The Grace of Imperfect Contrition


This time of year, when you pick up your parish bulletin, somewhere in between the Pastor’s Column and ad for the local K of C Fish Fry, you’re likely to find a list of your vicariate penance services. Most parishes do everything they can to remove any excuse you might have to go to confession during Lent. So go! Hopefully, you get to confession more often than once a year, but either way, Lent is the time to go. And there’s really nothing like that squeaky-clean feeling of walking out of a good confession.

Back in grade school, I had to memorize the Five Steps of a Good Confession:

  1. Examine your conscience
  2. Be sorry for your sins (contrition)
  3. Have a firm purpose of amendment
  4. Tell your sins to the priest
  5. Do the penance the priest gives you.

Pretty simple stuff, really. Five easy steps to a bright, shiny, and clean soul. No excuses, people. Just go!

Contrition does get broken down a little bit; there are two kinds. Perfect Contrition is sorrow for our sins purely because they are offensive to God. Imperfect Contrition (or attrition) is sorrow for our sins because we dread punishment. The Act of Contrition we make during Confession talks about both,

I am heartily sorry for having offended Thee, and I detest all my sins because of Thy just punishments, but most of all because I have offended Thee my God, who art all good and deserving of all my love.

Perfect Contrition is really hard and requires supernatural help from God. But for those who are unable to receive the Sacrament of Reconciliation immediately, it obtains the forgiveness of even mortal sins, provided that you have the intention of getting to confession as soon as possible (CCC 1452). In his Marian Catechist program, Fr. John Hardon S.J. says that even sinners who are unable to receive the sacraments of Baptism, Reconciliation, or Anointing of the Sick (such as our Protestant brethren, or the unbaptized) can attain forgiveness of their sins through an Act of Perfect Contrition! How great is the mercy of God!

Most of us poor sinners fall under the umbrella of Imperfect Contrition — I know I do, anyway. For those like me who have a long way to go in their spiritual lives and mainly have a fear of Hell and damnation, God in His infinite mercy takes our Imperfect Contrition and disposes us to forgiveness through the Sacrament of Reconciliation.

There was a heresy squashed by the Council of Trent called “Attritionism.” It stated that sorrow for sins from fear of punishment (i.e. Imperfect Contrition/Attrition) is tainted and cannot merit forgiveness of our sins. Thankfully, the Council of Trent clarified that while attrition cannot merit God’s forgiveness on its own, it does prepare us to receive His mercy and forgiveness in the Sacrament of Reconciliation.

As in all things, we are meant to work towards what is perfect, including Perfect Contrition.

“You, therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matthew 5:48)

God doesn’t mean this to be a barrier to the forgiveness of our sins. This Lent, go hit up that penance service. Go through those five steps of a good confession. Then rest assured that God has washed your soul white as the snow (that inexplicably continues to fall here in Michigan). God will take even our imperfect motivations and transform them into perfection through His grace.

Have you made plans for Confession yet this Lent?

Copyright 2018 Hilary Thompson


About Author

Hilary Thompson is a young wife and mother of two boys in southeast Michigan. She has been an organist since she was twelve. When she grows up, she wants to be a 97-year-old church cleaning lady. You can find more of her work at Messy Buns & Latin Chant.

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