Reflection: Perfect and Imperfect Contrition
by Father Don Thomas
For the benefit of Catholics specifically, I submit this reflection for good reasons. Death has often been referred to as the most uncertain of certainties. Because of the uncertainty of death—when will we die, where will we die, how will we die—will it be after a long suffering or will it be very suddenly—in this reflection I would like to deal with all that uncertainty by presenting the difference between perfect contrition and imperfect contrition. Think of this also—all our lives we have had the sacrament of confession or reconciliation at our disposal for the forgiveness of sin, but it is a fact that most people die without having a priest available to represent God in this sacrament. We can derive great comfort and consolation from an understanding of the distinction between the two kinds of contrition. I present this as good, sound catholic doctrine, absolutely worthy of consideration.
One of the prayers we learn early in our lives as Catholics is the Act of Contrition. Contrition is all about being sorry for having offended someone, including God. For Catholics, we know that the ordinary way in which we have our sins forgiven is by going to confession. God is the one who forgives our sins, and he uses the priest only as his instrument. It is exactly the same situation as with the production of life. Only God can create life, but he uses men and women as his instruments for bringing life into the world.
When we go to confession, we must be sorry for our sins. We must have at least "imperfect contrition", if not perfect contrition. What is imperfect contrition? Our sorrow for sin, or contrition, is said to be imperfect when the reason we are sorry lends itself to our benefit, to what we are going to get out of it, how it affects us rather than God. In the following example, notice who we are really thinking about when we pray like this: "God, I am really sorry for my sins because I do not want to go to hell; I do not want to lose heaven". You see, we are not thinking so much of God in that case as much as ourselves. It is just the opposite with perfect contrition.
Notice the difference in this contrition: "God, I want to tell you that I am really sorry for my sins, for having offended you, and I have to admit that I do not want to go to hell or lose heaven, but I also want you to know that the main reason I am sorry is because I have looked at my life and I have seen how good you have been to me: creating me, giving me beautiful parents, family and friends, my baptism, communion and the other sacraments, sending Jesus into the world to suffer for me personally by dying on the cross, for having forgiven me so many times in the past—that is the main reason I am sorry for my sins, God. It is because you have been so good to me and I have hurt you so much by sinning against you". See the difference? With imperfect contrition we are thinking more of ourselves than God. In perfect contrition, we are putting God first and we are sorry because of how our sins have hurt him.
The distinction between the two, therefore, comes down to the reason why we are sorry for our sins. Usually when we speak of something as being "imperfect", it is because there is something wrong with it, or it is defective in some way. Such is not the case with "imperfect contrition". It can be very good, very effective and supernatural, but, theologically speaking, it is not as good or effective as perfect contrition.
When we go to confession, we must have at least "imperfect contrition". That is the ordinary way in which we have our sins remitted or forgiven by God. In ordinary situations, if we believe that we have committed a serious or mortal sin, it is not enough simply to say the act of contrition. Keep in mind that there is no obligation to go to communion at a wedding or a funeral or every Sunday because "we want to receive, or because we feel pressured to receive because of others". No, approach the confessional for forgiveness.
In extraordinary circumstances like a serious accident, a heart attack, going into battle, and similar situations with no chance to go to confession, perfect contrition, properly understood, would suffice for the forgiveness of sin. Then later on, if we should survive, we can always confess those sins for peace of mind, for the remission of the punishment we have due to our sins, etc.
In conclusion, a few words to the wise. Do not neglect confession under ordinary circumstances. Also, do not plan on a death-bed conversion. However, knowing about perfect contrition is very important. Every day or night when we pray, we can learn how to make our contrition perfect by counting and listing our blessings. Think of your wife, husband, children, parents, your home, your country, your baptism, communions, confessions in the past, and on and on. Keep concentrating on all the good things God has done for you. Have a crucifix near your bed, kiss it every night and just look at it and think of how much Jesus loved you—these are just some of the ways in which we can arouse ourselves to perfect contrition.
These are helps in enabling us to tell God we are sorry for our sins, not just because we do not want to go to hell or lose Heaven, but more importantly because we realize and admit that our sins have hurt and offended him so much. After all his goodness to us, we have let him down. That is what perfect contrition is all about.
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