A ZENIT DAILY DISPATCH
"Brothers" or "Sisters"

ROME, 10 JAN. 2012 (ZENIT)
Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum university.

Q1: During the celebration of the Eucharist, when the Confiteor is said, I have been observing in formation houses and religious communities that if the congregation consists only of males they say, "I confess ..., and to you my brothers," and if females only they say, "I confess ..., and to you my sisters." Is this practice correct? — T. P. Shillong, India

Q2: At Mass, at the penitential rite, I have seen priests, when saying, "May Almighty God have mercy … ever-lasting life" raise their hands as a kind of blessing or absolution. Is that proper? — A.P., Margate, Florida

A: The first question involves the particularities of the English language. In many languages, the masculine form does double duty and can refer to just males or to a mixed group. Thus, for example, in Latin, Spanish and Italian it is only necessary to use the equivalent of "brothers" to refer to the whole assembly.

In English "brethren" can serve this purpose and in fact may be used to introduce the penitential rite. However, perhaps for stylistic reasons, it was not included as part of the "I confess." Thus in the English translation we say "brothers and sisters."

Some contextual adaptation is foreseen in the rubrics, when Mass is celebrated with only one acolyte. In this case priest and acolyte say "to you my brother" in the singular. Therefore, I think it is theoretically possible for a male community to use simply "brothers" when no women are present.

Another question is whether it is pastorally advisable to do so given that liturgical expressions are habit-forming. If, on some occasion, there are men or women from outside the community present at the celebration, then the change could easily lead to confusion.

The case is different for a female community because at Mass at least one brother will always be present, the celebrating priest. Therefore the standard formula should be used. Nor, as a general rule, should the priest change the gender of the liturgical greetings if celebrating for a women's community.

With regards to the second question, the General Instruction of the Roman Missal, No. 51, reminds us: "Then the priest invites those present to take part in the Act of Penitence, which, after a brief pause for silence, the entire community carries out through a formula of general confession. The rite concludes with the priest's absolution, which, however, lacks the efficacy of the Sacrament of Penance."

No gesture is prescribed in the rubrics, and it is presumed that the priest will remain with hands joined. Any gesture which might imply that the words grant absolution should be avoided so as not to confuse the faithful.

* * *

Follow-up: "Brothers" or "Sisters" [1-24-2012]

In the wake of our Jan. 10 response on the Confiteor, a reader inquired: "In today's answers to question about the forgiveness of sins at Mass, you state from the Roman Missal: '. . . the priest invites those present to take part in the Act of Penitence, which, after a brief pause for silence, the entire community carries out through a formula of general confession. The rite concludes with the priest's absolution, which, however, lacks the efficacy of the Sacrament of Penance.' How do you reconcile that with the following teaching of the Council of Trent? Trent in its consideration of the Mass as a propitiatory sacrifice had declared (where I have added the emphasis): '. . . through the Mass we may obtain mercy and find grace to help in time of need (see Hebrews 4:16). For by this oblation the Lord is appeased, he grants grace and the gift of repentance, and he pardons wrongdoings and sins, even grave ones….'"

There is no contradiction here. The rubric states that the priest's absolution during the rite of penance is not a sacramental absolution. In other words, it is not the same as the absolution granted in the sacrament of penance. If it were so, there would be almost no need to go to confession at all.

The conciliar doctrine parts from a different level entirely. It is speaking of the Mass as a propitiatory sacrifice insofar as it is the un-bloody re-enactment of Christ's unique sacrifice on Calvary, and hence it has the same infinite effects as this sacrifice among which is to obtain the forgiveness of sins. 

The forgiveness of sins is thus a fruit of the Mass because it is a fruit of the sacrifice of Calvary. This does not mean that each concrete individual who attends Mass is forgiven because in this case the application of the fruit of Christ's sacrifice also depends on the use of the sacrament of penance. A person who attends Mass with the proper dispositions will certainly receive forgiveness for venial sins. The Council of Trent does not say that someone in mortal sin obtains forgiveness by attending Mass but supposes that Mass may obtain the necessary grace to move the person to avail himself of the ordinary means of obtaining absolution.

As illustrated in Ludwig Ott's classical dogmatic manual: "The sacrifice of the Mass does not produce the forgiveness of sins immediately, as is the case of the sacraments of Baptism and penance, but only in a mediate way by granting the grace of repentance" (Eucharist 26,2a).

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