Wednesday, February 28, 2024

'Through my fault..My Most Grievous Fault' -Breast Striking

Let's explore the striking of the breast during the penitential rite of the Mass and the significance behind it. We will also focus on how it can help during Lent. 

The Striking of the Breast: A Liturgical Act

The practice of striking one's breast during specific moments in the Mass is a liturgical act prescribed in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. It occurs at several points both as required by the rubric and in other places as local custom:

1. During the Confiteor: When we say, "Through my fault," we strike our breast three times.

The name "Confiteor" comes from the Latin word meaning "I confess." This prayer is an essential preparation for our participation in the Mass. While Catholics have the Sacrament of Reconciliation for mortal sins and venial sins, the Confiteor allows us to express contrition for our venial sins before receiving the Eucharist. 

Striking of the Breast: When reciting the Confiteor, we say, "Through my fault, through my fault, through my most grievous fault." At each mention of "through my fault," we strike our breast with our right hand each time we say fault (3). This gesture signifies sincere sorrow and admission of sinfulness.

2. At the Nobis Quoque Peccatoribus: Again, we strike our breast once.

This action though required by priests and concelebrants when using the Roman Canon is sometimes done by other lay people out of local custom.

3. At the Agnus Dei: We repeat this action three times.

Again, this may be done under local custom.

4. At the Domine, Non-Sum Dignus: Once more, we strike our breasts three times.

Also done by local custom or by religious orders such as the Franciscans or Carmelites. 

The celebrant (usually a priest) performs this action with a bowed head, moderately and without noise. The rubrics are silent on whether to use curved or fully extended fingers, but after the consecration, only the last three fingers should touch the breast (since the thumb and index finger must not come in contact with the chasuble).

These externals help us to pray physically. The Catholic liturgy is unique in that manner. We pray using not only our minds, and hearts, via words, semantically, with our lips, and voices, but also our bodies.  It conveys that our entire being is worshiping God and acting in totality to please God and ask for forgiveness.  

Jesus said to love God with our entire being (Matthew 22:37, Luke 10:27, Mark 12:28–31), so the Mass literally brings us all to do this.  Moreover, in the Bible numbers have meanings. This is called the Gematria.  The number 3 represents fullness, harmony, or completion.  We ask God for complete forgiveness and ask to be in harmony with the Blessed Trinity. 

We strike our breasts three times during the Confiteor not only because the word "fault" is said three times, but also in reparation for Simon Peter's denial of Christ (Luke 22:55–62; Matthew 26:69–75; Mark 14:66–72). God is Three Divine Persons in One God, so when we sin we offend all Three Persons. In light of this, we strike our breast three times to make reparation for the sins against the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as well.  

Biblical Roots and Symbolism

1. Biblical Repetition: The Catholic Mass is thoroughly biblical. In Hebrew, there is no way to express superlatives or emphasis by adding endings to words (such as "big, bigger, biggest"). Instead, repetition conveys emphasis. For example:

   - Isaiah's vision of angels crying out "Holy, Holy, Holy!" (which we repeat at every Mass).

   - Peter's threefold denial of Jesus.

   - Jesus asking Peter "do you love me?" three times (John 21).

Striking one's breast has biblical roots. In Jeremiah 31:19 (Old Testament), we find, "I turn in repentance; I have come to myself, I strike my breast; I blush with shame, I bear the disgrace of my youth." In Luke 18:13 (New Testament), Jesus tells the parable of the tax collector who stood afar off, beat his breast, and prayed for God's mercy. So we see the biblical roots and significance of striking one's breast out of repentance. 

2. Emphasizing Our Faults: By returning to a threefold admission of our fault ("through my fault"), we emphasize that sin is not casual or inconsequential. It is grievous because God has given us everything, even sacrificing His only Son for us. Our love for God should be wholehearted.

3. Contrition and Change: When we fail to love God fully—whether through neglecting our duty or hurting others—we need contrition. Contrition leads not to despair but to change.

Early Christian Practice

The early Christians were familiar with striking their breasts during specific moments:

- When sensual sins were mentioned.

- At "Forgive us our trespasses" in the Pater Noster.

- In detestation of the crime of the Jews (in Jesus' time) when they said to Christ, "Thou hast a devil."

St. Augustine explained that striking our breasts reveals what is concealed in our hearts and helps cleanse hidden sins. St. Jerome also affirmed this practice as a way to purify our hearts. Augustine writes:

What is repentance, after all, but being angry with oneself? What’s the idea of beating your breast if you aren’t just pretending? Why beat it if you aren’t angry with it? So when you beat your breast you are being angry with your heart in order to make amends to your Lord. This is also how we can understand the text “Be angry and do not sin.” Be angry because you have sinned, and by punishing yourself to stop sinning. Give your heart a shaking by repentance, and this will be a sacrifice to God.

– St Augustine, 5th century: SERMON 19,2

St. Augustine noted that when we hear the word "Confiteor," we strike our breast to bring hidden sins to light and purify our hearts. We show that we are blaming ourselves for the sins against God and our neighbor. It points with our hands or fists to where they originate, the inner being, the heart.  It is "our fault," no one else's.  We sinned, no one else sinned for us or on our behalf.  We take full responsibility (remember: 3 means completion in the Bible gematria) for our sins so we strike 3 times. 

So when you strike your breast during Mass, remember that it symbolizes repentance and emphasizes that sin is serious—a matter deserving of contrition and change. This practice is a sign of penance and humility—a way to prepare our hearts before receiving Christ in the Eucharist.

Remember this during Lent and all throughout the year. These actions at Mass are not vain empty actions the Church added to embellish the Liturgy. No! They are physical actions that convey a deeper meaning a deeper action in regards to repenting, accepting responsibility for our sins, and asking God to forgive us and Our Lady, the saints, angels, and everyone else to pray for us to the Lord our God. These actions can help us immensely during this Lent and throughout the year as we focus on Jesus and His Resurrection on Easter Sunday. 

What do you think? Post your comments below on Disqus.  Be sure to follow the rules so your comment can be allowed to be posted.  


- [Catholic Answers Encyclopedia]

St. Augustine of Hippo, SERMON 19,2

Roman Missal -GIRM

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