Say “penitential” and most people think of sin and an “I’m not worthy” attitude. Yet, the Penitential Act isn’t really penitential in that way. The Penitential Act and the Kyrie are primarily confessions of faith. Having gathered together to become one body in Christ, we stand before God our Creator, acknowledging that God is God and we are not. Our confession of sin is first a confession of the awesome power and love of God through Christ. Only because we acknowledge and trust in God’s mercy are we able to acknowledge our faults and failings. Our “Lord, have mercy” is not a self-centered acclamation that calls attention to our unworthiness but rather is a joyful proclamation that points to the goodness of God who sent his Son to give us life. It shouts, “See how great is the Lord who is slow to anger and rich in compassion!”
The Greek words Kyrie eleison reflect this understanding of the Penitential Act. Literally meaning “Lord, have mercy”, it is a confession of faith in Christ in the same way that the blind men and the Canaanite woman in Matthew’s Gospel (9:27 and 15:22) or the blind beggar, Bartimaeus, in Mark’s (10:46-47) professed their faith in Jesus who they knew could heal them. When we say “Lord, have mercy,” we are first professing that Jesus is the risen Lord, the Christ who saves us. Praise is our starting point as we stand humbly, acknowledging our complete dependence on Christ.
Because the Penitential Act is a proclamation of praise and because it takes place within the Introductory Rites that has the purpose of uniting the members into a gathered assembly, all should participate in it. The General Instruction of the Roman Missal says that this rite is useful in “expressing and fostering the faithful’s active participation” (GIRM, 36). Though musical settings can be led by a cantor and enhanced by the choir, they should be simple enough for the entire assembly to sing. Music in Catholic Worship reminds us too that this is a secondary rite and should not overshadow the primary actions in the Introductory Rites of entrance song and opening prayer nor the more important Liturgy of the Word. Thus, musical settings should be “brief and simple” (MCW, 65). Based on the liturgical season or particular celebration of the day, select from the three forms (A – Confiteor, B – short dialogue, C – longer tropes with “Lord, have mercy” or “Kyrie eleison”), but don’t assume that these need to be sung every time. It may be more appropriate to sing form C during Lent and Advent, speak form A during winter ordinary time, speak the lesser-known form B during summer ordinary time, and omit the rite altogether during the Easter and Christmas seasons and replace it with the Sprinkling Rite.