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Choirs and the Penitential Act

Extract from a Liturgy Seminar to Choirs at Small Mankon

Posted on March 28, 2019 By Fada Herbert in Liturgy & Music

After the Sign of the Cross and the opening greeting, the Priest calls upon the whole community to take part in the Penitential Act (“...Let us acknowledge our sins”). After this there is a brief pause for silence, then general confession (I confess to Almighty God), and the absolution (May almighty God...).
GIRM, n.51.
After this, the Kyrie Eleison is taken, except it was already a part of the Penitential Act. GIRM, 52. So if the Mass to be sung contains the triple invocation (trophe): “You were sent to heal the contrite of heart” or its (approved) alternatives, then after the Celebrant invites all to acknowledge their sins and a brief silence has been kept, then the choir should begin the Kyrie. That way, at the end, the celebrant will pronounce the absolution (May almighty God...), before proceeding to the Glory or Collect.
A few points to take note of:

1. It its origin, the Kyrie Eleison, was a tribute of praise offered to Kings, but at the same time a request to say “Spare us, or have mercy, Lord”. These Greek words were brought into the Roman Liturgy, without translating them, and applied to our Lord Jesus, who is seen as Lord of lords. So in essence, this hymn is Christ-centred, even when it says, Lord have mercy, Christ have mercy and Lord have mercy. It does not refer to the three persons of the Holy Trinity. That is the mistake made by “Mass in honour of God’s will”, whose Kyrie says God our Father...Jesus...)

2. In connection with the above point, it should be noted that although the recitation or singing of the “Kyrie Eleison” with its verses replaces the Confiteor (I confess), the Kyrie should not be composed using the words of the Confiteor. Such is the mistake made by the Mass of Our Lady (|d:-m:f|s: -:-:-) whose verses said: we have sinned by words and deeds, we have sinned by ommission etc. This has been corrected in the revised (2013) version of the Aquinas Hymnal.

3. Since the Kyrie is a chant by which the faithful acclaim the Lord and implore his mercy, it is usually executed by everyone, that is to say, with the people and the choir or cantor taking part in it. (GIRM no. 52) From this perspective, it is improper for the choir to use a setting whose composition makes it out of reach of the congregation, perhaps due to its compositional technique (eg. Mozart’s Mass in B-minor), or perhaps its language (eg. Singing a Gabonese composition within a Mass in Mankon/Limbe deanery!)

4. The pattern of the Kyrie is invocation first, then petition; eg. You were sent to heal the Contrite, before Lord have mercy! This means, our Lord is addressed in a certain capacity, before a petition is made. This is consistent with the general pattern of Catholic Prayer, as found in the Our Father/Hail Mary, namely: praise before petition. Early compositions mostly followed this pattern, such as: Cardinal’s Mass, (Lord, you have shown us the way: |m:-:-|-:r:d|r:d: l.d|---)
MCCA Mass, (You were sent, O Lord to heal the contrite heart: |d.d d.s,:d-.d|r.r:d.t:d-
Messe du Cenacle (Qui missus es sanares contritos corde : .m| s :m s| m.s :-.m
But in the recent past, many composers begin with the petition, sing 2x, then invocation, then petition again used as refrain etc. Not only does this, in a way put the cart before the horse, but it also leads to an overall lengthening of the Kyrie, which in fact is a 3 sentence prayer!

5. Traditionally, the Mass of the Dead uses a triple repetition of this Kyrie, making it a nine-fold petition (Kyrie 3x, Christ 3x, then Kyrie 3x). This is consistent with the character of Requiem/Funeral Masses, which implores God’s special mercy in judging the faithful departed, whose fate is known to him alone. (Roman Missal, Eucharistic Prayer). From this perspective, it would seem that one does not satisfy the character of the Mass of the Dead by simply singing any Latin composition, simply because it is solemn! It is also an aberration to transform the Kyrie of a Latin Mass (such as the plainchant Missa di Angelis) into a Requiem Mass by multiplying the singing of the Kyrie and Christe Eleison. It leads to several instances of musical anticlimax and destroys the sense of finality (cadence) that ends each line of that composition. It goes without saying that an English setting composed with the spirit of the Mass of the Dead, would do more service, than perhaps using a composition like Gervais Mendoze’s Messe du Cenacle, whose rhythm is more festive than would be required at a funeral.
Is it any surprise that the “miserere nobis” found at the end of the first two lines of the “Lamb of God”, are changed into “Dona eis requiem” (grant them eternal rest) during funeral masses? Please, MD’s the dead also have rights in the Church, and part of that involves telling them farewell with the official (and appropriate) prayers of the Church. Even if a family (or the deceased himself) requests “joyful” songs at their funeral, let those wishes be implemented within the spirit of the Liturgy itself. Even funerals are moments of catechesis!

6. Whenever there is some other rite within the Mass that “takes the place” of the Penitential rite, then it is “omitted”. Thus, the penitential rite is:
“replaced by”:
The blessing and solemn procession of palms on Palm Sunday,
The imposition of ashes on Ash Wednesday,
The triple denial of Satan (exorcism) during baptismal liturgies, and Easter Vigil;
It is also omitted:
When the Liturgy of the Hours is celebrated within Holy Mass,
During the celebration of Holy Matrimony Cf. Ordo Celebrandi Matrimonium, no 53.

7. From time to time on Sundays, especially in Easter Time, instead of the customary Penitential Act, the blessing and sprinkling of water may take place as a reminder of Baptism. (GIRM, no. 51).

8. The following are 8 additional formulas for the Penitential Act, taken from the 2011 English Translation of the Roman Missal Approved for Use by the Episcopal Conferences of England and Wales. They are variations of the 1st formulas given in the Roman/Pauline Editions of the same Missal, and are acceptable for use in musical compositions of the Common of the Mass.

I) Lord Jesus, you came to gather the nations into the peace of God’s Kingdom: Lord have mercy.
Lord Jesus, you come in word and sacrament to strengthen us in holiness: Christ, have mercy.
Lord Jesus, you will come in glory with salvation for your people: Lord, have mercy.

II) Lord Jesus, you are mighty God and Prince of Peace: Lord have mercy.
Lord Jesus, you are Son of God and Son of Mary: Christ, have mercy.
Lord Jesus, you are Word made flesh and splendour of the Father: Lord, have mercy.

III) Lord Jesus, you came to reconcile us to one another and to the Father: Lord, have mercy.
Lord Jesus, you heal the wounds of sin and division: Christ, have mercy.
Lord Jesus, you intercede for us with you Father: Lord, have mercy.

V) Lord Jesus, you raise the dead to life in the Spirit: Lord, have mercy.
Lord Jesus, you bring pardon and peace to the sinner: Christ, have mercy.
Lord Jesus, you bring light to those in darkness: Lord, have mercy.

VI) Lord Jesus, you raise us to new life: Lord, have mercy.
Lord Jesus, you forgive us our sins: Christ, have mercy.
Lord Jesus, you feed us with your Body and Blood: Lord, have mercy.

VI) Lord Jesus, you have shown us the way to the Father: Lord, have mercy.
Lord Jesus, you have given us the consolation of the truth: Christ, have mercy.
Lord Jesus, you are the Good Shepherd, leading us into everlasting life: Lord, have mercy.

VIII) Lord Jesus, you healed the sick: Lord, have mercy.
Lord Jesus, you forgave sinners: Christ, have mercy.
Lord Jesus, you gave yourself to heal us and bring us strength: Lord, have mercy.

NB: A full version of this paper (which contains information about the other sung parts of the Mass – Gloria, Offertory, Communion etc, in line with the liturgical seasons) will be published later. This extract is presented here to spark discussions, and also to update this content before publication. GIRM refers to The General Instruction to the Roman Missal, 2011 version.

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Fada Herbert is a Roman Catholic priest of the Diocese of Buea. He is equally an author, songwriter and has written several articles in the areas of Philosophy, fiction, Religion and Society Follow him on Facebook, twitter and visit his website at

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