“Ask a Priest: Are we capable of perfect contrition?”

Q: Father, is everyone capable of perfect contrition? I do not feel that it is possible for me as I have been so fearful of the pains of hell for my entire life. -C.P.

Answered by Fr. Edward McIlmail, LC

A: One of the most beautiful things that Jesus reveals to us is that God is a Trinity of three Divine Persons: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. This mystery is beyond our understanding. But one thing that comes across in the New Testament is that “God is love” (1 John 4:8). Remember that God the Father loves you and wants you with him forever in heaven.

That means we should ideally live our faith as a relationship. Our faith is not first and foremost about hell and punishment. Rather, it is about a loving God who reveals himself in a special way through his Son. God also gives us commandments and the sacraments and the guidance of the Church to help us on our way through life toward eternity. And a God who is always merciful when we sin and repent and come back to him.

At this point you might want to ask yourself how you see your faith. Do you see it as just a set of rules and regulations? Do you see God as an avenger who is ready to pounce on sinners? It might help to see him as we address him: Our Father. The rules he gives us, he gives to guide us and help us avoid bad falls.

As to your specific question, the short answer to your question is a qualified yes, everyone is capable of perfect contrition. God calls all of us to be saints — “Be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48) – and that means he will give us the grace we need to reach that goal. Part of being a saint means doing things for love of God. But we have to be open to this grace, because God won’t force himself on us.

Now, contrition is a necessary part of the sacrament of confession. Contrition is “sorrow of the soul and detestation for the sin committed, together with the resolution not to sin again” (Catechism, 145). Perfect contrition “arises from a love by which God is loved above all else” (Catechism, 1452).

If you feel as if you aren’t capable of perfect contrition, even imperfect contrition (or “attrition”) has its value. Such attrition, the Catechism says in No. 1453, “is also a gift of God, a prompting of the Holy Spirit. It is born of the consideration of sin’s ugliness or the fear of eternal damnation and the other penalties threatening the sinner (contrition of fear). Such a stirring of conscience can initiate an interior process which, under the prompting of grace, will be brought to completion by sacramental absolution.” In short, this means that even with imperfect contrition, we can be sure that we can be absolved of sins in the sacrament of confession.

Without knowing more about your personal situation, I wonder if perhaps you might have a problem with scrupulosity. Scrupulosity is oversensitivity to faults, especially grievous faults. A scrupulous person might think he is constantly in mortal sin, no matter what. Scrupulosity can stem from various causes. (For more on this topic, see this article.)

For now, you want to find a good confessor whom you can go to on a regular basis. He will be able to guide you. Count on his help … and my prayers.

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