Jul 11, 2011
One of the phrases in Latin from the old liturgy that survived in literary writing, at least, was “mea culpa,” which means “my fault.” In the old Confiteor, this was said three times: “Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa. This declaration of guilt was accompanied by the movement of hitting the breast with the right fist. The gesture communicated acknowledgment of guilt and symbolic penance.
Somehow the intensive triplication of: “my fault, my fault, my most grievous fault” got lost in the new translation. This was I suppose, because the criteria that the translators used saw the repetition unnecessary. Hebrew uses the triple repetition as a superlative, as in “Holy, Holy, Holy,” but English does not.
So instead of the triple breast beating and the repetition of guilt, there was the laconic, “that I have sinned through my own fault.” The fact that most Catholics forgot to raise fist to chest when this was said, despite the rubrics explicitly asking for the gesture, says it all for me. The repetition helped.
People who forget to do the gesture leave something important out of the choreography of the liturgy. The beating of the breast is an outward sign of inward contrition. The pain on the inside is mimicked by that of the outside. The gesture is not one common in our culture, although we use the words “breast-beating” in certain contexts.