Can’t go to confession during coronavirus? Consider an ‘act of perfect contrition’

Catholic News Agency

By Jonah McKeown/Catholic News Agency

Imagine that Michael, a practicing Catholic, committed a mortal sin yesterday.

Normally, Michael would go to confession. But because of the coronavirus pandemic, he can’t. It simply isn’t available. What can Michael do?

Despite some creative efforts by priests to continue to offer the confessions during the pandemic, country-wide lockdowns and stay-at-home orders mean that Catholics around the world are finding it difficult to seek God’s forgiveness in the confessional.

So when Catholics like Michael can’t seek God’s mercy in confession, the Church teaches that it is possible to repent in another way: through an “act of perfect contrition.”

But what is an act of perfect contrition?

Father Pius Pietrzyk, OP, chair of pastoral studies at St. Patrick’s Seminary in Menlo Park, California, told CNA that “perfect contrition” is sorrow for one’s sins based upon love for God, which includes the firm resolution not to commit them any more.

When contrition arises from “a love by which God is loved above all else, contrition is called ‘perfect,’” the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches.

The catechism explains that perfect contrition “remits venial sins; it also obtains forgiveness of mortal sins if it includes the firm resolution to have recourse to sacramental confession as soon as possible.”

Imperfect contrition, also known as attrition— sorrow for one’s sins based upon fear of the punishment of Hell— is sufficient for a priest to absolve you in the confessional, but not enough to obtain the forgiveness of mortal sin without sacramental confession to a priest, the catechism explains.

So, how is an act of perfect contrition done?

Practically, there are two things a Catholic must do.

The first is to pray an act of contrition “out of love for God,” Father Pietrzyk said.

Being sorry out of love for God has often been described as having a desire to be reunited to God because of who he is– because of God’s perfect love for us, and because of sorrow for having offended God by sin. It means wanting to live in unity with God, and to put aside the sins that stand in the way.

There is no set formula for making an act of contrition, but a common one reads as follows: “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.”

Second, a Catholic must make a firm commitment to go to confession when that becomes possible.

Father Pietrzyk explained that an act of perfect contrition is not a replacement for the sacrament of penance— far from it.

“Even perfect contrition is never separated from the sacrament, at least in intention…if one makes a perfect act of contrition, it’s not ‘Oh, I don’t have to go to confession any more.’ Quite the opposite,” Father Pietrzyk said.

“The person who says: ‘I have perfect contrition, but I’m not going to the sacrament’ does not in fact have perfect contrition,” he said.

The sacrament of penance remains the sole, ordinary means for the forgiveness of mortal sins after baptism, Father Pietrzyk said. Contrition is about conversion, he said, which means turning away from attachment to sin, and turning toward the sacraments.

Pope Francis last week encouraged Catholics confined to their homes to ask God for forgiveness and then to go to confession when they are able.

“You do what the Catechism says. It is very clear: if you do not find a priest to hear your confession, speak to God, he is your father, and tell him the truth…Promise him: ‘Later I will confess, but forgive me now.’ And immediately you will return to the grace of God,” Pope Francis said.

COMING UP: AM[D]G           

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Last November 11, on the centenary of its relocation to a 93-acre campus in suburban Washington, D.C., Georgetown Preparatory School announced a $60 million capital campaign. In his message for the opening of the campaign, Georgetown Prep’s president, Father James Van Dyke, SJ, said that, in addition to improving the school’s residential facilities, the campaign intended to boost Prep’s endowment to meet increasing demands for financial aid. Like other high-end Catholic secondary schools, Georgetown Prep is rightly concerned about pricing itself out of reach of most families. So Prep’s determination to make itself more affordable through an enhanced endowment capable of funding scholarships and other forms of financial aid for less-than-wealthy students is all to the good.

What I find disturbing about the campaign is its “branding” slogan. I first became aware of it when, driving past the campus a few months ago, I noticed a billboard at the corner of Rockville Pike and Tuckerman Lane. In large, bold letters, it proclaimed, “FOR THE GREATER GLORY.” And I wondered, “…of what?” Then one day, when traffic allowed, I slowed down and espied the much smaller inscription in the bottom right corner: “Georgetown Prep’s Legacy Campaign.”

Ad maiorem Dei gloriam [For the greater glory of God], often reduced to the abbreviation, AMDG, was the Latin motto of St. Ignatius Loyola, founder of the Society of Jesus. Georgetown Prep is a Jesuit school. So what happened to the D-word? What happened to God? Why did AMDG become AM[D]G while being translated into fundraising English?

I made inquiries of Jesuit friends and learned that amputating the “D” in AMDG is not unique to Georgetown Prep; it’s a tactic used by other Jesuit institutions engaged in the heavy-lift fundraising of capital campaigns. That was not good news. Nor was I reassured by pondering Father Van Dyke’s campaign-opening message, in which the words “Jesus Christ” did not appear. Neither did Pope Francis’s call for the Church’s institutions to prepare missionary disciples as part of what the Pope has called a “Church permanently in mission.” And neither did the word “God,” save for a closing “Thanks, and God bless.”

Father Van Dyke did mention that “Ignatian values” were one of the “pillars” of Georgetown prep’s “reputation for excellence.” And he did conclude his message with a call for “men who will make a difference in a world that badly needs people who care, people who, in the words Ignatius wrote his best friend Francis Xavier as he sent him on the Society of Jesus’s first mission, will ‘set the world on fire’.” Fine. But ignition to what end?

Ignatius sent Francis Xavier to the Indies and on to East Asia to set the world on fire with love of the Lord Jesus Christ, by evangelizing those then known as “heathens” with the warmth of the Gospel and the enlivening flame of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic faith. St. Ignatius was a New Evangelization man half a millennium before Pope St. John Paul II used the term. St. Ignatius’s chief “Ignatian value” was gloria Dei, the glory of God.

Forming young men into spiritually incandescent, intellectually formidable and courageous Christian disciples, radically conformed to Jesus Christ and just as deeply committed to converting the world, was the originating purpose of Jesuit schools in post-Reformation Europe. Those schools were not content to prepare generic “men for others;” they were passionately devoted to forming Catholic men for converting others, the “others” being those who had abandoned Catholicism for Protestantism or secular rationalism. That was why the Jesuits were hated and feared by powerful leaders with other agendas, be they Protestant monarchs like Elizabeth I of England or rationalist politicians like Portugal’s 18th-century prime minister, the Marquis of Pombal.

Religious education in U.S. Catholic elementary schools has been improved in recent decades. And we live in something of a golden age of Catholic campus ministry at American colleges and universities. It’s Catholic secondary education in the U.S. that remains to be thoroughly reformed so that Catholic high schools prepare future leaders of the New Evangelization: leaders who will bring others to Christ, heal a deeply wounded culture, and become agents of a sane politics. Jesuit secondary education, beginning with prominent and academically excellent schools like Georgetown Prep, could and should be at the forefront of that reform.

Jesuit secondary education is unlikely to provide that leadership, however, if its self-presentation brackets God and announces itself as committed to “the greater glory” of…whatever.