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Reflecting on the Act of Contrition

After we confessing our sins in the Sacrament of Reconciliation and receiving a penance, we say an Act of Contrition. This expresses our sorrow for our sins. We say the Act of Contrition as part of the ritual of the Sacrament. Do you just say the words or do you truly pray them, reflecting on what they mean? Is in the Sacrament of Reconciliation the only time you pray an Act of Contrition or do you pray at other times when you realize you may have sinned?

Today I would like to reflect on the words in the Act of Contrition. There are several versions of the Act of Contrition. I will use the one found on the Sacrament of Reconciliation page on my website. The different versions overlap. So, if you are used to another version, I think my reflection here will still be helpful to aid you in praying the Act of Contrition rather than just saying it.

Here is the prayer in its entirety.

My God,
I am sorry for my sins with all my heart.
In choosing to do wrong
And failing to do good,
I have sinned against you
Whom I should love above all things.
I firmly intend, with your help,
To do penance,
To sin no more,
And to avoid whatever leads me to sin.
Our Savior Jesus Christ
Suffered and died for us.
In his name, my God, have Mercy.

Now, I offer this line by line reflection.

My God
We pray “my God” but the “my” does not indicate ownership or control of God by us. Nor does it indicate an exclusive relationship with God. God is the god of all. We cannot control God. Here “God” is with a capital “G”. God is not just one god among many. He is not just “a” supreme being. He is the “supreme” being. He is the one true God. “God” is not just a word we use to describe “god”. “God” is his name.

I am sorry for my sins with all my heart.
To receive God’s forgiveness requires contrition. That means we must be genuinely sorry for our sins. We are not confessing our sins because that is what is expected of us. In coming to the Sacrament of Reconciliation, we humbly admit that we have sinned and need to be reconciled with God. However, we cannot reconcile our relationship with God on our own. Reconciliation requires forgiveness. The good news is that God is eager to forgive us if we come to him with a contrite and repentant heart. Saying our sins out loud is a very important part of the Sacrament. It signifies our humility. In naming our sins, we lay them before God. God is eager to forgive us but we do not let him forgive us unless we are willing to name our sins. We do so with all our heart because of the love God shows for us.

In choosing to do wrong
Yes, we “choose” to do wrong. It is a bad choice. In committing mortal sin, we break our relationship with God. In committing venial sin, we hurt our relationship with God. When we choose to sin, we think we know better than God. God has told us what is right and wrong but we think differently. We may think that what we did does not hurt anyone. Maybe we listen to the world too much when it says there is no right and wrong, that there is no truth. So, the world thinks we can do whatever we want. Yes, God gives us free will but that does not mean we should do whatever we want. There is right and wrong. There is Truth. It comes from God and “and the truth will set you free” (John 8:32b). (See also my video presentation, Where Do We Go for Truth?)

And failing to do good
To receive forgiveness, we must be willing to admit that we have failed to do good. Some people will not admit when they have failed to do good because they see it as a sign of weakness. They think they need to hide their weakness. Here I think of the words from St. Paul in 2 Corinthians 12:9, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” I will rather boast most gladly of my weaknesses, in order that the power of Christ may dwell with me.”

I have sinned against you
We may not want to admit our sins but doing so removes a great burden from us. Until we admit our sins, we are burdened in trying to hide our sins. Our desire to hide our sins can lead us to lie, another sin. One sin leads to another. Only God can bring us back to him.

Whom I should love above all things.
God is love” (1 John 4:8). We love God because we are first loved by God. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him” (John 3:16-17). Jesus willingly lays down his life for us (see John 15:13). Thus, we should love God “above all things.”

I firmly intend, with your help
Here lies a struggling point. How many times do we commit the same sins over and over? Yet, we say we “firmly intend…to sin no more.” We intend but we fail. God knows this. Yet, He keeps loving us. God looks not just at the external acts that we do. “The Lord looks into the heart” (1 Samuel 16:7). God sees the sin within us but He also sees our desire to love him when we “firmly intend” to stop sinning. God also knows we need his help. The only way we will stop sinning is to let God help us. It may take a long time. God is patient. God forgives over and over (see Matthew 18:21-22).

To do penance
Penance is not simply punishment. Our willingness to do a penance signifies our sorrow. In accepting and doing our penance, we acknowledge that we must make amends (see my article, “What About Accountability?”).

To sin no more
To sin no more. Yes, this is my what I desire. Lord, I want to change. Yet, it seems so difficult. No, it doesn’t just “seem” difficult. It is difficult. It might even seem impossible but nothing is impossible for God (see Matthew 19:25-26). Jesus did not condemn the woman caught in adultery but He did tell her “from now on do not sin any more” (see John 8:1-11).

And to avoid whatever leads me to sin
If we truly desire to “sin no more” we must do more than just say we firmly intend to sin no more. We need to take distinct steps. Sometimes it means we must avoid situations that have lead us to sin in the past. It may mean avoiding alcohol and/or drugs that impair our judgment. It may be not going to places where sin is common.

Our Savior Jesus Christ
We begin the Act of Contrition with the words “my God” but He is not just our own personal God. God is the good of every single person in the world. We are not in this alone. We can be there for one another as we struggle against temptation. We call Jesus our “Savior” because we cannot save ourselves. We need Jesus to redeem us.

Suffered and died for us.
Salvation is possible because Jesus suffered for us, taking the weight of our sins upon himself. Thank you Jesus.

In his name, my God, have Mercy
On my own I am not worthy to receive God’s mercy. I don’t have to be worthy on my own. It is Jesus who makes it possible for us to receive God’s mercy. It is in the name of Jesus that we ask for God’s mercy.

Thank you Jesus!

Peace,

Fr. Jeff

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