Our Lord, speaking about the forgiveness of sins, told the parable of the Prodigal Son, who took his inheritance from his father, and wasted it in a far country. But a time came when the Prodigal suffered hardships as a caretaker of swine.
"Then, feeling contrition for what he had done, he said to himself: 'How many hired men in my father's house have bread in abundance, while I am perishing here with hunger! I will get up and go to my father, and will say to him, Father, I have sinned against heaven and before thee. I am no longer worthy to be called thy son; make me as one of thy hired men.' And he arose and went to his father" (Luke 15: 17-20).
Contrition is sincere sorrow for having offended God, and hatred for the sins we have committed, with a firm purpose of sinning no more.
"The Lord is nigh unto them that are contrite of heart" (Psalm 33: 19).
God will not forgive us any sin, whether mortal or venial, unless we have true contrition for it. Without true contrition a thousand confessions will avail us nothing except to add to our sins. Unless there is sorrow for sin, there is no forgiveness.
As examples of true contrition, we have Mary Magdalen, who fell at the feet of Jesus weeping; St. Peter, who wept bitterly for having denied Our Lord; King David, who fasted and prayed, crying, "Have mercy on me, O God…a contrite and humble heart Thou wilt not despise."
Sorrow for sin is true contrition when it is interior, supernatural, supreme, and universal.
1. Our sorrow is interior, when it comes from our heart, not merely from our lips.
One day a man bumped into an old woman carrying a basketful of vegetables. Her basket was knocked out of her hand, and the contents spilled on the street, rolling in all directions. The man curtly murmured, "Sorry," and went his way, impatiently saying to himself. "There ought to be a law against old women going out on the streets." Meanwhile, the old woman was left to pick up her vegetables as best she could. This man's sorrow as not interior; it was on his lips alone.
2. Our sorrow is supernatural when, with the help of God's grace, it arises from motives which spring from faith, and not merely from natural motives. If we are sorry for our sins because they offend God Who is so good and perfect, or because we fear His punishments, or the loss of heaven, our contrition is supernatural.
A thief was taken to court. He had been caught by reason of a watchdog in the house he had entered. The thief said to himself when he was sentenced to imprisonment: "I am sorry I ever entered that house. Next timer I shall be sure and steal only from those houses that do not keep dogs." This man's contrition was not supernatural, but natural. He was sorry only because he was caught and punished. Other natural motives are the loss of health, reputation, or goods.
3. Our sorrow is supreme when we hate sin above every other evil, and are willing to endure anything rather than offend God in the future by sin.
A child said to the priest: "Father, I think I do not have enough contrition for my sins. When I offend my mother, I cry bitterly because I love her. But when I confess my sins, I do not cry at all." The priest asked: "Would you commit a sin only to please your mother, whom you love so much?" Quickly the child replied: "Father, no!" This child's contrition is supreme, or sovereign. Sorrow for sin is not judged by the amount of tears we shed, but by the firmness of our will in resolving to make amends and avoid sin because it offends God.
4. Our sorrow is universal when we are sorry for every mortal sin which we may have had the misfortune to commit. If we have committed five mortal sins, and are contrite for only four, even if we confess all, not one is forgiven.
A man is sorry that in attacking his enemy he had killed the wife, the servant, and the son also; but not that he had murdered his enemy himself. He gets no absolution for any one of the murders.
We should have contrition for mortal sin because it is the greatest of evils, gravely offends God, keeps us out of Heaven, and condemns us forever to hell.
Sin is the greatest of evils, because its effects last longest, and it has the most dreadful results. Ill health, poverty, and other material evils last for only a time; at death they will all be ended forever, and we shall have our release from them. But sin? The evils arising from mortal sin, aside from those that hound us in this life will persecute us unto eternity. As long as one has a mortal sin he cannot be forgiven for his venial sins.
We should have contrition for venial sin because it is displeasing to God, merits temporal punishment, and may lead to mortal sin.
Venial sin is displeasing to God, and keeps us out of heaven, however temporarily. If we really love God, we would avoid every sign of sin separating us from Him.
The stains of venial sin may seem very slight to us indeed, but when they are laid against the purity of the Infinite Goodness they become dark blotches. We can realize how God looks upon the slightest of venial sins when we remember how severely He punished His saints, as for instance, Moses, for only a very slight sin of thought.
By venial sin we incur temporal punishment, which must be made up either here on earth or in the fires of Purgatory.
Even the slight loss of temper or discomfort arising from venial sin is not compensated for by any relief or pleasure we may obtain from it.
Venial sin is a step to mortal sin. It causes carelessness with regard to sins, and leads us into sloth with regard to good works.
And so, being careless about venial sin, we fall into mortal sin "by little and little". No man ever fell suddenly into vice; vice is a habit of sin.
Venial sin deprives us of many graces by which we might merit more help and love from God.
When going to Confession, and if we only have venial sins to confess, we must be sorry for at least one of them, or for some sin of our past, which we confess; otherwise the confession is not valid.
It is a prayer by which we express to God our sorrow and detestation of sin.
An act of contrition can be as short as this: "O my God, I am sorry with all my heart for having offended Thee, because Thou art all good!"
"Have mercy on me, O God, have mercy on me, for my soul trusteth in Thee" (Ps. 56:2).
An act of contrition is sufficient to forgive venial sins. We may therefore go to Holy Communion without confession if we have no mortal sin, after saying such an act.
However, it is better to go to confession at least every two weeks if we are frequent communicants, and have only venial sins. Confession gives special graces not obtained through an act of contrition.
Next Issue: The Sacrament of Penance
For previous installments, see APPRECIATING THE PRECIOUS GIFT OF OUR FAITH Archives