“Receive the Holy Spirit,” said the risen Lord to his apostles. “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven. If you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” The sacrament of Penance, instituted by Christ himself, is one of the greatest gifts of Divine Mercy, but it is widely neglected. To help rekindle a new appreciation for such a profound gift of Divine Mercy, the Register presents this special section.
Psalm 51 sets the tone. It is the definitive penitential Psalm and zeros our sights on the most important element of the penitential season — contrition: “My sacrifice, O God, is a contrite spirit; a heart contrite and humbled, O God, you will not spurn” (Psalm 51:19).
St. Thomas observes that contrition “includes virtually the whole of penance.” It contains in seminal form the other dimensions of the sacrament of penance: confession, reconciliation and satisfaction. This truth emphasizes the need for us to deepen our contrition, especially in preparation for confession.
We should appreciate first the personal character of authentic contrition. It is tempting for us to hide in the crowd, participating in the Church’s penitential prayers, liturgies and devotions … but not really investing ourselves. That will not do. No matter how much Mother Church exhorts us, leads us in prayer and intercedes for us, each one of us must ultimately repent personally. Christian contrition is personal for another reason, as well. Unlike natural regret or worldly remorse, it comes from an awareness of having offended not merely a law or ethical standard, but the Person of Jesus Christ.
Fruitful contrition arises from the examination of conscience. This should be, to borrow a line from the Twelve Steps, “a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.” Searching, because it requires us to reflect and call to mind when we failed and how; fearless, because it requires us to overcome our pride, shame and rationalization. We must clearly and candidly name our wrongdoing.
There are various tools to assist in the examination of conscience: The Ten Commandments, the twofold command of love (Mark 12:28-34), the Seven Deadly Sins and so on. Whatever instrument is used, the goal is to discern precisely what sins we have committed and how many times — that is, how we have failed to respond to the Lord’s goodness.
The Church defines contrition in simple terms. It is “sorrow of the soul and detestation for the sin committed, together with the resolution not to sin again” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1451). Now, this differs from the emotionalism people might associate with contrition. Yes, the Gospels tell us about Mary Magdalene’s tears and Peter’s bitter weeping. But such emotions, helpful in their place, are not required for contrition. What is required is the simple recognition of sin and choice against it.
Indeed, the sobriety of the Church’s definition reveals the Lord’s solicitude for our weakness. He knows that our rebellious and fickle feelings might not always cooperate with our contrition. We might not always feel sorry. So he does not require more feelings than we can provide; which also means that we, for our part, cannot wait for such emotions to arrive before we identify our sins and choose to hate them.
Left to itself, contrition naturally grows into the confession of sins. This requirement comes not so much from Church law as from the human heart. “When I declared not my sin, my body wasted away through my groaning all day long” (Psalm 32:3). As these words from the Psalmist indicate, human sorrow always seeks expression. We do violence to ourselves otherwise.
Now, the Church requires that we confess mortal sins according to “kind and number,” which might seem legalistic and contrary to this desire of the human heart: Why the need for particulars? Why the itemization? Does God really care about such details? Is he really that legalistic? Is he not more interested in the relationship than the specifics?
Such questions reveal man’s unhealthy tendency to avoid the specific and concrete in repentance. We prefer to remain on the surface, in generalities (“I haven’t been good. … I offended God. …”), where we can avoid the horror of exactly what we have done. But relationships are not built in the abstract.
Love seeks to be definitive and specific in its expression. We love in the particulars or not at all. Unfortunately, we also sin in the particulars. We damage our relationship with God and neighbor not abstractly or in theory but in specific thoughts, words and actions. As such, the contrite heart seeks to be specific in its confession.
More importantly, the logic of the Incarnation requires this. The Word was made flesh. Our Lord expressed his love in specific, concrete words and actions. He confronted sin not in general or in theory but in particular people, in the flesh and on the cross. The Church’s discipline, far from imposing some outside burden, simply echoes the requirements of the human heart and the Sacred Heart. Confession requires particulars not in spite of the relationship, but because of it.
Sacramental confession is also a personal act of faith, because it entails trusting in the continuing presence of Christ in his Church and ministers. We confess to the priest not because of his worthiness or holiness, but because we have faith that Christ entrusted a sacred power to him.
Indeed, we believe that Christ himself works through the priest as his instrument. So, in this sacrament, we make a twofold confession, of both guilt and faith: guilt for our sins and faith in Christ’s work.
Authentic contrition seeks reconciliation. It produces in us the desire to be freed from our sins and, more importantly, to be reconciled with Christ. So contrition logically impels us to the sacrament of reconciliation, which restores our union with him. Indeed, how contrite are we if we do not desire to be reconciled with him by the means he established?
Finally, contrition leads us not only to confession and reconciliation but also to satisfaction, to atonement for our sins — in short, to do our penance — which might seem impossible. After all, no one can atone or make satisfaction for his sins. Only the perfect sacrifice of Jesus Christ atones for sin.
Nevertheless, the penitent does offer satisfaction — not by his own power, but by his union with the sorrowful and suffering Christ; or, rather, he is made a participant in Christ’s own act of atonement. This is a fruit of reconciliation. The sacrament effects so real a reconciliation, such a grafting onto Christ, that the penitent becomes a participant in Christ’s one perfect sacrifice for our sins. Indeed, doing penance in union with Christ is the culmination and final goal of the penitent’s contrition. This participation in Christ’s expiation and sorrow is what contrition, from the start, seeks to express and offer.
My sacrifice, O God, is a contrite spirit; a heart contrite and humbled, O God, you will not spurn. Let us continue this prayer for deeper and more perfect contrition, so that our reception of the sacrament of penance will in turn benefit us more richly unto eternal life.
Father Paul Scalia is the episcopal vicar for clergy for the Diocese of Arlington, Virginia.