How can you go from imperfect to perfect contrition? Gabriella D from Australia asked me this on Twitter today and I want to give an answer because I think that many people misunderstand what we mean when we talk about “perfect contrition.”
Perfect contrition is sorrow and detestation of sin arising out of the love of God. One way of exciting this contrition in our hearts is by considering the passion of Jesus Christ and making acts of love for Him. We can also think of the infinite love which God has for us, and express sorrow in our heart in the presence of this great love which we have offended.
Imperfect contrition is sorrow and detestation for sin arising from a consideration of the ugliness of sin or out of the fear of hell. Disgust at the ugliness of sin is more common today than fear of hell. That is because we do not preach enough, or with sufficient conviction about the four last things.
If a person commits an act of impurity, for example, perhaps by deliberately looking at an obscene image on the internet, the person may be disgusted afterwards by the ugliness of their sin. Such contrition is not perfect, but it is sufficient sorrow for that person go to confession and receive God’s forgiveness. This is imperfect contrition; it is good, but it can certainly be improved on.
If the person is instead sorry because they think of the love of God whom they have offended, or the passion of Christ to which they have contributed, then they have made an act of perfect contrition.
This is not to say that the person has made a perfect prayer, or that their contrition is absolutely spotless and cannot be any better. The word “perfect” in this context means that the contrition has hit its proper target fair and square, being sorrow for the love of God. It has not fallen short by being directed to our own fear of hell or disgust with ourselves.
So how do we move from imperfect to perfect contrition? It is important to understand that this is an everyday possibility, not an impossible dream. We can at any time make an act of perfect contrition instead of an act of imperfect contrition. I am not saying that it is possible to make a perfect prayer every day, or to have the most perfect saintly sorrow – those are things that we strive towards in our everyday spiritual lives. To try to put it as clearly as possible, we are not talking about a “Perfect Act …” (of contrition); we are talking about “Perfect Contrition” (… an act of.)
Right here, right now, I can make what the Church refers to as an act of perfect contrition by directing my contrition to the love of God rather than my own feelings of disgust or fear of hell. The best way for most of us to do this regularly is to use one of the acts of contrition that are part of our tradition of Catholic prayer. As a confessor, I encourage people to make their act of contrition in their own language because we have such a great collection of these prayers in different languages. (Of course I’m not in any way discouraging people from learning and using a Latin Act of Contrition if they want to.)
Here is the Act of Contrition that we learnt in my class for first Holy Communion many years ago; it includes the motives of fear of hell, sorrow for the passion of Christ and sorrow for offending God’s goodness.
O my God, I am sorry and beg pardon for all my sins, and detest them above all things, because they deserve Thy dreadful punishments, because they have crucified my loving Saviour Jesus Christ, and most of all because they offend Thine infinite goodness; and I firmly resolve, by the help of Thy grace, never to offend Thee again, and carefully to avoid the occasions of sin.
If you make that prayer and mean the words, then you have made an act of perfect contrition.
On another occasion, we will consider the important advantage of an Act of Perfect Contrition if ever we have the misfortune of falling into mortal sin.