pray for us, and lend us a helping hand?
15. Our Brothers and Sisters
We conclude in the realm of intercessory prayer to beg our brothers and sisters—actually those who are with us at Mass in this specific celebration—to pray and intercede on our behalf. How beautiful is the Church family. It is a family united in love!
This love starts and flows from God Himself, who is love, in the words of Saint John in one of his Letters. But this love expands out to Our Lady’s love and prayers for us, and the angels and their powerful presence, and then the saints, God’s victorious heroes.
Finally, the Church Militant, the soldiers of Christ still living who are invited to engage in spiritual warfare on our part. Indeed, we are all part of a marvelous family, the Church, which is truly the family of God.
In sum, spend some time in silent prayer, by relishing this Confiteor—Act of Contrition. Use it to examine your own conscience. Let the light of God’s penetrating grace enlighten and purify your mind as you prepare to hear God’s word and receive Jesus into the very depths of your heart!
image: Confiteor, photo by Fr. Lawrence Lew, O.P. / Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)