“…I have sinned through my own fault, in my thoughts and in my words, in what I have done, and in what I have failed to do…”
My gaze lowers every time the Penitential Rite begins at Mass. I wish this was a gesture of reverence. It’s actually an act of embarrassment: Despite growing up in the Church, I don’t know the words to this prayer—this prayer that many recite every Sunday at Mass! I’ve simply never belonged to a community that regularly recites it in the Mass, so I never learned it. I’m an employed Catholic minister, though, and a theology student, so naturally I’m a little humbled, even embarrassed, by my lack of the fundamentals here.
One blessing of the Rite’s unfamiliarity is that I am compelled to actually pay attention to its words rather than unthinkingly delivering them like many habitual prayers at Mass. Every time I hear it I listen closely, trying to memorize it as I stare at the floor and pretend to lip synch the words (watermelon, watermelon, watermelon…). There is one early line I never miss. I actually say the words out loud because I never forget them: “I have sinned…in what I have failed to do.”
Originally, I think I took a liking to this line because it startled me. In a prayer of confession I expected remorse for misdeeds and wrongdoings—that’s the way we usually think and talk about sin. Why, then, should one take responsibility and express remorse for something he/she didn’t do—for what one had failed to do?
In recent years, however, these words stick out to me because they have become a personal challenge. When people ask me about why I am a Christian, I often talk about the radical love Jesus espoused and lived out. Yet even as I passionately attest to Christ’s inspiring life, I realize time and time again how often I fail to exemplify—or even intentionally strive for—the radical love I find in the gospel message. This line in the Penitential Rite reminds me that I am not living out the fullness of my calling as a Christian if I am not striving for a wildly loving existence. I fail to do this all the time.
I’ve come to think of this “failing to do” as the “good person’s sin.” We “good people” often think about all the faults we don’t possess, all the “really bad” sins we don’t commit (stealing, killing, adultery, etc.). We can easily pat ourselves on the back on move on, contentedly, with life. The Penitential Rite startles me out of this mentality though. It reminds me that I need mercy for all those times when I fail to love as Christ loved. Jesus asked for more than good. Jesus asked for something radical.
Jessica Coblentz graduated from Santa Clara University in 2008. She currently resides in Seattle where she is enjoying the summer months and preparing for graduate studies at Harvard Divinity School in the fall. Follow her writing on the Web at www.jessicacoblentz.blogspot.com.