Saturday 28 April 2012

The Confiteor (B) History

The history of making a confession at the altar in the Roman liturgy is of a late date. The ceremonial tract Ordo Romanus I contains no reference to a confession of sins, however by Ordo Romanus VI the pontiff “bowing down prays to God for forgiveness of his sins”. It is probable that the private prayers of preparation originally said in the sacristy, the apologiae, were later transferred to the altar.


The origin of the wording of the Confiteor can be traced to rites used originally in the sacrament of penance. Early penitentials (books of penances) give formulas that resemble the modern Confiteor. The Pentiential of Egbert (d. 766) Archbishop of York has the starting point of a Confiteor “Through my fault I have exceedingly in thought, speech and deed, sinned... I confess before God, almighty Creator of heaven and earth, before the altar of the saint, and the holy relics that are in this holy place, and before you, priest, that I have sinned exceedingly………”

The first record of the wording of a Confiteor occurring in the Mass is given in the ecclesiastical tract “Micrologus de ecclesiasticis observationibus” . It runs: I confess to God Almighty, these saints and all the saints and you, brothers, that I have sinned in thought, in speech, in deed, in pollution of mind and body. I beseech you, pray for me.

Both the Pentitential of Egbert and the Micrologus indicate that the invocation of saints seems to have originated due to the confession being made before their relics. This later evolved into a general invocation of all the saints and then of naming specific ones. The Confiteor continued to develop in the enumeration of sins, the persons confessed to and the persons invoked for their prayers - in the latter two categories, the Blessed Virgin Mary and the patron saint were the most likely choices. A missal of Augsburg in the 16th century gives an elaborate form mentioning sins in thought, speech, consent, sight, mouth, deed and omission and invoking saints Peter, Paul, Ullric (Udalric) Sebastian, Vitus, Mary Magdalene, Catherine, Barbara, and the patrons in the second half of the Confiteor.

The Third Council of Ravenna ordered that a version of the Confiteor identical to that of the Missal of St. Pius V be used; however, this form did not make its way into the Papal liturgy of Rome until later.

The Missal of Paul III gives a simple abbreviated version “I confess to Almighty God, Blessed Mary ever-Virgin, Blessed Peter and all the saints and you brethren, that I have sinned through my fault. I beseech you, pray for me.”

Another manuscript of a Curial Missal of the Vatican library gives a longer and more elaborate form “I confess to God Almighty and blessed Mary ever-Virgin and the blessed apostles Peter and Paul, St. Augustine, St. Jerome, and all the saints, and you Father, I have gravely sinned through pride: against the law of my God: by thought: by speech: omission, consent, word and deed : through my fault, my fault, my most grevious fault. Therefore I beseech the most blessed and glorious Virgin Mary: and all saints (masc.) and saints (fem.): and you Father, to pray for me.”

Almost all these Confiteors were superseded by the Roman Confiteor that appeared in all missals from 1570 to 1970. Minute variations (addition of a patron) were conceded to certain religious orders and dioceses. Those places with liturgies older than 200 years at the time (1570) continued to use their own versions of the Confiteor.


The Misereatur and Indulgentiam can be also traced to the Sacrament of Penance. Until 1970 when the rite was revised, they were prescribed in the Sacrament of Penance to be said by the priest before sacramental absolution was given. They could however, be omitted for a just cause.

In the Penitential of Egbert the Misereatur occurs as a benediction over the penitent, in a version extremely close to modern variants. “The almighty God have mercy on you, and forgive you all your sins, deliver you from all evil, keep you in all good, and bring you to eternal life.” Micrologus gives an almost identical form differing in saying “confirm you in all good works” and ending “and likewise bring us (through) Jesus Christ, Son of the Living God, toward life eternal” Similar wordings of the Egbert’s Misereatur can also be found in various mediaeval missals. The Sarum missal had “confirm and keep you…” while the 12th century liturgy at Cluny had “all good works” as did many French and German diocesan Uses. So also the Carmelite and the Dominican versions (see earlier post).

The Carthusian Misereatur showed an example of some mediaeval missals in adding “through the intercession of the Blessed Virgin Mary and all the saints”. In one mediaeval manuscript, this is greatly expanded as “Brothers and sisters, through the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ, through the aid of the sign of the holy cross, through the intercession of the blessed and glorious ever-Virgin Mary, and the merits of the blessed apostles Peter and Paul, Blessed Michael (the) archangel, blessed Martin, and all the saints (masc.) and saints (fem.) may the almighty God have mercy on you, forgive you all your sins and bring you (through) Jesus Christ, Son of God to eternal life.

In the liturgical books of the Roman Catholic Church, this elaborate formula only survived (with slight alterations) in the Misereatur used in the publication of indulgences. (see above) and the Urbi et Orbi blessing of the Pope.

The Indulgentiam does not show as much variation: a significant number of texts omit the word Indulgentiam (pardon) and begin instead with absolutionem (absolution). The Micrologus on the other hand has indulgentiam but omits absolutionem. Another common difference is the use of “the almighty Father, the compassionate and merciful God” instead of “the almighty and merciful God”

The most significant addition found in many mediaeval Uses is the invoking of assistance for an emended life and for the grace of the Holy Spirit. Thus the Sarum Use has “The almighty and merciful God grant you absolution and remission of your sins, space for true repentance and emendation of life, and the grace and consolation of the Holy Spirit” This was also found in the Mozarabic texts (see previous post).

Another version of the Indulgentiam runs “The Almighty and merciful God grant you absolution and remission of all your sins, through confession, contrition, penance and through satisfaction and emendation of life.

Traces of both are preserved in the text of the Indulgentiam of Pope’s Urbi et Orbi blessing which runs “May the Almighty and merciful God grant you pardon, absolution and remission of all your sins, space for a true and fruitful repentance, an ever penitent heart and emendation of life, the grace and consolation of the Holy Spirit, and final perseverance in good works

In all 3 prayers (the Confiteor, Misereatur and Indulgentiam) many variants have “all sins” instead of only “sins”. This wording was also present in the Roman Missal of 1570: however in later versions it was removed.

First published in October, 2007


CharlieQ said...

Another great post from Ritualist. I dont' favor the modern Rite but it is always helpful to see the contrast between all aspects of the Churches liturgy.

Doc Hannon said...

Nice one Rit! You always add something interesting to the mix. It's especially interesting to read something thorough from an impartial viewpoint.