Why do people strike their breasts three times at Mass?


I see people striking their breast 3 times during the holding up of the Host after consecration (or during, whatever the proper terminology is)…some peole do the sign of the cross, some do nothing…what is the proper gesture, and, what is striking the breast representing?


“But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’ “ Luke 18:13

Committee on the Liturgy
United States Conference of Catholic Bishops

“But there are other gestures that intensify our prayer at Mass. During the Confiteor the action of striking our breasts at the words through my own fault can strengthen my awareness that my sin is my fault.”
Postures and Gestures at Mass

*Notitiae *

  1. Query: During the recitation of certain formularies, for example, the “Confiteor, Agnus Dei, Domine, non sum dignus,” the accompanying gestures on the part of both priest and people are not always the same: some strike their breast three times; others, once during such formularies. What is the lawful practice to be followed?

Reply: In this case it is helpful to recall:

  1. gestures and words usually complement each other;
  2. in this matter as in others the liturgical reform has sought authenticity and simplicity, in keeping with SC art. 34: “The rites should be marked by a noble simplicity.” Whereas in the Roman Missal promulgated by authority of the Council of Trent meticulous gestures usually accompanied the words, the rubrics of the Roman Missal as reformed by authority of Vatican Council II are marked by their restraint with regard to gestures. This being said: a. The words, “Through my own fault” in the “Confiteor” are annotated in the reformed Roman Missal with the rubric: “Thy strike their breast” (“Ordo Missae” no. 3).

In the former Missal at the same place the rubric read this way: “He strikes his breast three times.” Therefore, it seems that the breast is not to be struck three times by anyone in reciting the words, whether in Latin or another language, even if the tripled formulary is said (“mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa”). One striking of the breast is enough. Clearly, also, one gesture is enough in those languages in which the words expressing fault are translated in a simpler form, for example in English, “I have sinned through my own fault”; in French “Oui, j’ai vraiment peche’.” b. The special restraint of the reformed Roman Missal is also clear regarding the other texts mentioned, the “Agnus Dei” and “Domine, non sum dignus,” expressions of repentance and humility accompanying the breaking of the bread and the call of the faithful to communion.

As noted in the Reply no. 2 of the comments in Not 14 (1978) 301, when the rubrics of the Missal of Paul VI say nothing, it is not to be thereby inferred that the former rubrics must be followed (see no. 51 above). The reformed Missal does not supplement but supplants the former Missal. The old Missal at the “Agnus Dei” had the directive “striking his breast three times” and the same for the “Domine, non sum dignus.” But because the new Missal says nothing on this point (“Ordo Missae,” nos. 131 and 133), there is no reason for requiring any gesture to be added to these invocations: Not 14 (1978) 534-535, no. 10.

To read Notitiae click here.

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