The first part of this prayer is an act of confession of personal sin to God, in the midst of the whole assembly.
Ps 51:5-6; Lk 15:18; 1 Jn 1:9I confess to almighty GodAlthough it is said by all the congregation together, it is a personal prayer. The Confiteor is one of only three places in the Mass where we pray in the first-personal singular (I) rather than the first-person plural (we). We confess our sins not only to God but to all those present. Even though we are not naming our sins to those around us, we are admitting our guilt to them.
Jas 5:16and to you, my brothers and sisters,
2 Sm 24:10that I have greatly sinned
Wis 1:3; Jas 3:8-10in my thoughts and in my words,
Rom 7:15-20; Jas 4:17in what I have done and in what I have failed to do,
We confess that our sins are of thought and word, of omission and commission. Jesus never had an evil thought, never spoke an evil word (not even when He was chastising the Pharisees for their blindness), never did anything wrong, and never failed to do the right thing. It is a tough act to follow, but with the grace of God – which comes to us especially through frequent sacramental Confession and reception of Holy Communion – we can be built up “to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ.” (Eph 4:13)
The first half of the Confiteor ends with an admission of personal guilt for our sins. As we say these words, we strike our breast three times in a sign of penitence:
Sir 20:2bthrough my fault, through my fault,The repetition of this admission of guilt adds to its severity. We do not say “The devil made me do it, the devil made me do it, you can bet the devil made me do it,” but accuse only ourselves for our sins. We beat our breast with a closed fist, in a gesture of heart-felt contrition, like the tax collector who prayed from his heart, “God, be merciful to me a sinner!” (Lk 18:13)
through my most grievous fault;
In the second half of the prayer, we invoke the communion of saints as we ask for the prayers of the whole Church:
Jn 19:26-27; Jas 5:16therefore I ask blessed Mary ever-Virgin,In Hebrews 11, we are given a tour of God’s Hall of Fame, a list of men and women who, by their faith in God, “received divine approval.” The list includes Abel, Noah, Abram, Sarah, Joseph, Moses, and Rahab. At the end of the list, we read:
Heb 12:1,22-24; Rev 5:8; 8:3-4all the Angels and Saints,
1 Th 5:25; 1 Jn 5:16and you, my brothers and sisters,
1 Sm 12:23; Bar 1:13to pray for me to the Lord our God.
Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God. (Heb 12:1-2)We learn something very encouraging from this passage: the saints in Heaven are witnesses to our lives on earth, witnesses who cheer us on and pray for us. The prayers of the saints and angels in Heaven are of great worth to us: the saints have been perfected (Rev 7:14) and their prayers are powerful (Jas 5:16); the angels rejoice greatly when a sinner repents. (Lk 15:7)
We do not only ask the saints in Heaven for their prayers; we also ask sinners on earth for their prayers. The next time you say these words at Mass, take a moment to look at the people around you: you are asking these people, sinners though they are, to pray to God for you, a sinner. And they are asking you to do the same — are you praying for them?