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We are broken long before we arrive for mass.  We worry about people who are sick, unemployed, or at war.  We are obsessed with a friend who took advantage of us.  We are angry with a family member who let us down.  We are mad at ourselves.

Sometimes the day has not gone well.  We can’t put aside our daily concerns to enter the spirit of mass.  We drive to church amid tense traffic.  We arrive and see someone we’d rather not talk to right now.  Somehow we are supposed to go into that church and celebrate.  But we are broken before we get there.

This is not a bad thing.  The mass can heal.  Where else can we go to hear good news?  Where else can we gather with others broken as we are?  Where else can we sing of sorrow and hope?  Where else do we all share a meal that heals our ills and promises a better day?

Within the eucharistic liturgy there is reconciliation.  Ministers will help the entire assembly if they identify the parts that heal and frame them in a way that aids.

The sacrament of penance

We are never to combine the eucharist with the sacrament of penance.  The mass expresses reconciliation, but the liturgy of penance has a distinct purpose.

Some parishes have combined these sacraments.  They probably felt encouraged by two developments in the liturgy: communal penance services and the celebration of other sacraments within mass.

Communal penance services gather the community for a celebration that begins with a Liturgy of the Word and continue with confession and absolution.  But because people were already together hearing the word of God, some parishes continued after absolution with a Liturgy of the Eucharist.  The reformed liturgy never foresaw this.  The Rite of Penance contains three forms of the sacrament, but none of them includes a celebration within mass.

Other sacraments, though, do.  Prior to the Second Vatican Council, confirmation was celebrated in a word service.  The revised liturgy encouraged the bishop to celebrate mass when he confirmed.  Weddings need not take place within mass when one party is not Catholic, but when two Catholics marry, they do.  The baptism of infants can be celebrated within Sunday mass, when the community may shoulder its responsibility to raise the child in the faith.  Ordination ceremonies take place during the eucharist, and the sick may be anointed during mass as well.

But the sacrament of penance was always meant to be separate.  The Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments clarified this in its recent instruction, Redemptionis sacramentum.  “[A]ccording to a most ancient tradition of the Roman Church, it is not permissible to unite the Sacrament of Penance to the Mass in such a way that they become a single liturgical celebration” (76).  One priest may hear confessions in the church while another priest celebrates mass, but the two events are meant to be separate, involving different participants, and ideally they would occur at distinct times or places.

Although the sacrament of penance does not take place within the eucharistic liturgy, reconciliation takes various other forms: private prayer, public request, a generic plea for mercy, or a specific cry for forgiveness.  We even act out the very reconciliation we pray the eucharist will achieve.

The private prayers of the clergy

One way the mass expresses its function of forgiveness is in the private prayers of the clergy.  These came under criticism when the liturgy first went into the vernacular.  Private prayers seemed antiquated.  Prior to the Council, the priest said nearly the entire mass in a low voice.  When the altar became freestanding and the priest faced the people, he started using a language they understood and immediately discovered the value of speaking up.

However, several prayers remained in a low voice.  Of these, some take up the theme of forgiveness.  For example, when the deacon or priest kisses the book after proclaiming the gospel, he says, “May the words of the gospel wipe away our sins.”  And when the priest washes his hands, he says, “Lord, wash away my iniquity; cleanse me from my sin.”

Some clergy say these prayers in a loud voice, but they are designed to be said quietly.  The deacon and the priest maintain a spirit of prayer throughout the eucharist.  At times the liturgy assigns them quiet words to say.  The purpose is not to keep something secret from everyone else, but to reveal that they should also be at prayer.

These prayers reveal deep truths.  The proclaimed gospel achieves reconciliation.  It draws together the entire community who abandon their anxieties and fears, accept their tendency to sin, and are awestruck that God addresses sinners.  All this is contained within an inaudible prayer, but it should guide the entire proclamation of the gospel.  It summons the faithful to listen attentively.  It presupposes the deacon or priest will proclaim with understanding.  And it helps explain why we approach the gospel standing, singing and processing.  A careful proclamation will help everyone experience the forgiving power of the words of Christ.

When the priest washes his hands, he prays for forgiveness.  He is unworthy to proclaim the eucharistic prayer.  Washing helps set his heart and mind in the right place.  It stirs up the humility that makes prayer pleasing to God.  And it demonstrates that a priest must take seriously this task: he must live a good life, and he must seek forgiveness whenever he approaches this prayer.  The eucharistic prayer is holy, and the priest approaches it with some fear.

When the deacon and priest pray these texts with meaning, they exercise their duties at the altar more prayerfully, they will demonstrate to the other members of the assembly how important their own private prayer is, and they will inspire reconciliation among the gathered people of God.

Act of penitence

The most obvious moment of reconciliation within the eucharistic liturgy is the act of penitence.  Part of the introductory rites, it helps us transition from worldly allurements to the spiritual realm of liturgy.  The act of penitence invites us to acknowledge our sins, while it proclaims that Jesus is Lord of all.

Among the three forms of this rite, the first has us forthrightly acknowledge our sin before God and the community, striking our breast as a sign of repentance.  The second form is a short litany of penitential verses.  The third praises Christ for his forgiving ministry.  This third form does not beg forgiveness; it acclaims the one who grants it.  This affirmation is so important that it appears in a brief litany after the other forms of the act of penitence: “Lord, have mercy.”  The Greek words may also be used: “Kýrie, eléison.”

At the conclusion of any of these forms, the priest says a prayer called “absolution”.  He prays that God will have mercy, forgive our sins and bring us to everlasting life.  The General Instruction of the Roman Missal points out that this absolution is not the same as sacramental absolution.  It “lacks the efficacy of the Sacrament of Penance” (51).  It is a prayer for forgiveness, and it certainly achieves forgiveness, but it is not to replace the sacrament of reconciliation, and it cannot replace it for those in serious sin.

Redemptionis sacramentum says that the first form of the act of penitence especially expresses the theme of reconciliation (71).  But all the forms express the sin of the assembly and the forgiveness of God.

A fruitful act of penitence depends on silence.  When the priest invites us recall our sins, we need time to do it.  We need a generous amount of time.  Fifteen seconds is not too short.  If the priest is aware of his own sins, he will more easily allow the time other people need to recall theirs.

This third form may be led by the deacon or a lay minister; the cantor, for example.  Whoever has this responsibility also manages the silence.  The minister who proclaims the three invocations needs to give people time to call to mind their sins.  This minister will be most effective if he or she recalls his or her own sins, including the tendency to rush matters that take time.

As an alternative to the act of penitence, the rite of blessing and sprinkling holy water may be used on Sundays.  Its purpose, according to the introduction, is to remind us of our baptism, but at the conclusion the priest says, “May almighty God cleanse us of our sins.”  This ritual purifies the faithful as they prepare to celebrate the eucharist, and as they long for a place at the table in the kingdom of heaven.


During the Glory to God and the Lamb of God we pray, “have mercy on us.”  Although these phrases contain a few words amid many others, they assert our reliance on God to forgive and to keep us on the path of righteousness.

During the Glory to God, the breaking of the bread and in the priest’s invitation to communion, we cite a proclamation of John the Baptist.  He called Jesus the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world (John 1:29).

These texts are easy to overlook, but they present a leitmotif throughout the liturgy, reminding us of a title of Jesus (Lamb) linked with a particular purpose (forgiveness).  They make us acknowledge our sins, while they offer us hope for reconciliation.  Ministers do not need to stress these texts.  Their power lies in their subtle presence at each and every mass.

Communion rite

Several moments in the communion rite take the theme of reconciliation to a new level.  No longer do we merely pray for forgiveness.  We practice it.

In the Lord’s Prayer, we pray for forgiveness, but in the measure that we forgive others.  Those who pray the Lord’s Prayer know that their prayer will be effective if they mean it.  If they forgive the trespasses of others, God will forgive theirs.

Before we share communion with one another, we share a sign of peace, communion and charity.  As Redemptionis sacramentum points out, this is not explicitly a sign of reconciliation (71), but it is a sign that reconciliation has happened.  It is a sign that we are at peace, that communion is ours.  Only in that spirit of having been reconciled may we enter the sacrament of communion.

The invitation to the sign of peace should be given with sincerity, and those in the sanctuary, who are visible to the rest of the community, should exchange peace with care.  Their visible example will inspire others to show peace and to be at peace.

Communion forgives.  The Catechism of the Catholic Church says, “the Eucharist cannot unite us to Christ without at the same time cleansing us from past sins and preserving us from future sins. . . .  As bodily nourishment restores lost strength, so the Eucharist strengthens our charity, which tends to be weakened in daily life; and this living charity wipes away venial sins” (1393-1394).

This is the best news for those who enter the mass broken.  We spend much of the liturgy acknowledging our sins and begging for forgiveness, but before we leave we experience communion, the reconciliation of those who have come in need, who have discovered a community of others like them, and who have encountered the God who forgives.  In that spirit of communion and reconciliation we go forward from this eucharist to heal the brokenhearted wherever we meet.


This article first appeared in Ministry & Liturgy 33/10 (December 1006-January 2007):12-14.

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