On the Sacrament of Penance (continuation)
My dear brethren,
Yesterday, we studied the sacrament of penance in general. Today we will further study the three acts of the penitent, contrition, accusation and satisfaction.
Sin is opposed to God, it is a creature who rejects the Supreme Goodness of God, it destroys the beauty of a soul, or a spirit. Therefore, God who loves all his creatures, cannot but hate sin: God loves the sinner, but hates the sin. Precisely in hating the sin, God loves the sinner – similarly a medical doctor love his patients but hates their sickness, and he would not truly love his patients if he did not hate their sickness, and do all he can to remove such sickness. God would not truly love the sinners if He did not hate their sins.
Therefore, since God cannot change, it is impossible for the sinner to return into the grace of God and please God again unless he changes, unless he starts hating his own sins. And this is contrition: contrition is a deep detestation of sin. The word contrition comes from a Latin word meaning “to grind, to crush and to pound to pieces.”
Contrition must be interior, supernatural, universal and supreme – and must include the firm purpose not to sin any more. Contrition must be interior: that is, it is not sufficient to have external marks of contrition, even external tears, if the heart is not there, if the mind continues to love sin. It is not merely sentimental – we may even say that sensible feelings are not necessary – but it is a detestation of the mind, that rejects and crushes with the view to destroy the evil will of sin.
Contrition must be supernatural. If a thief is caught and put in prison, it is not a sufficient motive for a true contrition. It should be out of love for God who has been offended by sin, out of a view of Faith that shows the real evil of sin, and shows how much it has cost our Lord Jesus Christ, who died on the Cross because of our sins. It is good enough to be out of fear of hell, because this too is a supernatural motive. The fear of Hell is a great mean to obtain contrition. Many souls are now in Heaven because they had a true fear of hell. The surest way to go to hell is to reject all fear of hell. If the motive is an interested motive, such as the fear of hell, then it is called “attrition” and is sufficient to make a good confession. If the motive is higher and is a true motive of charity, out of love for God, for our Lord Jesus Christ offended by sin, then it is “perfect contrition.”
Perfect contrition obtains the immediate remission of sin, but does not dispense from going to Confession, on the contrary. There would not be true charity unless there were obedience to God’s law and thus the will to go to confession as soon as it is feasible. Hence there cannot be perfect contrition unless there is the will to go to confession without delay.
Contrition must be universal: it is not sufficient to have contrition because of some sins and yet to continue to love other sins. Take the example of a young unmarried person who commits fornication, and then becomes pregnant, and then has an abortion. She may be so afraid of the evil of abortion that she has a true sorrow for having committed such grave sin, but unless she also has detestation of the evil of fornication, she does not have true contrition. Her sorrow would not be universal. Similarly, if a thief enters a house and steals, and then is discovered and shoots the owner, it is not sufficient for him to have sorrow for the murder unless he detests his thievery also. One must detest all the mortal sins he has committed. This is very important.
Contrition must be supreme: that means, we must detest sin as the greatest evil, above any other evil, more than any pain and even death. We must be ready to die rather than to sin. For instance, it happened that in a first wave of persecution, in the early Church, some faithful fell and did deny Christ; then they were so sorry for their apostasy that they corrected themselves and went to the judge telling him that they did believe in Christ and detested their apostasy: they were then put to death by the persecutor and washed their sin in their own blood and are honoured by the Church as martyrs. They truly had a “supreme” sorrow for their sin. St Augustine mentions another situation: suppose someone is sick and dying, and a pagan friend suggests to use some superstitious talisman or potion or other superstitious ceremony, and the dying sick prefers to die rather than to sin: he is right, and St Augustine compares him to a hidden Martyr.
Our contrition should be not only the greatest, but also the most intense, and so perfect that it excludes all apathy and indifference; for it is written in Deuteronomy: “When thou shalt seek the Lord thy God, thou shalt find him: yet so if thou seek him with all thy heart, and all the affliction of thy soul” (Deut. 4:29), and in Jeremias: “Thou shalt seek me and shalt find me, when thou shalt seek me unto all thy heart; and I will be found by thee, saith the Lord” (Jer. 29:13).
Thus, contrition must be interior, supernatural, universal and supreme in order to be true. Moreover, that detestation of sin would not be true if it did not include the firm purpose to sin no more. Our Lord Jesus Christ explicitly requires this of the woman taken in adultery, to whom He says: “Go, and sin no more!” (Jn. 8:11) He also said to the man He healed at the pool of Bethsaida: “Behold thou art made whole: sin no more, lest some worse thing happen to thee” (Jn. 5:14).
The firm purpose also must be universal, efficacious: one must intend to avoid all mortal sins, not just some: in our example above someone who had stolen and killed must intend to avoid both murder and thievery, the young adults who fornicated and aborted must intend to avoid both abortion and fornication, and any other sin.
The firm purpose must be efficacious, that means it must lead us to take the proper means to avoid sin. In particular, one must avoid the occasions of sin. Our Lord Jesus Christ is very explicit and insistent on that matter: “if thy hand scandalize thee, cut it off: it is better for thee to enter into life, maimed, than having two hands to go into hell, into unquenchable fire: where their worm dieth not, and the fire is not extinguished. And if thy foot scandalize thee, cut it off. It is better for thee to enter lame into life everlasting, than having two feet, to be cast into the hell of unquenchable fire: Where their worm dieth not, and the fire is not extinguished. And if thy eye scandalize thee, pluck it out. It is better for thee with one eye to enter into the kingdom of God, than having two eyes to be cast into the hell of fire: where their worm dieth not, and the fire is not extinguished” (Mk. 9:42-47).
Now that does not mean that one should have the certitude he will never fall again. Indeed, one may have the firm purpose not to sin, though he fears he may fall again: however, the sure sign that there is such firm purpose is the real effort that follow the good confession, real efforts not to sin often crowned with success for a good while. If after a confession there is no effort at all to avoid the occasion of sin, and one falls right away back into the old sin, one should question whether he had the firm purpose of amendment, of avoiding sin: his confession might have been invalid for lack of true contrition and thus sacrilegious. Hence it is most important to really make one’s best efforts to avoid sin after confession.
That firm purpose includes the purpose to make restitution of the stolen goods, if one had stolen, or the reparation of scandals or reparation of injuries one may have committed. A good confession is not a permission to get away with sin, but rather it leads to such true penance that even if one is not caught by the police, one willingly gives back the stolen goods and repairs the injuries committed, without waiting to be caught by human law enforcers.
If one wants to obtain forgiveness from God, one should extend forgiveness to one’s neighbour: “For if you will forgive men their offences, your heavenly Father will forgive you also your offences” (Mt. 6:14).
The second act of the penitent is the accusation of his sins. This is – strictly speaking – the “confession” of sins. This is really an accusation: one should not “excuse” oneself, but rather accuse oneself! It is not just the opening of one’s conscience to a psychologist, it is the accusation of a criminal in a court: the Sacrament of Penance is truly the “tribunal of penance”, a tribunal of mercy indeed but a real tribunal.
The accusation should be complete, that is, one should accuse all his mortal sins, with their number. Since mortal sins are big sins, it is not too difficult to count them. If someone returns to God after years away from God and is not able to count all of his sins, then he should indicate the duration and the frequency of the sinful activity, for example “for five years, twice a week.” If one should make an approximation, it is always better to accuse a little more than not enough.
One needs also to tell the circumstances that add a particular wickedness to a sin: for instance, violence against a neighbour is bad, but if it is against a family member, it is worse: it adds a sin against the 4th commandment. Also a sin against purity can have additional circumstances that make it worse, such as violence (rape), or incest, or unnatural vices, etc. Or the theft of a sacred thing such as a chalice adds a sin of sacrilege to the sin of theft. However it is not necessary to tell the circumstances that are irrelevant to sinfulness, e.g. the colour of the thing stolen… The accusation should be short and to the point, and not dissolve the sin in useless verbiage.
To consciously conceal mortal sins in confession would render the sacrament invalid and consists in an additional sacrilege! The person who did such bad confession must repent from this and from all his past sins and must confess them all again, together with that sacrilege.
However there may be some genuinely forgotten sins: in such a case, one must know that such sins are forgiven together with the others: they were virtually contained in the universal contrition and accusation that was done. If they were mortal sins, then one should confess them the next time he goes to confession. It may also happen that, when some persons return to God after years of non-practicing the faith, they may not be aware of the sinfulness of certain acts (e.g. immodesties) and later when they grows in the spiritual life, they realise that these were sins: they should remain at peace: such sins should then be accuse when the person becomes conscious of their sinfulness, but the previous confessions were good, because there was no wilful concealing of sin: there was rather genuine ignorance.
If one cannot accuse oneself with words – because of physical impairment, or because the priest is deaf, or because of a language barrier – it is sufficient to accuse oneself with signs, such as sign language, or pointing out a sin on a sheet of paper. If one is sick at the hospital and cannot speak but can hear, he can answer the priest’s questions by pressing his hand…
For that accusation to be complete, it is very useful to prepare a good confession by an examination of conscience, which is also the occasion to renew and stir up greater contrition. Daily examination of conscience helps a lot for a good weekly confession. This helps also to see the occasions of sins, that one will have to avoid.
Protestants reject the obligation to confess one’s sins to the priest. But that would make useless the words of our Lord Jesus Christ to His Apostles: why would He have given to them the power of absolving sins if people did not need it? By giving to the Apostles, our Lord manifestly implied that He wanted the faithful to go to the Apostles and their successors in order to obtain that forgiveness of sin. He who rejects the duty to confess one’s sins to the priest in fact rejects this institution of our Lord Jesus Christ, and by such opposition to Christ cannot obtain forgiveness of his sins.
After the accusation of sin, the priest often gives some spiritual advices: these are very useful and the faithful should pay attention to them and strive to put them in practice, remembering that the priest in confession takes the place of our Lord Jesus Christ. They should take these advices as from the mouth of Christ Himself.
The priest will then impose a satisfaction to be done by the penitent. This satisfaction should be done without delay and with fervour. The more devoutly such satisfaction is done, the more it goes towards the forgiveness of the remaining debt of punishment due to the sins. One should realise that, given the gravity of sin, the satisfaction that is required by the priest after Confession is not enough to completely pay the remaining debt, and there is need to offer faithfully “all the good that you will do and the sufferings you will patiently bear, unto the remission of sin and the acquisition of eternal life” as is said in the prayer after the absolution. The priest may require the penitent not only to say some prayers, but also some fasting or mortification or even some almsgiving (never to himself!) or some other good works.
One must know that the essential satisfaction for the sins was paid by our Lord Jesus Christ, Who “is the propitiation for our sins, says St. John, and not for ours only but also for those of the whole world,” as St John says (1 Jn. 2:2). Without Jesus offering His Passion and Death as a Sacrifice of propitiation for our sins, our little penances would be absolutely incapable of obtaining forgiveness of sin. However, the Satisfaction of our Lord far from suppressing any need of satisfaction from ourselves is what gives them their value. God’s goodness does not suppress the goodness of creatures, but it their very source and First Cause. Those who claim that, because Jesus has paid all, we need not pay anything reject that very goodness of God who, far from supressing the goodness of the creatures, is the very First Cause of all goodness in the creatures.
In fact, the First Cause of the forgiveness of sins is the Holy Ghost, the Spirit of Love. Such Divine Goodness does not suppress the efficacy of the Passion of our Lord Jesus Christ, which He suffered in His human nature, since the Divine Nature cannot suffer. Thus the Passion of our Lord is the second cause of the forgiveness of sins. As the First Cause does not suppress the second cause, but is the very source of the efficacy of the second cause, so the First and second causes of forgiveness do not suppress our satisfaction, though very little in itself, but rather are the very source of the efficacy of our satisfaction to obtain that forgiveness of sin.
One should keep that spirit of compunction, that is, the continuous sorrow for having offended God. Such sorrow keeps us in humility, reminding us that we did not deserve the grace of our Lord, that we are unworthy servants. Such sorrow helps us to avoid occasions of sins, lest we fall back in those sins which we now detest from the depth of our heart. So, it is good to keep such continuous contrition, in order to be more faithful henceforth. It is so sad to see certain souls falling back in their old sins, as if they never wept for them! Let us remember that the more we expiate our sins here below, the less we will have to do it in Purgatory! Now is the time of mercy; then, it will be the time of justice: “thou shalt not go out from thence till thou repay the last penny” (Mt. 5:26).
In order to renew the sorrow for all the past sins, and in order to obtain further remission of these temporal penalties that remain after confession, it is good and useful especially on the occasion of retreats, to make a general confession of the whole life (after Baptism). A good retreat often prepares for better contrition, more complete accusation and more fervent satisfaction and reparation.
The key element of satisfaction and compunction is charity: we cannot truly love our Lord Jesus Christ who suffered and died on the Cross because of our sins, and leave Him alone in His sufferings, being “an enemy of the Cross of Christ” (Phil. 3:18)! Therefore, we want to be united with Him, “to suffer with Him, so as to be glorified with Him” (Rom. 8:17). The idea that “Christ suffered sufficiently, we do not have to suffer” at all is a Protestant idea, not Catholic charity!
Therefore it is clear that the Sacrament of Penance is not at all a permission to continue to sin: it is rather “dying to sin, so as to live unto God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 6:11). It is “stripping ourselves of the old man with his deeds, and putting on the new” (Col. 3:9-10), that is putting on Christ.
May the Blessed Virgin Mary give us a great devotion and love for the Sacrament of Penance, by which our soul is cleansed again and again, so as to advance towards that perfect purity which our Lady has perfectly kept from the beginning and which is required in order to go to Heaven. Amen.
Fr. F. Laisney