Author: Father Edward McNamara



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 custom.

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 worthy."

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 unworthiness.

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 appropriate — 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

This article has been selected from the ZENIT Daily Dispatch
© Innovative Media, Inc.

ZENIT International News Agency
Via della Stazione di Ottavia, 95
00165 Rome, Italy

To subscribe
or email: with SUBSCRIBE in the "subject" field