|ROME, 2 NOV. 2004 (ZENIT)
Answered by Father Edward McNamara,
professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum Pontifical University.
Q: Recently I was advised by a parish priest that I should not strike my
breast during the Agnus Dei
that it was liturgically incorrect. I have done this for years and I am
sure I have seen this "rubric" somewhere. Has something changed or has
it expressly been forbidden?
A.G., Anaheim, California
A: From a technical point of view the parish priest is correct. Striking
one's breast is a gesture implying penance and admission of sinfulness.
In the present rite it is done, above all, within the context of the
first form of rite of penance at the beginning of Mass when the "I
confess" is used and by the priest when he uses the Roman canon
(Eucharistic Prayer 1) at the words "though we are sinners."
Before the reforms of the Second Vatican Council it was also customary
to do so at the "Lamb of God" and at the "Lord, I am not worthy," and
this is probably where you get your custom.
The gesture is no longer prescribed at these latter moments and should
not be fomented among younger Catholics. But it would be probably going
too far to say it is forbidden to those who have been raised in this
What motivated the removal of the gesture of striking the breast at the
Lamb of God and the "Lord, I am not worthy" is not really known. This
gesture entered into the Roman liturgy at these moments relatively late,
the first notice of the gesture at the "Lamb of God" is from around
1311, and from a Spanish manuscript dated 1499 for the "Lord, I am not
I'd guess that the removal of these gestures was a consequence of the
general desire for simplification of the rites. Then again, neither the
"Lamb of God" nor the "Lord, I am not worthy" are, strictly speaking,
penitential rites. They do not mention the personal sin of the
individual but rather the sin of the world and a general state of
The "Lamb of God" is rather a hymn of praise for the work of redemption.
And the petition of mercy asks for forgiveness of sin as well as for
grace, which is a fruit of God's mercy.
This is a possible argument, but admittedly a weak one, for it is
theoretically possible that the gesture of striking the breast could be
interpreted, not only as an admission of sin, but also signify a general
state of unworthiness and indignity.
Several experts have pointed out that the liturgical reform has tended
to privilege the written word over other forms of human expression. The
liturgy has been enriched with a vast array of new texts. But perhaps
the world of gestures and signs, especially those carried out by the
whole assembly, has been somewhat neglected.
Since gestures often serve to reinforce the message of the written and
spoken word they should be taken into account. For example, the
substitution of a single striking of the breast in the current English
translation of the missal, instead of the traditional triple striking
still common in many other countries, has often served to vacate the
gesture of meaning or even promote its demise through distraction.
The Second Vatican Council rightly called for the elimination of useless
repetitions from the liturgy but in some cases repetition is not only
useful but even necessary to get a message across. ZE04110223
* * *
Follow-up: Breast-beating [from 11-16-2004]
Some readers expressed disappointment with my reply about striking the
breast at the Lamb of God (Nov. 2) and I can understand this as it is a
significant gesture for many.
However, my purpose in this column is to do my best to explain actual
liturgical law, and that is what I did.
One reader even suggested that I contradicted myself. She writes: "If
'striking one's breast is a gesture implying penance and admission of
sinfulness,' as you stated in your answer, then it is totally
the Agnus Dei asks the Lord to have mercy on us, recognizing that we are
sinners in need of His mercy."
I do not believe that I contradicted myself for, as I mentioned
previously, the "Lamb of God" is not strictly penitential from a
liturgical point of view.
Our reader, however, does have a valid point.
If we ask whether the gesture of striking one's breast at the Lamb of
God is "appropriate" (rather than just a current liturgical norm) then I
believe it could well be. For it is a gesture subject to several
symbolic meanings that go beyond the strictly penitential.
The same could be said about the custom, still common in places, of
striking the breast when the bell is rung at the consecration. Here the
gesture does not just express unworthiness but also devotion and the
realization that one is in the presence of a great mystery.
In Italy, such small acts of personal devotion realized by some members
of the faithful are generally left undisturbed. I personally fail to see
any pastoral benefits accruing by attempting to enforce a rigid
uniformity in areas where the Church has made no prescription.
Thus there is a difference in the situation of catechists, who, while
preparing children for Mass, should generally limit themselves to
explaining the universal responses and gestures of the liturgy as well
as the most common prayers of preparation and thanksgiving for before
and after Mass, and that of parents and other family members who are
free to inculcate other devotional expressions and attitudes that do not
contradict the general norms. ZE04111622