A ZENIT DAILY DISPATCH
Breast-Beating During the Confiteor

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.

* * *

Follow-up: Breast-Beating During the Confiteor [1-10-2012]

In the wake of our opinion (see Dec. 13) that the new translation of the Confiteor ("I confess") would allow for a triple striking of the breast, several readers pointed out an official reply from the Holy See on this topic which I had overlooked.

As one California reader pointed out: "Not that I like this responsum, but it is the final word that I know of on this. Gerunds, etc., are speculative; this is direct and clear."

The text, published in Notitiae 14 (1978), 534-535, says:

"n. 10. In pronouncing certain formulas as in, e.g., the Confiteor, the Agnus Dei, and the Domine non sum dignus, whether on the part of priests or on the part of the faithful, the gestures accompanying the words are not always performed the same. Some strike their breast with a triple strike when saying the aforementioned formulas, others once. Which practice seems that it should legitimately be retained?

"Resp.

"In this case it will help to remember these things:

"1) Gestures and words often tend to give significance to one another.

"2) In this matter, as in others, the liturgical restoration has pursued truth and simplicity according to the passage of Sacrosanctum Concilium: «The rites should be resplendent in their noble simplicity …» (SC, 34).

"While in the Roman Missal promulgated by the authority of the Council of Trent the words were very frequently also accompanied by minute gestures, the rubrics of the Roman Missal restored by the authority of the Second Vatican Council are noteworthy for their discretion with regard to gestures.

"Having said this:

"a) The words mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa which are found in the Confiteor are introduced in the restored Roman Missal by a rubric of this sort: All likewise … striking their breast, say … (OM, n. 3). In the former Missal, in the same place, the rubric read like this: He strikes his breast three times. It does not seem, therefore, that anyone has to strike his breast three times in pronouncing those words in Latin or in another language, even if mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa is said. It suffices that there be a striking of the breast.

"It is obvious also that only one gesture suffices in those languages in which the words for showing one's fault have been rendered in a more simple manner, as, for example, in English, «I have sinned through my own fault», or in French, «Oui, j'ai vraiment peche».

"b) The discretion of the restored Roman Missal is shown to be noteworthy also in the other texts mentioned, namely the Agnus Dei and the Domine, non sum dignus which by words of penitence and humility in one way or another accompany the breaking of the bread and the invitation to the faithful to receive the Eucharist.

"As it was said in response n. 2 of the Commentary «Notitiae» 1978, p. 301: where the rubrics of the Missal of Paul VI say nothing, it must not therefore be inferred that it is necessary to observe the old rubrics. The restored Missal does not supplement the old one but has replaced it. In reality, the Missal formerly indicated at the Agnus Dei, striking the breast three times, and in pronouncing the triple Domine, non sum dignus, striking the breast … says three times. Since, however, the new Missal says nothing about this (OM 131 and 133), there is no reason to suppose that any gesture should be added to these invocations."

I had already mentioned in my earlier reply that a single striking was a valid interpretation, and this official response confirms this.

At the same time, I think this official pronouncement fails the reality test. More than 33 years have gone by since the response was issued and practically everybody using Latin, Spanish and Italian strike their breasts three times at the Confiteor, no matter what the rubric says or fails to say.

I think that the same is going to happen in English now that the triple form is restored, and it would be an exercise in futility on behalf of bishops and priests to attempt to oblige the faithful to do otherwise.

Nor would I consider the attempt a good thing in itself. People will naturally do this, and I believe it makes the sign of striking the breast more meaningful.

The present rubrics are clear about not striking of the breast during the Lamb of God, and the practice is now uncommon. The fact that the Agnus Dei is often sung makes it less natural to strike the breast than in the staccato beat of the Confiteor.

At the same time, there are very good arguments to defend the practice. The then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, for example, wrote the following in his book The Spirit of the Liturgy: "During the Agnus Dei (Lamb of God), we look upon him who is the Shepherd and for us became the Lamb and as Lamb, bore our iniquities. At this moment it is only right and proper that we should strike our breasts and remind ourselves, even physically, that our iniquities lay on his shoulder, that 'with his stripes we are healed'" (page 207).

* * *

Follow-up: Breast-Beating [1-24-2012]

Some readers still expressed doubts about the correctness of my opinion regarding the legitimacy of the triple beating of the breast in spite of an official pronouncement justifying the single strike (see Jan. 10 and Dec. 13).

One reader suggested that my earlier follow-up "seemed to imply that we were saying that the Holy See's one-beat indication could be ignored because it's been ignored for 30 years."

I therefore deem it necessary to revisit the argument once more, hoping to finally clarify myself.

First of all, allow me to say that, effectively, Spanish and Italian faithful, including most priests and bishops, have been ignoring the one-strike indication for 30 years. By "ignoring" I do not mean they were disobeying but rather that they had no knowledge that this official reply existed. After all, it was published in Latin in a review with a somewhat limited circulation. 

Second, the official reply did not forbid the use of three strikes but simply stated that once was enough and there was no obligation to follow the older rubrics which mandated three strikes. Therefore, people simply kept on doing what they had always done and struck the breast three times at the triple manifestation of sin.

The point I was trying to make is that now that the English translation has restored the triple manifestation, it is probable that the faithful will naturally and spontaneously revert to the former practice of three strikes to the breast even though once is enough to comply with the rubrics.

As mentioned above, the official reply does not forbid this triple strike and I see no good coming from trying to impede its development.

This article has been selected from the ZENIT Daily Dispatch
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