Confessing and Proclaiming Reconciliation
This issue of Liturgy dealing with “Confession & Reconciliation,” guest-edited by Bruce T. Morrill, explores confession of sin and reconciliation between individuals and communities from several angles, including deeply fraught situations of violence. What follows is an excerpt from Bruce Morrill’s essay, “Confessing Sin, Proclaiming Reconciliation in Contemporary U.S. Catholic Liturgy.” –– Melinda Quivik
Across American parishes today, informal customs of gathering and the Mass’s formal Introductory Rites together comprise a ritual process that includes healing of alienations from God and one another in ways both articulated and unarticulated. Over recent decades a custom has widely emerged whereby the cantor, prior to introducing the opening song, instructs the people to greet others around them. Typical explanations, if not exhortations, for this instruction, bespeak neighborliness, “That there may be no strangers among us,” or, “Please turn to somebody near you to say hello,” or more rarely, “Let us greet those around us, recognizing Christ in one another.” Such friendly gestures, usually ranging from the enthusiastic to stilted, cannot but symbolize some measure of unity or even reconciliation across racial, economic, generational, or political divides amidst an individualistic society. Whatever a parish’s informal greeting customs (or lack thereof), the Introductory Rites of the Mass then begin with an obligatory song, a most effective corporeal way to unite people, whether it be a chant, hymn, or even just recitation of an entrance antiphon. Often preferred are songs about inclusivity, “All Are Welcome” or “Gather Us In,” with lyrics exulting diversity and overcoming divisions.
The General Instruction of the Roman Missal explains that the first purpose of the preparatory rites is “to assure that the faithful who come together as one establish communion,” while similarly, the Entrance song “foster[s] the unity of those who have gathered.” Whatever that range of individual conscious and unconscious engagement, this assembling can be a powerful symbol of humanity reconciled in Christ. Gathering in the house of the church, even if individuals might not think of their fellow laity as church, can raise conscious attention and intention to the shared life of faith, which for certain individuals on any given occasion may already constitute an act of reunion, if not reconciliation.
It makes sense theologically and ritually, therefore, that after the formal entrance and greeting comes the sin-confessing, mercy-proclaiming Penitential Act. . . .
The priest begins by inviting the assembly to pause in silent recollection: “Brethren (brothers and sisters), let us acknowledge our sins, and so prepare ourselves to celebrate the sacred mysteries.” The act concludes with the priest’s words of absolution, “May almighty God have mercy on us,/forgive us our sins,/and bring us to ever- lasting life,” to which the people reply, “Amen.” Eternal life, of course, is the gracious promise received through baptism. That this ritual unit may occasionally be replaced, especially during the Easter Season, with a blessing and sprinkling of water to remind people of their baptism, indicates the symbolic purpose of the introductory ritual unit: ongoing conversion as fundamental to the life of holiness.
There is much more. Morrill’s full essay in Liturgy 34, no. 1 is available now online by personal subscription and through many libraries.
Bruce Morrill, “Confessing Sin, Proclaiming Reconciliation in Contemporary U.S. Catholic Liturgy,” Liturgy 34, no. 1 (2019):30-38.