The Value of “Rote” Prayer

Tim O'MalleyTimothy P. O’Malley, Ph.D.

Director, Notre Dame Center for Liturgy

Editor, Oblation:  Catechesis, Liturgy, and the New Evangelization

Editor, Church Life:  A Journal for the New Evangelization

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Once our son was able to hold his head up, my wife and I began to offer an abbreviated evening compline with him in our living room before his bedtime.   While such prayer may occasionally include hymnody, intercessions, a biblical reading, or a recitation from a Book of Prayers, his interest in our common prayer peaks when we “dare to say” the Our Father or Hail Mary.

PaterNosterWhen I speak to undergraduates about their prayer life, I often discover a disdain for this rote prayer.   They declare that such prayer was the prayer forced upon them by their parents.   But, it wasn’t heart-felt, it wasn’t individual enough, it wasn’t their own.   While there is a developmental reason for this rejection of the prayers of our ancestors, I can’t help but feel that this rejection of “rote” prayer might have dire consequences relative to the traditioning of faith in families.

At a phenomenological level, my son is interested in Kara and my praying of the Our Father and Hail Mary because of the coordinated movements of our lips, the way that he hears the same sounds from the both of us.  His interest in our speech is further increased precisely because we hold him in our arms in the midst of our common prayer.   But the wonder that overcomes him at this moment has the potential to become a supernatural formation into the mystery of divine love.   The words that we utter, the prayers that we hold sacred, the gift of family prayer, will become ingrained in his memory.   He will know the tenets of the Gospel that we hold dear in our home and be able to express them in the simple uttering of the words “Our Father.”

The wonder of rote prayer is that it does not depend on the eloquence of human speech of a particular family.   It is not an expression of the affection of the group praying.   Instead, “rote” prayer in a family practicing the art of self-giving love has the potential to immerse a child into the mystery of divine salvation through the common words of parents, whose natural love for their children come to infuse the grace-filled discourse of the Church.   The Our Father and Hail Mary become flesh as their words are incarnated into a common life together of forgiveness, of expectation that the Word may still become flesh in our lives.   Not merely as an idea, a theological conjecture, but in the gift of a family gathered together in a home, sharing domestic life with one another.HolyFamilyIcon

For this reason, “rote” prayer within a family is never a bloodless affair.   It is not a second best alternative to more interesting forms of praying, which one graduates to upon elevation to adolescence.   Rather, it is an incarnational and thus embodied entrance into the mystery of salvation in which a child’s love for his or her parents slowly comes to inform his or her relationship to the Triune God.   For when the child turns to his mother and his father, looking to learn the art of human speech, he or she slowly discovers not simply the discourse of the world but a speech of love directed to God.   A speech, which the child can learn, imitate, and thus continue his or her process of initiation into the divine love of the Trinity.

Rather than reject “rote” prayer, we should laud it within our churches.   For how remarkable it is that one can learn the Gospel through well-worn phrases, passed on from generation to generation.

Pope Culture II: Darkness and Light in Caravaggio

Jessica MannenJessica Mannen
Master of Divinity Candidate,
University of Notre Dame


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“‘From there I often visited the Church of St. Louis of France, and I went there to contemplate the painting of The Calling of St. Matthew, by Caravaggio. That finger of Jesus, pointing at Matthew. That’s me. I feel like him. Like Matthew.’ Here the pope becomes determined, as if he had finally found the image he was looking for:
‘It is the gesture of Matthew that strikes me:
he holds on to his money as if to say, “No, not me! No, this money is mine.”
Here, this is me, a sinner on whom the Lord has turned his gaze.’”
–Antonio Spadaro, S.J., and Pope Francis

In this series, I have assigned myself the task of experiencing and reflecting upon those works of art that Pope Francis names as his favorites in the recent interview appearing in America magazine. I find the disclosure of these preferences to be a uniquely beautiful insight into Francis’s heart, and offer these reflections as a way to pray with and for the Holy Father.

See also:
Pope Culture I: Mozart’s “Et Incarnatus Est”

Caravaggio full

Pope Francis mentions Caravaggio several times throughout his interview, and reveals in his description of the Calling of St. Matthew a beautiful knowledge of himself as sinful but beloved. When I first read Francis’s reflection on this painting, I felt a smile of familiarity spread over my own face. The one art class I took in college was on Italian Baroque art, and Caravaggio was the very first painter we studied.

Hearing Caravaggio’s name immediately brings to mind the art term chiaroscuro, one of the most easily recognizable characteristics of his work. The word is a combination of the Italian chiaro (light or clear) and oscuro (dark or obscure). Caravaggio’s paintings are remarkable for many reasons, but one of them is the sharp contrast and dramatic interplay between light and darkness. The contrast is used to highlight characters and carry the eye through the story told in each painting.

Darkness and light—an image for the forces at play in every human life, and one that seems appropriate for the lives of many of the Apostles. I love that the Gospels’ portrait of the Apostles does not overlook their human imperfections but rather brings to the fore the cowardice of Peter, the thirst for honor of James and John, the constant misguidedness of the group as a whole. God calls these imperfect people and enables them to do great things. Perhaps awareness of oneself as a sinner, as demonstrated by Pope Francis, is an underrated mark of apostolic succession.

Caravaggio Christ detailIn the story of Matthew’s calling by Christ we see again this interplay between darkness and light:

As Jesus passed on from there, he saw a man named Matthew
sitting at the customs post. He said to him, “Follow me.”
And he got up and followed him. (Mt 9:9)

This man Matthew, who lives by extortion and embodies greed to his neighbors, is called by Christ. In Caravaggio’s image of this moment, light from an unknown source follows the gesture of Christ to the man who at this moment is called to forsake his former darkness for the Light Himself. The position of Jesus’ hand mimics that of Adam in Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam tableau in the Sistine Chapel, recalling the biblical image of Christ as the Second Adam. Creation of Adam, detail-MichelangeloIt also makes me think that Matthew’s calling is a moment not just of conversion but also of re-creation. As at the moment of creation, God is here reaching out to human beings, calling us along with Matthew to step into our intended roles as God’s beloved sons and daughters. Matthew’s responding expression and gesture represents well the reaction portrayed in many biblical call narratives: he is unprepared for what he is being asked to do. We can almost hear him ask, “Who, me?” This reaction is shared by many of us when we realize what God wants of us, which is to be nothing less than saints.

This painting beloved by Pope Francis is housed alongside two other works by Caravaggio in the Contarelli chapel of the church of San Luigi dei Francesi in Rome. The chapel tells the story of the evangelist’s life in just three snapshots of critical moments: the Calling, the Inspiration of St. Matthew, and the Martyrdom of St. Matthew. The Calling is flanked by the two others; it shows the initiation of Matthew’s journey of faith and is also the centerpiece of it. Caravaggio Matthew detailIt is this moment, when Matthew first hears the calling of Christ, which will lead eventually to the evangelistic writing that tradition attributes to him and to his martyrdom for the sake of the Gospel he helped to preserve.

The traditional symbol for Matthew as evangelist is a human being. The Gospel traditionally attributed to this Apostle begins with a genealogy of Christ, reminding us that God really became human in the Incarnation. What hope there is for humanity in this mystery: the union of divine and human enables our ascent from darkness to light. The life of St. Matthew, whose surprise at his calling was transformed into total acceptance of it, is a model for us (and for Pope Francis) of how we might embrace our undeserved vocations as children of God.

Communion with the Beloved: The Contemplative Prayer of St. Teresa of Ávila

Carolyn PirtleCarolyn Pirtle, M.M., M.S.M.
Assistant Director, Notre Dame Center for Liturgy

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Having written two weeks ago about the spirituality of St. Thérèse of Lisieux and the Little Way of love, I couldn’t let today pass without commenting on another great Saint Teresa whose feast we celebrate today: Teresa of Ávila. Looking at these two women in a cursory manner, it’s easy to understand why they are sometimes confused for one another: aside from sharing the same name and having feast days in October, both were members of the Carmelite order, and both took names in honor of Jesus when they professed their vows (Thérèse of the Child Jesus and Teresa of Jesus); in fact, Thérèse of Lisieux was quite familiar with and influenced by the many writings of Teresa of Ávila. Additionally, both women are honored as Doctors of the Church. However, their journeys to sainthood are, as C.S. Lewis would describe it, “gloriously different,” and both have something beautiful to offer to those of us who are still in statu viae (in a state of journeying).

Whereas Thérèse of Lisieux petitioned to the pope for permission to enter the Carmelite order at the age of fifteen, Teresa of Ávila entered the order at age eighteen “with a high degree of ambivalence,” professing her vows at the age of twenty “more as an act of rebellion than devotion.”[1] Teresa of Ávila-GerardFor the next twenty years, she struggled with an intense lack of spiritual desire, juxtaposed with an equally intense desire for frivolous social interactions and popularity. Then, in 1554 at around the age of 40, she experienced a profound conversion before a statue of Christ scourged at the pillar. The love and surrender that would later come so naturally to her namesake Thérèse finally pierced Teresa’s heart, and in that moment of conversion, she was overwhelmed by her love of God, “and the more she felt herself consumed by this love, the more she longed to be consumed.”[2] From that significant moment onward, Teresa lived her life for Christ alone. She went from being a lukewarm disciple to being a devoted lover, spending hours in contemplative prayer during which she experienced ecstatic visions. These visions exposed her to ridicule and aroused the suspicion of the authorities responsible for the Inquisition; nevertheless, Teresa persevered in her life of intense prayer, penance, and devotion. Her newfound zeal made her long for a way of life in which the Carmelite Rule would be more strictly observed, so in 1562, she established the first house in what would eventually become the Discalced Carmelite order. Though some today might find her penitential practices extreme (Richard McBrien notes that “one on occasion she donned a halter and saddle weighted with stones and was led by another nun into the refectory on all fours”[3]), there can be no doubt that her writings on contemplative prayer and mystical union with Christ have profoundly influenced generations of believers.

Teresa of Ávila and the Holy SpiritTeresa wrote her early spiritual autobiography, The Book of My Life, in obedience to Inquisition authorities who wished to examine the authenticity of her reported visions. Much like Augustine’s Confessions, or Thérèse’s Story of a Soul, this work is a combination of historical chronicle and canticle of praise. Teresa does not merely recount the events of her life; she traces the active presence and grace of God as she recalls her journey of faith, and many times she bursts out in grateful exultation, as in the chapter entitled “The Prayer of Union”:

O my Beloved, you are so good! May you be blessed forever. May all things praise you, my God. You have loved us so much that we are able to speak of communion between you and our souls here in our exile. This proves your boundless generosity and magnanimity, even in the case of souls who are already good. This abundance is who you are, my Lord; you give according to your nature. O Infinite Bounty, your works are magnificent![4]

Later, in her masterpiece The Interior Castle, she cultivated the image of “a magnificent castle inside our own souls, at the center of which the Beloved himself dwells.”[5] Translator Mirabai Starr goes on to comment, “The extraordinary thing about this castle where God lives is that it is inside of us. The journey to union with the Beloved is a journey home to the center of ourselves. … The human soul is so glorious that God himself chooses it as his dwelling place. The path to God, then, leads us on a journey of self-discovery.”[6] The Interior CastleTeresa leads her readers on that journey of self-discovery, moving from dwelling to dwelling within the Interior Castle, finally finding union with the Beloved in the seventh dwelling, “his own dwelling” within the human soul; for as Teresa states, “Just as His Majesty has a room of his own in heaven, so he has a special place inside the soul where he alone dwells. Let’s call it another heaven.”[7] Upon discovering this seventh dwelling, the soul becomes radically aware of the presence of God dwelling within: “The soul is more amazed every day as she discovers that these divine Persons never leave her anymore. Through this sublime knowing she clearly sees that they are with her always. She perceives their sacred presence in a radically inner place, inside her own depths. She just hasn’t learned the language to be able to explain this knowing.”[8]

Teresa’s image of the soul’s Interior Castle recalls the words of St. Paul, “Yet I live, no longer I; but Christ lives in me” (Gal 2:20). Yet the soul in which God makes a dwelling (cf. Jn 14:23) is not utterly subsumed and destroyed by God; rather, the divine presence brings the soul into the fullness of itself, as Teresa observes, “[the soul] is more present than ever before…. She walks more consciously than ever…”[9] Seeking this communion with God is at the heart of contemplative prayer, the mode of prayer for which Teresa is so well-known. According to the Catechism, “Contemplative prayer seeks him ‘whom my heart loves’ (Songs 1:7). It is Jesus, and in him, the Father. We seek him, because to desire him is always the beginning of love, and we seek him in that pure faith which causes us to be born of him and to live in him. In this inner prayer we can still meditate, but our attention is fixed on the Lord himself” (§2709). Teresa herself describes contemplative prayer this way: “As I see it, contemplative prayer is simply an intimate sharing between friends. It’s about frequently taking time to be alone with the One we know loves us. If the friendship is to endure, the love must be honored and tended. The will of the two friends needs to be in harmony.”[10] And of course, bringing one’s own will into harmony with that of the Beloved requires conversion of heart. The Ecstasy of St. Teresa-FontebassoOne cannot be in harmony, in communion with God, without this giving over of the self in love. Then, this harmonious state gives one the freedom to do the will of the Beloved as an exterior manifestation of inner communion: “If the soul is so deeply with God, then she should not think much about herself. She will be exclusively concerned with finding ways to please him and showing him how much she loves him. This, my friends, is the purpose of prayer. This is the reason for the spiritual marriage [of interior communion]. Good works are born from this. Good works.”[11]

Good works are born of interior communion with God. The external is a reflection of the internal. In this spirit, then, one can read anew the meditation for which Teresa is perhaps most famous, bearing in mind the vivid image of Christ dwelling within the interior castle of every human soul in an intimate friendship of communion:

Christ has no body now but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks compassion on this world.
Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good.
Yours are the hands with which he blesses all the world.
Yours are the hands, yours are the feet, yours are the eyes, you are his body.
Christ has no body now but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours.
Yours are the eyes with which he looks compassion on this world.
Christ has no body now on earth but yours.

It is only in cultivating an inner communion with Christ through prayer and conversion of heart that one is truly able to be his hands, his feet, his eyes, his body for the rest of the world.


[1] Teresa of Ávila. The Book of My Life. Trans. Mirabai Starr (Boston: New Seeds, 2007), xx.

[2] Ibid., xxi.

[3] McBrien, Richard. Lives of the Saints (New York: HarperCollins), 423.

[4] The Book of My Life, 122.

[5] Starr, Mirabai. Introduction to The Interior Castle. (New York: Riverhead Books, 2003), 21.

[6] Ibid., 22.

[7] Ibid., 261.

[8] Ibid., 264.

[9] Ibid.

[10] The Book of My Life, 53.

[11] The Interior Castle, 288.

Inklings of a New Evangelization: Puddleglum’s Dark Night of the Soul

MiriamMarstonMiriam Marston

Assistant Director of Theology Programs, Theological Institute for the New Evangelization

St. John’s Seminary, Boston, MA

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Other columns in series:
The Beacons Are Lit

Of Myths and Maps

Inside the Song

A Word on Wonder

A Word on Tooks
Secondary Worlds and Primary Truths

Escape and the Good Catastrophe
Treebeard and the Language of Reality
The Valor of Bilbo
Laughter and the Logos
Our Lady and the Elves

“Suppose this black pit of a kingdom of yours is the only world.  Well, it strikes me as a pretty poor one…But four babies playing a game can make a play-world which licks your real world hollow.  That’s why I’m going to stand by the play-world.  I’m on Aslan’s side even if there isn’t any Aslan to lead it.  I’m going to live as like a Narnian as I can even if there isn’t any Narnia.” – The Silver Chair (C.S. Lewis)

Here is the scene: miles and miles below the earth’s surface, a curious little company (consisting of a Marsh-wiggle, a Narnian prince and two English children) are confronted by the evil Queen –or, more appropriately, Witch – of the Underland.  The Silver ChairWith her soothing voice and strange logic, she very nearly convinces her unwelcome guests of the futility of their mission to save Narnia from her terrible schemes.  I say very nearly, because Puddleglum, that loyal and curmudgeonly Marsh-wiggle, declares that he will fight for Narnia and Aslan, even if it seems as though a veil has been cast on both of them, and can hardly be perceived through the wicked enchantments of the Witch.  With the darkness pressing in on him, and doubts assailing him at every angle, Puddleglum responds like a bolt of lightning in the storm.  His words are like a flash of light which illuminate, even for just a moment, the reality of his homeland, and assures him that it is still there, despite reports to the contrary.

Puddleglum has quite literally been walking in the dark.  He and his friends have been travelling in the Underland, far away from the sun, for so many days that he’s lost count.  They’ve nearly forgotten what a breeze feels like, or the sweetness which hangs in the air at the edge of day, as evening approaches and the shadows lengthen.   The hours, days, seasons…all unchangeable, here in the Underland.  The Witch knows this, and uses it to advance her own cruel designs.  She seeks to undermine every good memory that Puddleglum and his friends have of home.  She uses their experience of the long trip through the darkness against them, to make them forget their true country.

“There never was any world but mine.” said the Witch.
“There never was any world but yours.” said they.

It was probably the most difficult thing that Puddleglum would ever do: resist the power of her words and expose them as lies.   But even with the consoling memory of his beloved home fading, his faith in Aslan remains unwavering.  And armed with that faith, he can pierce through the feeble lies of the Witch and dismiss her claims that Narnia was never real.  And he is ready to defend the name of Aslan, even if Aslan feels as remote as a half-remembered dream.   He will live as a Narnian, even if Narnia itself has become obscured.

Darkened RoadNow, to be sure, the dark night of the soul is not necessarily wrapped up with the deceits that might be proposed to us via this or that worldly offering.  There is a certain desolation which comes with unhappy detours into a life of sin.  But then there is the kind of night which falls on even the holiest of hearts, for reasons that God alone knows.  He allows this darkness, which is an invitation to fall into His arms ever more confidently, and follow His ways ever more faithfully.  Through such mysterious consolations, He brings us closer to His heart, which shines with such radiance that our eyes must be shielded, as the seraphim cover their eyes with their wings.  And so it may seem that darkness envelopes us, when, in fact, we are closer to our Heavenly Father than ever before.

Perhaps you, who have stumbled on this column, have not felt close to our Lord in these recent days.  Perhaps you feel like Puddleglum and his friends, who have trudged through the lonely land beneath the surface of the earth, where the slightest flickering light is enough to make one’s heart leap for joy.  Perhaps you have felt abandoned, and find it difficult to remember, and thus meditate on, the glorious destiny written on each human heart.  Perhaps your songs of praise – which, until recently, flowed freely – have dried up a bit, and your life feels like a chapter out of the Book of Job.   The narrator of The Silver Chair might give us some refreshment, then, when he tells us about the “Really Deep Land”, which is located even further down than the Underland.   We might be tempted to think that the deeper into the earth they went, the darker and less splendid it would be.  But far from it: that region of the world is actually very beautiful, and full of light.  LuminariesCould it be, then, that the deep “underground” places of our spiritual life, where it seems darker and quieter, are not, in fact, necessarily opposed to our happiness?  After all, is not Aslan still Lord over the deep crevices of creation?  He is not merely Lord of that land which happens to enjoy the daily dance of the sun and stars.   And we cannot forget (indeed, it is easier to remember during the dark night) that at the very center of the Christian faith stands the Cross.  If we didn’t believe that Christ reigned in even the blackest hour and in the deepest fractures in our souls, then we could have never called that certain Friday “Good”.

To the mind of God, there is a great chasm between hope and despair, between faith and unbelief.  He is the Author of every good thing, and if anyone can tell the difference, He can.  To our minds, however, it would appear that the one only just nudges ahead of the other.  Day by day, week by week, we might oscillate between trust and suspicion, hopefulness and hesitation, as though they were neck and neck in a tense race.   This might be why Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane moves us so.   He undergoes that internal battle which storms our hearts perhaps every day:  “Take this cup away from me.”  “Thy will be done!”  “Wait!  This is too hard…if it be Your will, spare me from this…” Back and forth, and back and forth…that is what so many of us experience in this life of faith.  And then there are the break-away moments, as in a race, when a runner pulls ahead: one moment, we may be as the Beloved Disciple at the foot of the Cross, and the next, we may be St. Peter, weeping over his denial of the Lord, or St. Thomas, who doubts that Christ is truly risen.

The race might seem close, and the road might appear to be dimly lit and winding unpredictably.  But you can usually count on crossroads, even when the path is uncertain.  And it was at one of these crossroads that Puddleglum stepped up and spoke the truth.   It wasn’t loud and it didn’t use much flowery language. He was neither despairing nor terribly optimistic.  But he was faithful to the last.  And it was that statement of faith, spoken miles away from everything he knew and loved, which rattled a sleeping world awake and shook down the throne of an unjust ruler.   May we pray for the strength and faith to topple those usurpers who are trying to govern our own hearts.  Even in our most parched and silent moments of darkness, those feigned rulers can offer no more than the most artificial of lights.

“Waking Up the Echoes”: Liturgical Formation, Penitence, and Self-Giving Love

Laura TaylorLaura Taylor

Master of Theological Studies Candidate,
University of Notre Dame

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Previous posts in this series:
“Waking Up the Echoes”: Notre Dame, Liturgical Formation, and the New Evangelization
“Waking Up the Echoes”: Liturgical Formation from the Outside Looking In

“God created us without us: but he did not will to save us without us.”
—Augustine of Hippo, Sermon 169

In this day and age, it is dangerously easy to veil our imperfections through carefully maintained Facebook profiles and superficial conversations via text and email rather than face-to-face interactions. Consider me guilty as charged! In order to receive God’s mercy and attain the promise of salvation, though, we must be willing to admit our faults. Because they do not weigh quite as heavily as grave mortal sins, it is all too simple to overlook our deep-seated grudges, white lies, and daily flashes of judgment—even when we’re at Mass. Sin is such an ugly word (and rightly so) that it is incredibly difficult to admit how very susceptible we are to it. Sin—our disordered self-love—ruptures our relationship with God, and places us squarely against Him even as we are inexplicably drawn to Him in the liturgy. This means, then, that we regularly attend Mass in a state of revolt against God, which is precisely antithetical to the reasons that beckon us to worship (i.e. complete and total love for our Creator). Our self-obsession clouds our inward gaze, and figuratively obstructs our view of the altar where Christ’s ultimate sacrifice is celebrated. This post addresses the uncomfortable topics of sinfulness and penance, and hopefully provides a few suggestions for how these can positively invigorate our liturgical formation as college and graduate students.

My previous posts have discussed at some length the manner of liturgical formation as it occurs prior to even entering a church, and they exhibited a Eucharistic theology that admittedly did not emphasize sin directly. Indeed, sin and penance play a major role in the unfolding of Eucharistic self-giving love! Dr. Tim O’Malley, Director of the Notre Dame Center for Liturgy, speaks magnificently on how the Eucharist is a complete, mutual self-gift of love, infinitely better than I could.[1] For further explanation, I advocate a turn to two awesome resources we tend to overlook when searching for concrete answers to the deluge of life’s difficult questions: the General Instruction of the Roman Missal and the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

“Daily conversion and penance find their source and nourishment in the Eucharist, for in it is made present the sacrifice of Christ which has reconciled us with God. Through the Eucharist, those who live from the life of Christ are fed and strengthened. It is a remedy to free us from our daily faults and to preserve us from moral sins” (CCC, §1436).

Return of the Prodigal Son - Rembrandt van RijnAfter reading this passage from the Catechism, I’m beginning to think that we may have to deepen our idea of liturgical formation to include the notion of “conversion”—the kind that allows us to approach God humbly and reverently in the Mass and in our daily prayer, that results in a longing for the Eucharist as a reparation for and preservation from our sins. The Penitential Act of the Mass, neatly sandwiched between the opening hymn and the Gloria, acts as an impetus for our conversion within the liturgy itself, for “every sincere act of worship or devotion revives the spirit of conversion and repentance within us and contributes to the forgiveness of our sins” (CCC, §1437). From the very beginning of the liturgy, we are called to sincerely confess our sins and undergo a conversion of heart so that we may become worthy to receive the exquisite self-gift of Christ’s love that is the Eucharist.

The General Instruction of the Roman Missal[2] addresses the rubrical aspect of this element of the Mass: “The Priest calls upon the whole community to take part in the Penitential Act, which, after a brief pause for silence, it does by means of a formula of general confession. The rite concludes with the Priest’s absolution, which, however, lacks the efficacy of the Sacrament of Penance” (GIRM, 51).

Of course, any discussion of sin whatsoever must address and encourage participation in the Sacrament of Penance. St. Cyprian famously wrote: “God does not accept the sacrifice of a sower of disunion, but commands that he depart from the altar so that he may first be reconciled with his brother. For God can be appeased only by prayers that make peace. To God, the better offering is peace, brotherly concord, and a people made one in the unity of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” (De Dom. orat. 23: PL 4, 535-536). Pope Francis hears a confessionHowever, this post focuses rather on how to cultivate a truly penitential character in the midst of the liturgy itself. Regular confession and absolution in the Sacrament of Penance is the most cathartic and wondrous way to restore our broken relationship with God, but for those of us intimidated by the prospect of sitting face-to-face with a priest and baring our very souls in the confessional (myself included), the first step is cultivating this penitential character in a more general manner.

The exquisite idea to contemplate during the Penitential Act of the Mass is that, “at the very hour of darkness, the hour of the prince of this world, the sacrifice of Christ secretly becomes the source from which the forgiveness of our sins will pour forth inexhaustibly” (CCC, §1851). It makes perfect sense that we are drawn to Mass in order to shed the weight of sin, for Christ’s ultimate sacrifice on the Cross ensured our reconciliation with God and the inexhaustible forgiveness of our transgressions.

The Penitential Act, when we examine it more closely, contains a huge blessing for our liturgical formation. It points to the underlying force that compels us up the aisle to receive Christ’s Body and Blood every Sunday. During the liturgy, we are stripped bare of all our dissembling before God. Here, we might think to offer our sins as our contribution to the sacrifice of the Mass. Like the Eucharist, the offering up of our sins can be considered an “unbloody sacrifice”—and so, there is a real, tangible connection between cultivating a penitential character and our participation in the Eucharist. Our inexplicable attraction towards the altar is really an act of reconciliation and restoration of a thoroughly and tragically broken relationship with God. I often think of the first verse of Psalm 42 as an allusion to this desire for reconciliation and union with God in the Eucharist: “As a deer longs for flowing streams, so my soul longs for you, O God.” Our sins desiccate the fertile fields of our faith and ignite a burning thirst for the living God; our souls gasp and fight for breath, cut off from their source of Life. The union of our lives, prayers, joys, sufferings, and praise with Christ and his total self-offering quenches our spiritual thirst, though, and we revel in the beauty and joy of our divine communion. Cultivating a penitential character may pale in comparison to the sanctifying mystery of the Incarnation, but it is the second step towards deepening our formation in the liturgy.

[1] For one of many examples of O’Malley’s life-changing expositions on the Eucharist as a sacrament of self-giving love (especially in an academic environment), see:, and also Msgr. Heintz’s beautiful Holy Thursday reflection on the Eucharist and the sacrifice of love:

[2] If you’ve never heard of the GIRM before, or would like to explore in more detail, it is online for your perusal:

Pope Culture I: Mozart’s “Et Incarnatus Est”

Jessica MannenJessica Mannen

Master of Divinity Candidate, University of Notre Dame

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“Among musicians I love Mozart, of course.
The ‘Et incarnatus est’ from his Mass in C minor is matchless; it lifts you to God!”
–Pope Francis

 In this series, I have assigned myself the task of experiencing and reflecting upon those works of art that Pope Francis names as his favorites in the recent interview appearing in America magazine. I find the disclosure of these preferences to be a uniquely beautiful insight into Francis’s heart, and offer these reflections as a way to pray with and for the Holy Father.

Wolfgang Amadeus MozartI was thrilled when the Holy Father named Mozart first among those composers he loves. As an undergraduate student in music theory and history, I too loved Mozart the most. I was especially enamored of the way Mozart celebrated Christian values—reconciliation and the goodness of marriage especially come to mind—in his operas, a classically secular genre.

One of the tiny tidbits that forever cemented Mozart in my heart as a favorite was this line he wrote to his father about his new wife Constanze:

We had already attended holy mass there several times before we were married and had gone to confession and communion together—and I found that I had never prayed more fervently and never confessed and took communion so earnestly as when I was by her side; and she felt the same way. In one word, we were made for each other—and God who orders all things and therefore also arranged our union will not forsake us.[1]

For years I’ve treasured that thought as one I hope to bring into my own marriage someday.  With such conviction that this marriage was the will of God, it is no wonder that Mozart vowed to write a Mass in thanksgiving for his wife. The resulting piece, albeit incomplete, is one of Mozart’s most important pieces of sacred music, and Constanze sang the soprano solos at its premiere in 1783.

In the “Et incarnatus est,” Mozart sets to music those lines of the creed that elicit a bow from those who recite them:

Et incarnatus est de Spiritu Sancto                …And by the Holy Spirit was incarnate
ex Maria Virgine                                             of the Virgin Mary
et homo factus est.                                         and became man…

Nativity-GiottoThese few Latin words are repeated over and over again. When I listened to this aria, what impressed me the most was the tenderness of it. This central mystery of the faith is sung about with great love that only shadows the great love of God. While the soprano who would sing this aria must have considerable technical skill, Mozart’s melodic genius is such that the piece does not take on any airs but rather retains a natural sweetness; I can envision Mary humming parts of this tune to the newly-incarnated Word (listen especially to the descending sequence at 2:07).

The word “factus” (“made” or  “became”) is emphasized by both pitch and length. It is given the highest notes in the piece, and is elongated by gorgeous runs that call to mind the melismas of late Gregorian chant. The exaltation of such a humble little word seems counterintuitive—almost as counterintuitive as the very idea of God becoming human. It is the moment when the Word descends from the heaven and takes on the lowliness of humanity that is the high point of salvation history. As our God works in mysterious paradox, so does Mozart give great honor to this small word. After all, it signifies the action of great love to which this aria so lovingly responds.

There is something special about reflecting on the mystery of the Incarnation as I begin this series on praying with the arts. The Incarnation, God’s unique and bewildering entrance into human history, dignifies human activity in a way previously unthinkable.  The arts, which at their best express the deep longing placed into the human heart by God and for God, are able to be taken up into God as God takes on all of human passion and longing.

Since this Mass was never finished, these are the last words of the creed to be set to music. There is a certain poignancy to this; while the mystery of Christ would of course not be complete without the suffering, death, resurrection, and ascension that accomplish our redemption, it is the unimaginable humility of the Incarnation that enables it all.

“The Word was made flesh.” I heard in a homily once that these words—any words, really, that attempt to summarize the Incarnation—are too dulled by familiarity; they should stop us in our tracks. Perhaps, set to Mozart’s unfailingly exquisite music, they can again evoke in us the grateful awe that they deserve.

[1] W.A. Mozart, letter to Leopold Mozart, 17 August 1782, in Mozart’s Letters, Mozart’s Life, ed. and trans. Robert Spaethling (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2000), 326.