The Council of Trent officially declared that true contrition consists in a detestation of one's sins, with grief of soul, and a purpose of sinning no more. According to the same Council; contrition is so necessary that God never forgives any personal sin, even in the Sacraments of Baptism and Penance, unless the sinner genuinely repents.
Perhaps it is this doctrine of the necessity of contrition that makes the subject interesting. At any rate, it is interesting. Anyone who has taught the subject, whether in a theology class or in an advanced religion class, knows that. And we all know it from personal experience, too. We want to be rid of our sins; therefore we want to be sorry for them, and we want to be sure we are sorry for them.
Perfect contrition is a subject of special interest because it sometimes happens that perfect contrition affords the only possible means of saving one's soul. The baptized person who is in the state of mortal sin and is dying without the opportunity of going to confession or of receiving Extreme Unction is faced with the grim alternative of making an act of perfect contrition or of going to hell. The unbaptized sinner who is dying without the opportunity of receiving actual baptism faces a similar alternative.
No one can say that perfect contrition will never be a matter of strict necessity for him, because mortal sin is a possibility for everyone, and death without a priest is also a possibility. Yet, even if it were never of strict necessity, the act of perfect contrition is a beautiful prayer and should be said often. It is certainly the best kind of contrition for venial sins; and, with regard to mortal sins, it has the special power of restoring sanctifying grace to the soul immediately, thus making it unnecessary to wait for the opportunity of going to confession in order to regain God's friendship, to be able to merit eternal life, and to be prepared for sudden death.
Instructed Catholics usually know the fact that perfect contrition immediately blots out mortal sin, but not infrequently they misunderstand the reason for this special power of perfect contrition. In fact, only recently, in a book otherwise sound and excellent, the statement was made that in the case of a baptized person who has committed a mortal sin, perfect contrition restores grace because it contains a desire for the Sacrament of Penance. This is not the correct explanation. It is true, of course, that, in the case referred to, perfect contrition must contain at least an implicit intention of going to confession; otherwise it would be a means of salvation entirely independent of the sacrament and would excuse us entirely from God's precept of confessing the mortal sins committed after baptism. But this intention to receive the sacrament is not the disposition that gives perfect contrition its special efficacy. Even imperfect contrition must contain such an intention.
The real reason why perfect contrition instantly restores grace to the soul, even before we go to confession; is. to be found in its motive. Perfect contrition is motivated by charity. The sinner turns to God with perfect love; and God repays love with love. As our Lord told us, God takes up His abode with those who love Him.
We are often asked if it is difficult for one who has sinned mortally to make an act of perfect contrition. In answering the question we must have regard for several points. In the first place, neither perfect nor imperfect contrition calls for a definite degree of intensity or requires any certain amount of time. On the other hand, both kinds of contrition must contain an appreciation or preference of God which entirely excludes the will to commit mortal sin: In other words, the contrite sinner must prefer God to any personal satisfaction that would conflict with God's friendship. This disposition is required in all contrition for mortal sin; and it is enough, even for perfect contrition. I emphasize the fact that it is enough, because I believe that the impression is sometimes given that perfect contrition must exclude all attachment to sin. This impression is not accurate. Perfect contrition admits of degrees. The lowest degree contains the preference for God over anything that conflicts with his friendship; and this does not necessarily exclude attachment to venial sin. In assisting dying sinners, it seems advisable to begin with the lowest degree. After giving them the motive for perfect contrition of which we shall speak in a moment -- get them to repent of their mortal sins and to resolve never again to sin mortally. If they have this disposition, they have what is strictly necessary for “loving God above all things,” for loving God “with their whole heart, their whole soul, and their whole mind.” Having helped them to this essential disposition, one can then try to “go higher,” - that is, to instill sorrow for venial sin and even to incite a desire for perfect conformity to the will of God in all things.
Under many aspects, therefore, an act of perfect contrition is not more difficult than imperfect contrition. The difficulty, in so far as there is a difficulty, lies in the one element that distinguishes perfect contrition from imperfect: namely, in the motive. Perfect contrition springs from charity; and charity is the love of for His own --an unselfish, disinterested love. To love God for His own sake should not be difficult for anyone who really knows God: that is, for one who has come to appreciate through prayer that God is good and lovable; but for those who have given little thought to God, the case is probably different. They need to make some consideration that will show them that God is really worth loving for His own sake.
A rather simple way of helping a sinner to arrive at the motive necessary for perfect contrition is to get him to reflect on Christ Crucified. In the picture of our Lord on the Cross we have a very graphic portrayal of God's love for us. Appreciation of this fact begets gratitude in the soul; and it is an easy step from gratitude to perfect love, that is, to the love of charity. St. John, the great apostle of charity, told us to follow this path from gratitude to charity when he said: “Let us therefore love God, because God first hath loved us” (I John 4:19). St. Paul's great personal love of our Lord sprang from an appreciation of the tremendous fact expressed in his words: “He loved me and delivered himself up for me.”. St. Francis Xavier's” great prayer of love (O Deus, Ego Amo Te) is a poetic expression of the words of St. John and of St. Paul. St. Ignatius, in his “Contemplation for Obtaining Love,” uses the same psychology: he takes us from gratitude to perfect, unselfish, disinterested love. First we count the gifts of God to us, and, seeing their number and their value, we are deeply grateful; then, through the gifts, which are so good, we rise to the consideration of the infinite goodness of the Giver.
When we say that perfect contrition is motivated by charity, and that charity is the love of God for His own sake, we do not mean that perfect contrition excludes all other motives. It is quite proper for us to be grateful to God for his benefits, to desire to enjoy the happiness of heaven, to fear the punishments of hell, and so forth. All such truths furnish motivation for sorrow for sin; and they can exist in the soul together with the motive for perfect contrition.
Perfect contrition is indeed excellent; but we should not overlook the value of imperfect contrition. Imperfect contrition is not enough of itself to do away with mortal sin; yet even for those in the state of mortal sin it is very profitable. It disposes them to go to confession or to make an act of perfect contrition, and in confession it is a sufficient disposition for absolution.
As for venial sins, theologians commonly teach that imperfect contrition is enough for their remission outside of confession. Hence, those who have only venial sins on their soul need not be particularly solicitous about their motives when they make an act of contrition; any one of the many possible supernatural motives for detesting their sins will be a sufficient basis for a fruitful act of contrition.
Elements of All Contrition
It is of little avail to consider the necessity and kinds of contrition, if one's notion of contrition itself is not clear; hence it will be worth our while to return to the first sentence of this article. I indicated there that, according to the Council of Trent, all contrition contains three ingredients: detestation, grief, and purpose of amendment. And, of course, as a prerequisite to any act of contrition, there must be the realization that one has done wrong. Hence, every act of contrition includes in some way, four psychological steps: we realize that we have sinned; we detest what we did; we grieve over it; and we resolve to amend.
I should not want to encourage anyone to be technical in his prayers; yet I think that we can all profit by occasionally taking apart an act of contrition by thinking over the meaning of each of these psychological steps, and by actually making the steps. slowly and prayerfully. In the subsequent paragraphs, my purpose is to offer some explanations and suggestions that might be an aid to one who wants to make an act of contrition meditatively.
Perhaps I ought to preface my remarks with a brief statement concerning their doctrinal value. The Church has made it quite clear that an act of contrition must contain certain elements; but she has left the detailed explanation of these elements to her theologians. I have drawn my explanations from the works of eminent theologians; yet I realize that on some points the theological literature is somewhat obscure and that differences of opinion are permissible. In all cases of obscurity or uncertainty, I have aimed to limit my suggestions to what is safe and practicable.
When we make an act of contrition we have to be conscious of the fact that we ourselves have done evil. This supposes, of course, a speculative appreciation of the evil of sin; but it does not stop with mere speculation. The purpose of the realization which precedes and motivates the act of contrition is to get the sinner to turn away from his own sins, with grief and a purpose of amendment. Therefore, it is well to begin a meditative act of contrition with a consciousness of one's own sins. This does not necessarily mean a detailed examination of conscience; but it does imply at least a general recalling of one's sins.
In our catechism books we say that an act of contrition must be supernatural: that is, it must be made with God's grace and it must be based on a motive drawn from revelation. We may take for granted that God gives the grace, but we ourselves have to supply the supernatural motive by considering our sins in the light of some revealed truth. Among the many truths that help to show us the evil of our sins,, I might suggest the following.
The joys of heaven, or the pains of hell: These are directly applicable to mortal sin, because mortal sin deprives us of our right to heaven and makes us deserving of hell. But the thought of heaven can also be applied to venial sin because, after all, there are degrees of glory in heaven, and venial sin keeps us from attaining a higher degree of glory. Even the thought of hell can be used as a motive for repenting of venial sin, because by committing venial sins we might form habits that would lead to mortal sin or we might lose certain special graces that would at times be necessary in order to overcome serious temptations. And, of course, a consideration of purgatory, especially as a painful delay in reaching our heavenly home, is directly applicable to venial sin.
The glories of sanctifying grace: Grace makes our souls beautiful in the eyes of God; it makes us His adopted children, sharers in His nature, heirs to His happiness. Mortal sin loses this priceless possession for us; venial sin, though it does not affect the grace in our souls, represents a lost opportunity to grow in grace.
The Passion of our Lord: This furnishes fine motivation for sorrow for either mortal or venial sin. And the same may be said for any aspect of our Lord's life, because everything we know about Him is calculated to increase our admiration and love of Him and thus show us by contrast the meanness of our failure to live according to the pattern He has given us.
The doctrine of the Redemption and of our part in it: God has united us in such a way that we can help one another in the way of salvation and sanctification. An appreciation of this truth and of its tremendous implications gives us a new light on sin: it is not only harmful to ourselves; it is a refusal to cooperate in a glorious cause.
The divine wisdom and goodness: Properly understood, this is the most all-embracing and fundamental and, I might add, the simplest of motives for detesting sin. It takes us back to the one reason why we and this whole world exist at all: namely, to share in the divine goodness according to the infinitely wise plan of God Himself. By sin, we do what we can to thwart His plan; we voluntarily prevent Him from giving Himself to us as He wishes to do.
The whole purpose of meditating on one of the foregoing truths, or on some similar revealed truth, is to prepare the soul for an act of contrition. In the act of contrition itself, the first step is detestation.
Theologians generally agree, I believe, that, as a distinct element in the act of contrition, detestation refers to the past. The sinner goes back, so to speak, on the act that he performed and deliberately chooses to do just the opposite from what he did when he sinned. In sinning, he chose his own will to God's will; now he turns away from his former choice and unites his will to God's will.
Evidently we cannot undo an act that is done. We can make reparation for it; we can pay damages; we can sometimes stop its effects; but the fact that act was performed cannot be changed. The best that we can do with regard to the past act is to wish we had not done it. And that seems to be the most apt way that we can describe detestation of sin; it is a deliberate wish that the act had not been performed.
It is probably not advisable, in making a meditative act of contrition, to spend a great deal of time on this point. There is no direct way of testing an interior disposition such as detestation, and we are likely to be disturbed, even frightened, by our sense-love and self-love. For these causes of sin are just as strong as they were when the sin was performed and they keep telling us that they liked the sin and that they are glad it happened. Hence, if we dwell long on this point, we are apt to think that we have no contrition at all. It is better to make a simple act of the will: “Because I now see the evil that I did, I wish I had not committed it”; and then go on to the next point. In practice, we can take for granted that we have the required I detestation if we have the realization, grief, and purpose of amendment.
Grief of Soul
The blessed in heaven can detest their sins but they cannot grieve over them. The reason for this is that grief supposes the presence of an evil, and the sins of the blessed are merely past acts, the evil effects of which have all been removed.
With us, the case is different. For instance, when a man commits, a mortal sin, his soul immediately becomes an object of reproach before God. This is an evil effect of sin over which he can certainly grieve. After the man makes a good confession, he can have a reasonable assurance that he has regained God's friendship, but he is not sure that all the effects of his sin are removed. There may be some temporal punishment to undergo; there may be some weakness in the soul, some special liability to sin, that results from his former sin. Because of the possibility that such evil effects may continue, we can grieve over our sins all through our lives, because this possibility keeps the sins present to us at least in some sense.
Perhaps the best way to describe the grief of soul which constitutes the second element of contrition is to say that it is a desire to get rid of, to shake off, the effects of our sins, because we realize that in these effects our detestable sins still cling to us.
We have to remind good people again and again that grief over sin is not necessarily a matter of feeling. To use an illustration, let us suppose that two men get their hands and arms covered with mud. The first man likes mud and he enjoys being covered with it; the second man does not like it. Then suppose that while they are covered with the mud they find out that this particular mud is very harmful to the skin. Both of them immediately try to wash it off.
The example illustrates the difference between accidental grief and essential grief. Only one of the men had a feeling of repugnance for the mud, yet both of them tried to be rid of it when they found it was harmful. So it is with. sorrow for sin. To feel grief over the effects of sin is good, and may even be called an accidental perfection of contrition; but the essential thing is.to want to be rid of the evil.
The best expression of grief, therefore, is not tears, but the sincere will to go to confession, to make an act of perfect contrition, to gain indulgences, to repair an injury done to one's neighbor, to accept some hardship willingly in reparation for one's sins, to do some voluntary penance for the same purpose, and so forth. These are the means of doing away with the effects of our sins; hence, the will to do such things is a tangible way of showing ourselves that we are sorry, no matter how we feel.
Purpose of Amendment
Purpose of amendment, though by no means the whole of contrition, is a very important part of it, and probably the best practical proof of it. No-one can have real contrition unless he intends to “amend” his life, but as this – “amendment” can have different meanings for different - cases, it may be well for us to consider some examples of these variations.
Suppose that a man who has committed mortal sins since his last confession now wants to regain the state of grace. Whether he goes to confession, or makes an act of perfect contrition with the intention of going to confession, he must certainly be resolved to “amend”. his life. And since his contrition concerns mortal sins; his purpose of amendment must be really absolute: that is, he must intend to avoid all mortal sin in the future. He would have to have the same uncompromising resolution, even if he had committed only one mortal sin. The “purpose of sinning no more” applies quite literally to the case of mortal sin.
On the other hand, suppose the case of a man who has committed only venial sins since his last confession, but who now wishes to make an act of contrition for all his venial sins because he wants to gain a plenary indulgence. What kind of purpose of amendment must this man have? The question is not easy to answer with perfect satisfaction, but it seems safe to say that it is sufficient for him if he retains no attachment to any venial sins (in the sense that he intends to continue to commit those sins) and that he has at least a general intention to improve, for example, by reducing the number of his venial sins. We might add that it is generally recommended that such a man should center his purpose of amendment on the correction of something definite. This recommendation is given because! experience teaches us that a general purpose of amendment is likely to prove ineffective and that the act of contrition in such a case is apt to degenerate into a mere formula, a bit of wishful thinking, and nothing more.
A third case: A man has committed only venial sins since his last confession, and he knows that he really is not contrite for some of these sins; yet he does wish to make a sincere act of contrition for one kind of sin: for example, lying. What must be this man's purpose of amendment? Again, the case is not easy to solve with perfect satisfaction; but it seems safe to give this practical rule: If the man's lies -are of the fully deliberate kind, he ought to be resolved to avoid them entirely; but if the lies are rather on the semi deliberate side, he ought at least to have the good will to try to reduce their number.
In the foregoing cases, “amendment of life” was used in its ordinary, everyday sense: that is, as an improvement over one's recent conduct. There is a fourth case, in which the expression evidently has a different meaning. Consider, for example, the holy King David. He offended God seriously; then he repented of that sin, was forgiven, and, as far as we know, lived many years in the friendship, of God. Yet he continued to recite his Miserere for his past lapse from grace. It would be absurd to think that this Miserere was not a good act of contrition; but if it was an act of contrition, in what did the amendment consist? It seems obvious that “amendment” in such circumstances has a wide meaning: that is, it refers to the renewed purpose of continuing the reform that had begun years ago.
The case of David is repeated week after week in our confessionals throughout the world. People sin mortally in their youth; they confess these sins, and then live for many years without further serious lapses. Yet these people can certainly make acts of contrition for the “old” mortal sins; in fact, they are even advised to include these sins in their confessions so that they may benefit more and more by the absolution. In their case, as in David's, the purpose of amendment for their mortal sins does not mean an intention to correct their present lives, but rather the renewed purpose to persevere in the amendment that has long since been brought about.
The examples illustrate the various aspects of and requisites for purpose of amendment. In our own case, when we make an act of contrition, we shall generally find a combination of these examples. We have sins of the past, for which it is sufficient to renew our purpose of amendment, and recent sins which call for real amendment and definite resolutions.
We saw that the feelings sometimes present a psychological difficulty in estimating detestation and grief. Something similar can happen with regard to purpose of amendment, particularly when habitual sins of frailty are involved. The sinner realizes his weakness and, even when he makes his act of contrition or goes to confession, he feels sure” that he is going to sin again. Because of this, he wonders if he really has a purpose of amendment.
The solution to the difficulty lies in a proper understanding of a purpose of amendment. It is not an act of the mind, but of the will. It is a sincere intention to try to amend, and to take the means necessary for doing that. The “feeling that one will sin again” may result, not from any ill will, but from the consciousness that one is weak and that this weakness has expressed itself again and again. Nevertheless, there is no weakness that cannot be overcome by serious effort and the grace' of God. Even the most habitual sinner can resolve to make the effort, and he may be sure that God will give the grace. And he should not be discouraged if he does fall again; this may simply be a sign that he has not yet discovered the proper means for correcting his particular bad habit.
Sometimes people think that all they need to do to overcome bad habits is to go to the sacraments frequently. This is only one aspect of the solution. It will never work unless the sinner takes the more obvious means of avoiding occasions of sin, of exercising himself in self-control, and so forth.
My analysis of the act of contrition has been long. Yet I hope it contains some helpful suggestions. In particular, I think that many would find it fruitful to make a meditative act of contrition occasionally-for example, during the morning meditation on confession day. The Church evidently wants us to draw great profit from frequent confession; and for this there is no means more effective than an increase in contrition.
Fr. Gerard Kelly SJ (taken from the Review for Religious)