The Penitential Act
July 18, 2019
By Deacon Peter McShurley
While many Catholics are familiar with the responses and the movements that lead us into the worship of God, it can be helpful to reflect on the meaning and the nature of the different parts of the Mass. The first action of the Mass after the celebrant greets the people is the penitential act. The penitential act is a recognition that the community gathered together before the Lord, while holy and called to holiness, is also a community that seeks God’s mercy. After recognizing that the community is at fault for their sins, the penitential act concludes with the prayer “May Almighty God have mercy on us, forgive us our sins, and bring us into everlasting life.” This prayer said by the priest is a plea for mercy on behalf of the entire community.
The penitential act, which is prayed every day at Mass, recalls the communal penitential acts of the community of Ancient Israel. God prepared the people of Israel for the coming of the savior with the Day of Atonement or Yom Kippur. Chapter 16 of the book of Leviticus explains that once a year the community celebrates this day seeking pardon for the sins of the entire community. Part of the ritual of the Day of Atonement is the scapegoat. The sins of the entire community are put on the head of a goat who is driven out of the community into the wilderness. Likewise at Mass, the sacrifice of Christ is made present. Just like the scapegoat Jesus Christ took on the sins of the entire world and was driven outside of the community being crucified outside the city of Jerusalem. While the scapegoat was a prefigurement of Christ, Christ’s sacrifice is the only one that truly frees us from our sins. In the Mass, the power of what happened on the day of his crucifixion is made present to us today. It is fitting, then, to begin the Mass in recognition of our sinfulness asking for forgiveness as did the Ancient Israelites. Through our Lord’s sacrifice we are finally able to be set free.
One question that people have regards the relationship between the penitential act and the sacrament of penance. While both help prepare us for the worthy celebration of the Eucharist, the penitential act is different from the sacrament of penance. The penitential act is a communal act recognizing our sinfulness and asking for mercy. The sacrament of confession is an individual self-accusation of one’s sins seeking forgiveness. This self-accusation is important because in order to be truly free from our sins we must own up to them. As daughters and sons of God through baptism, we are given the grace of the Holy Spirit to recognize our sins. This is a great grace because it means that we can at last be free of them and have peace knowing that they are forgiven. The penitential act does not forgive sins like the sacrament of confession. The prayer of the priest in the penitential act is a plea for mercy while the prayer of the priest in the sacrament of penance is a prayer of absolution which brings with it certainty that our sins are forgiven. The sacrament of penance is necessary for the forgiveness of grave sins prior to receiving our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament. However, if we wish to grow in the spiritual life, frequent confession helps us also to be free from less serious sins so that we can grow ever closer to our Lord.
Let us rejoice in the Lord for he has set us free.