PCED clarification on the Confiteor before Communion within the Mass

Earlier this year, this Choir sent a dubium to the Pontifical Commission Ecclesia Dei, requesting clarification on the practice of saying the Confiteor before the distribution of Holy Communion during Mass, here onwards referred to as the practice, citing two previous diverging rescripts, one issued on 4 July 2007, and another on 20 November 2010.

The chanting of the Confiteor before Communion in the Pontifical Mass celebrated by Msgr. Wolfgang Haas, archbishop of Vaduz in Lichtenstein, on 8 May 2018, in the parish church of Gestratz, during which he ordained six FSSP seminarians into the diaconate (image from FSSP Wigratzbad).

We now share the response, dated 18 September 2018 (click on the thumbnail to the right to open the file), that we received. The PCED clarifies that, while the practice is foreseen only in specific circumstances in 1962, where it currently exists, it can be continued. The wording of this clarification is the same as the one later used in number 2 of another response dated 14 November 2018.

Let us now examine the salient points of this clarification, and their repercussions. First, what are the instances the practice is foreseen? At the top of the list is the instance occurring in the fourth part of the solemn afternoon Liturgical Action on Good Friday, where the rubrics specifically say that the deacon makes the confession, i. e., says the Confiteor [1]. The other instance happens during the ordination of deacons and subdeacons, each one of which, after the communion of the ordaining bishop, says the Confiteor, reciting it when in absque cantu cases, and chanting it when the ceremony is in cantu [2]. When priests are also ordained, they do not say the Confiteor because they concelebrate with the bishop [3]. By far, these are the two instances wherein the Confiteor before Communion within the Mass is explicitly retained.

Second point: the PCED states the status quo; that is, except in certain cases, the liturgical books of 1962 do not foresee the recitation or chanting of the Confiteor prior to the distribution of Holy Communion within Mass. The effect of this descriptive part of the clarification is the same as the one in a previous clarification we received concerning the so-called Pontifical ‘Sung’ Mass. The difference between the two clarifications is the fact that this one carries a facultative clause: The PCED allows the continuation of the practice in places where the custom exists.

Which brings us to the third point: the interplay between custom vis-à-vis practice, and place. Custom, if we look at canon law, is a practice hallowed by continuous usage of at least thirty years. The Traditional communities in the Philippines, numerous and pocketed may they be, have existed, on the whole, for more than that number of years. And while we cannot yet find any conclusive evidence that the in-Mass pre-Communion Confiteor has been practiced continuously for thirty years, we are yet to discover any record of an entire Traditional community, apart from selected individuals who champion its discontinuation, that cold-turkey abandoned said practice for a substantial amount of time, say, at least one year. Presumption favours the former, and ei incumbit probatio qui dicit, non qui negat.

Absent proof of substantial disruption, the next contention arises from the word place, which is indeterminate enough to be construed as a barangay, a city, or an island. Opponents of the practice will probably exploit this to hinder its spread. Imagine a new community celebrating its first Mass in the Vetus Ordo. Somebody then volunteers to assist the members, but insists on leaving out the in-Mass pre-Communion Confiteor because, technically, the practice does not yet exist in said community. If nothing exists yet, what is there to continue, right?

Our approach to this question hinges on our collective experience. Traditional communities in the Philippines are formed by extraterritorial (no, not extraterrestrial) parishioners, to which defined geographic boundaries do not strictly apply. This urges us to understand place not in terms of a defined civil or canonical unit, but rather as the country in whole. That said, any new community, formed by individuals, who previously frequented Masses that use the practice, can claim inheritance by reason of a common and shared patrimony.

This brings us to final point. What happens then to the previous clarifications urging discontinuation of the practice? First, as this touches on a matter of discipline, Roman attitude to it is expected to develop. A prime example of a similar attitudinal development from the past is the opinion of the Roman Academy of Liturgy arguing favourably for the use of cerulean on the feasts of Our Lady of Lourdes and of the Miraculous Medal [4], an opinion later definitively overturned by a rescript from the Sacred Congregation of Rites [5].

Second, law has both its letter and its spirit. In this clarification, the PCED describes, and not enforces, the prescriptions of the law, a law that exists, not per se, but as a consequence of a rubrical omission. The PCED, instead of annexing a prescriptive clause to eliminate the practice (in order to uphold the proverbial letter of the law), closes its statement with a facultative one. It is not forcing any community to accept the practice; rather, it allows communities that employ said practice to keep it.

[1] Feria VI in Passione et Morte Domini, 31: Missale Romanum (Rome 1962) p. 181.
[2] De ordinatione presbyterorum, 172, par. 1: Pontificale Romanum, vol. I (Rome 1961) p. 55.
[3] Loc. cit., 175: ibid., p. 56.
[4] Roman Academy of Liturgy, Solution to liturgical dubia, at 10, Dubium concerning the extension of some privilege, Note on the response: EL 10 (1896) 498–499.
[5] Sacred Congregation of Rites, Dubium concerning to what extent the apostolic indult for the Spanish Realm to use sacred vestments of the cerulean colour, etc. (15 February 1902): ASS 34 (1901–02) 553–555.