The Return of the Prodigal Son. An Example of True Contrition.
CONTRITION AND THE PURPOSE OF AMENDMENT
by St. Alphonsus Di Liguori
Contrition is a hearty sorrow for sin with the firm purpose to sin no more. This true sorrow for sin, being the most important point in a good preparation for confession, requires to be carefully considered and understood.
1. Contrition is an essential condition of penance, so that the Priest can never absolve a sinner who gives no sign of true repentance. The absolution which a sinner receives who is not sincerely contrite, is worthess and sacrilegious. A confessor would commit a great sin against the holy sacrament of Penance, if he did not in every proper way assure himself of the contrition of the sinner. They are foolish and unjust, therefore, who complain, when a wise confessor, and one who fears God, refuses them absolution, because he can find in them no sign of true contrition.
St. Gregory says: "He who is not truly converted receives no benefit, even if he does confess his sins." Christians without number make fruitless confessions, because they are not truly penitent. It is this want of contrition that makes the office of a Priest so difficult ; for it is not their duty merely to hear confessions and give absolution, but to do so according to the will of God. O God! what anxiety and distress do confessors suffer on account of so many sinners, who with hearts all cold and indifferent, enter the holy confessional, to run over their sins in a careless manner, as they would any other indifferent affair, and whose whole conduct gives reason to suspect that they feel no sorrow for their sins.
2. True contrition, however be it well understood, is a supernatural virtue, and must be grounded upon supernatural motives. In other words, it must spring from motives of faith, awakened in the heart by the consideration of the eternal truths of religion. To be sorry for our sins because they have brought us into shame, poverty, sickness, or any mere worldly misfortune, is no true contrition, and will not procure the pardon of our sins. Some persons, when they go to confession, appear more anxious to tell of their vexations and miseries than to accuse themselves of their sins. They do not desire so much to be pardoned, as to be comforted in their misfortunes. On the contrary, true contrition is a sorrow which comes from higher: and holier motives. It is our Faith that weeps for the misfortunes of the soul, and the injury done to God. If the unhappy sinner sincerely desires the pardon of his sins, his contrition must be of this kind, for God will accept no other.
8. The best and purest motive for contrition is the divine love, which makes us grieve for our sins, and detest them because of their ingratitude, and the injury done to a good and holy God. When this is the predominant motive, contrition is called perfect, and is so excellent a disposition, that, according to the Council of Trent, the soul may be reconciled by it to God, even before confession and the priestly absolution, provided there is also an earnest desire for these. Imperfect contrition (or attrition) is where the sinner is excited to sorrow, and to the purpose of amendment, by the consideration of the turpitude of his sins, or from the fear of hell, or because he has forfeited his right to heaven. These motives, although less perfect than that first mentioned, are nevertheless good, for they are true impulses of the Holy Ghost, and dispose one to receive the grace of pardon through the sacrament of penance.
"We must not, however, fall into the error of those who think that a feeble contrition is all they need, provided they confess their sins. True contrition, although it may be imperfect in its kind, is never feeble. It is true that the sincere penitent is often unconscious of any strong feeling of sorrow; for contrition does not properly consist in any feeling at all, but rather in the supernatural hatred and abhorrence of sin. Strictly speaking, however, a genuine contrition can never be feeble; otherwise it would not be sufficient to produce that firm and efficacious purpose of amendment, which is its natural and necessary fruit. It is therefore neither right nor safe to set narrow bounds to ourselves in this respect, but we should try to animate our souls more and more to a genuine, earnest, efficacious, and tender contrition. Our forgiveness becomes then easier and surer, and our reformation more complete and lasting.
4. The firm purpose of Amendment is the inseparable companion of true contrition, and therefore a necessary condition to the forgiveness of sin. God requires of the sinner a new spirit, and a new life "When the wicked turneth himself away from his wickedness, which he hath wrought, and doeth judgment and justice, he shall save his soul alive" (Ezech. xviii. 27.) It is impossible for God to pardon the sinner who still retains the will to offend him. He must be resolved to offend God no more, and this resolution must be no mere promise of the lips, or momentary emotion, but a sincere, firm, and efficacious determination.
Can the purpose of Amendment be called sincere in that man, who says to God, that he repents with his whole heart of having offended him, but who falls immediately into the same sins, after receiving absolution? or that man who runs again into the same occasions of sin ; who does not avoid the persons who led him into sin before; who frequents the same places of temptation; who will not repair the injury he has done; who will not consent to be reconciled with his enemy? in fine, who does not even make an honest, practical beginning of a good life, nor take the necessary means of perseverance? Who can doubt that the confession of such a man is a mere mockery of penance? Who can believe that his absolution was of any value?
5. What must you do, then, my dear Christian, in order to excite in yourself this salutary sorrow for your sins, and this firm purpose of amendment?
In the first place, it is necessary to place before your mind, and to meditate seriously upon those supernatural truths of our holy religion, which, as we have already seen, furnish the only true motives of a genuine contrition, and of an effectual and lasting conversion.
"Remember thy last end,''' says the Prophet, "and thou shalt never sin." (Ezech. vii. 20.) But above all, it is necessary to pray. Yes, poor sinner, pray earnestly to God for a true contrition pray for a firm and lasting resolution to sin no more for those holy dispositions of heart are gifts of God which a man cannot have of himself, but must seek it through prayer.
Remark.--1. It is necessary for you to know, my dear Christian, that contrition for your sins must always go before absolution, and therefore, as soon as you have examined, and remembered our sins, you ought to repent of them immediately, with the intention to receive the holy sacrament of penance. For if you should not have in your heart this sincere sorrow for your sins until after absolution, then both your confession and your absolution will be good for nothing. 2. Do not be too anxious, lest your sins should not be forgiven by God, because you do not feel any contrition. As the good tree is known by its fruit, so will your true contrition be known by your improvement. Therefore, it may be said for your consolation, that you may confidently hope your repentance is true when you have actually changed your life, and abandoned your sins.