EFORE THE REIGN of Pope St. Pius X, congregations often did not receive Holy Communion at Mass. This sounds foreign to us in the year 2016. 1 Indeed, the Missal said nothing about the congregation receiving Holy Communion. Nor did the Missal tell the priest to turn and say “Domine, non sum dignus” three times. (These were adapted from the RITUALE: “Rite for Administering Holy Communion Outside of Mass.”)
Don’t take my word for it: examine a London Missal from 1806AD, or peruse what the Liber Usualis says. Moreover, the official 1962 MISSALE ROMANUM contains absolutely nothing about the priest turning around to say “Ecce Agnus Dei”—even though that’s something we normally associate with the Traditional Latin Mass. 2 This is noteworthy in light of the massive changes made just three years later for the 1965 Missal.
Author’s Note: As with all my articles, what’s presented below is not meant to be the “final word” on this subject. Rather, it is provided for your consideration.
UPDATE (2 September 2019) : I was wrong and foolish; I should have mentioned what the “Ritus Servandus” says about the priest distributing Holy Communion—and it has said the same thing for many centuries. For example, look at this 1842 edition. Sorry!
More here about my error. Basically, the Missals assumed nobody would receive Holy Communion except the priest…
IT SHOULD BE OBVIOUS, THEN, that anyone writing about the CONFITEOR before Communion should avoid statements like “this Confiteor is not found in the 1962 Missal” because nothing was there to begin with—including Ecce Agnus Dei—as I’ve already demonstrated. To understand what’s going on, we have to look at the 1961 code of rubrics.
On 25 July 1960, Pope St. John XXIII issued new rubrics which would go into effect on 1 January 1961. Feel free to examine Rubricarum Instructum, where this is clearly stated. The 1961 code of rubrics governs anyone saying the Extraordinary Form and made numerous changes—especially to feast classification. Number 503 of that document says:
503. Quoties sancta Communio infra Missam distributur, celebrans, sumpto sacratissimo Sanguine, omissis confessione et absolutione, dictis tamen Ecce Agnus Dei et ter Dómine, non sum dignus, immediate ad distribtionem sanctæ Eucharistiæ procedit.
In English, translated by Most Rev’d Patrick Murphy (1960):
503. Whenever Holy Communion is distributed during Mass, the celebrant, after receiving the Precious Blood, and the Confiteor and absolution having been omitted, says three times Ecce Agnus Dei and three times Domine non sum dignus, then proceeds immediately to distribute the Holy Eucharist.
Since the 1990s, I’ve served Mass for many priests from all over the world, but I have yet to attend a single EF Mass omitting the Pre-Communion Confiteor.
I’ve been given various explanations for this. Here are six:
(1) Blessing No Big Deal : Many priests give a blessing to folks who approach the Communion rail but do not receive. A blessing is also frequently given to babies at Holy Communion. It’s difficult to understand why people who “rail against” (pardon the pun!) the Pre-Communion Confiteor never complain about those additional blessings. After all, the only addition made by the priest is a blessing & absolution. [The actions by servers & congregation—at least for Low Mass—have never been legislated. Indeed, people often said prayers and sang hymns during Low Mass.]
(2) Letter from “Ecclesia Dei” Commission : Some claim the Pontifical Commission “Ecclesia Dei” issued a letter allowing the Pre-Communion Confiteor to be kept wherever it’s customary. I have never seen this letter, but perhaps a reader can provide it? Such a letter would not surprise me, considering some of the bizarre rulings (often contradictory) from the commission during the 1990s. The 2016 FSSP Liturgical Ordo says the Pre-Communion Confiteor was “suppressed” but is tolerated “where it is currently established practice.”
* UPDATE: The CMAA forum just posted a message from Poland claiming that “Ecclesia Dei” Commission gave permission for the Confiteor before Communion, but can anyone provide a scanned copy of the actual letter? We will gladly post it online.
(3) The Role of Custom : Catholic priests have always relied on a living tradition rather than rigid adherence to the written law. If you examine Fr. Weller’s 1948 Rituale, you will observe the truth of what I say. Fr. Fortescue says the same thing when he talks about “obsolete” rubrics such as wearing a surplice under a chasuble, covering books with silk, or altar servers wearing lay clothes. The white Communion cloth, which I’m told is required by the rubrics, is another good example.
(4) Omitted Not Forbidden : The 1961 code says the Pre-Communion Confiteor is omitted, not forbidden. Some view this as basically saying to priests: “This Rite was brought in from the ceremony for giving Holy Communion outside of Mass. From now on, it is not obligatory to say the Confiteor, which is prayed twice at the beginning of Mass.” The Pre-Communion Confiteor is helpful, since it reminds us how unworthy we are of such a gift. Throughout history, whether some realize this or not, small additions have been made in different countries, such as the Pre-Gospel hymn mentioned by Professor László Dobszay.
(5) 1962 Instances of Retention : Something adding weight to the “not forbidden” argument—where the intent of the lawgiver is questioned—is the 1962 PONTIFICALE ROMANUM, which retains the Confiteor before Communion. Furthermore, the official 1962 MISSALE ROMANUM specifically mandates the Pre-Communion Confiteor on Good Friday.
(6) USCCB Permission : Finally, the USCCB issued a statement on 20 November 2012 saying that anything done for the liturgy—even if the bishop doesn’t know about it—is automatically approved unless the local bishop personally puts a stop to it. They call this “tacit” approval. Such a statement sounds bizarre, so Daniel Craig sent more than 100 letters to the USCCB, asking for clarification. Astoundingly, the USCCB would not back away from that 20 November statement. Therefore, according to the USCCB, the local bishop “approves” the Pre-Communion Confiteor wherever he has not specifically forbidden it. [Would a local bishop’s permission matter? It can’t hurt, right?]
I recently had a conversation with an M.C. at the FSSP seminary in Lincoln, Nebraska. He told me the Confiteor before Communion is never done there (at least for Low Mass).
MY PERSONAL OPINION is that uniformity regarding the CONFITEOR before Communion would be desirable. Specifically, to have everyone follow the FSSP seminary praxis would be praiseworthy since it would eliminate the need to ask before each Mass, “Father, do you want the Confiteor before Communion?”
I suppose someone could write to the “Eccelsia Dei” Commission about this topic, but their response would likely be as follows:
The Church is in crisis, yet you write today about an incredibly peripheral issue. Say your prayers each day, obey the commandments, undertake the spiritual & corporal works of mercy, and never again concern yourself with this issue.
For the record, regardless of my personal opinion, I always do whatever the priest asks me when I serve Mass.
* PDF Download • The Vatican Responds
—Letter from the Pontifical Commission Ecclesia Dei (18 September 2018).
NOTES FROM THIS ARTICLE:
1 We often encounter rubrics in the old books which begin, “In those Masses where people besides the priest will receive Holy Communion…” Not everything was written down because the liturgy was something LIVING. To my knowledge the old books say nothing about kneeling for Holy Communion—but everyone knew how things were done.
2 When I was being trained to serve Mass, nobody could agree where we should kneel for what they called the “Second Confiteor” (a.k.a. “Third Confiteor”). Having read this article, you’ll understand why. The same is true for whether the Subdeacon & Deacon kneel or stand at the Ecce Agnus Dei. In my view, so long as things are done with proper decorum, such minor details don’t amount to much.