Catholics should approach the altar with reverence and humility

Father John A. Kiley

Other than the impressive changes in the Holy Week liturgy proposed by Pope Pius XII in the 1950s, the first change in the church's ritual before the Vatican Council’s dramatic adjustments was the dropping of the second Confiteor by Pope John XXIII in the early 1960s.

Just before holy Communion was distributed to the people, the altar boy knelt profoundly at the altar step and recited the same Confiteor that had been uttered at the beginning of Mass. Possibly inserted into the Communion rite by an earlier pontiff as a demonstration of contrition and humility before receiving the sacred host, the prayer was thought redundant by Pope Roncalli and eliminated from the Roman rite. The Confiteor continues in its prominent spot as an option for the admission of sin at the beginning of Mass and, come this Advent, will be slightly amplified for English-speaking congregations. The well-known and somewhat melodramatic words, “through my fault, through my fault, through my most grievous fault” will be restored to the assembly’s public acknowledgment of its sinful ways and its need for divine help.

The familiar prayer will now readily admit that the worshipper has “greatly” transgressed both in body and soul through commission and omission. But the prayer will earnestly admit that the worshipper is genuinely contrite, symbolized by the triple admission of fault and the triple striking of the breast. The prayer concludes by invoking the help of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the angels and saints, and the gathered worshippers to intercede for the admitted sinner with the Father for a true and sincere conversion. The mention of Mary, the angels and the saints reminds the Christian that sins and forgiveness are cosmic events, having repercussions far beyond the individual sinner. Clearly, the addition of “greatly” and the triple restoration of faults more vividly remind the believers gathered for Mass that all churchgoers approach the sacred mysteries clearly as sinners. Each worshipper has certainly “sinned and fallen short of the glory of God,” as St. Paul wisely wrote. So well indeed might the faithful strike triply their breast - at least out of humility and just possibly out of shame.

The universality of redemption is certainly a cornerstone of Christianity. Christians must never forget that Jesus Christ died graciously for every man and woman. True Christians firmly believe that no one is excluded ahead of time from the possibility of eternal salvation. Believers do well to recall that God the Father desires that all men and women should be saved and come to the knowledge of his truth. So both Scripture and tradition abound in testimonies to God's mercy and largesse.

Nonetheless, while contemporary society might be alert to the corporate sins of inequality, racism, prejudice, and the like, a casual moral attitude toward individual, personal sin is pervasive in today’s Western world. Minimal church attendance, crude language, immodesty, unchaste behavior, marriage irregularities, pornography, alcohol, drugs, family dysfunction, materialism - these faults abound. Yet personal sins are rarely acknowledged as barriers to communion with God when people stroll into church on occasion for assorted reasons. Let’s be honest. Everyone goes to Communion at Mass nowadays. In one way this is fine. God calls everyone “to the supper of the Lamb.” But at the same time, an awareness of unworthiness, a spirit of humility, even a sense of shame, is demanded from those who would approach the altar properly, especially those who know in their hearts that their lives vary greatly from traditional Christian expectations.

God is good, kind and loving. But God is also no fool. He is “not mocked,” as St. Paul wrote forcefully. “As a man sows, thus shall he reap,” the apostle advised his readers. And the Confiteor is a regular, ritual reminder for the devout worshipper to ponder God’s law, to examine one’s conscience, and to amend one’s ways. As the old second Confiteor illustrated, this need for repentance is not only true for life in general or for society at large, it is especially true as the individual worshipper approaches the altar for holy Communion. The heavenly excellence of the Eucharist when contrasted with the human misery of the sinner should evoke a true sense of contrition, resolve and amendment as well as a deep appreciation of divine reconciliation, redemption and renewal.