When I'm around Milwaukee on the First Friday of each month, I'm often invited to speak at the All-Night Vigil which moves around the archdiocese to different parishes. The theme for last night's vigil was the Sacrament of Reconciliation and I spoke about "Sincere Contrition and Resolve."
When I was growing up I was taught that there are five elements to a good confession: 1)examination of conscience; 2) confession of sins; 3) sincere contrition; 4) resolve or firm purpose of amendment; 5) performing the given penance.
What does "sincere contrition" mean? We sometimes speak about "perfect" and "imperfect" contrition. Perfect contrition means that we are sorry for our sins and go to confession because we know that our sins have disturbed our relationship with God and have actually hurt God. We tend to think of God being so infinitely transcendent that He cannot be touched much less hurt by us. Yet, when you love, you hurt for the one you love when that one is hurt. You share the hurt of the beloved. We are beloved to God, so much so that God became one of us, lived our life, shared our suffering and even death, and then rose--all to save us from our sins which hurt us and which risk ultimate alienation from God and others. Perfect contrition involves being sorry for our sins because we realize how much we are loved by God and how God does not deserve to be ignored and rejected.
Imperfect contrition is when we are sorry for our sins but our focus is not on God but ourselves. We are sorry because of how miserable our sins have left us or because we are afraid of where our sins could lead--to that ultimate rejection of God, God's plan, our goal of heaven.
Can imperfect contrition be sincere? Yes. The prodigal son is a good example of this. In the parable that Jesus told [which can be found in Luke 15 and which is today's Gospel], it's clear to us that the loving father did not deserve to be treated the way his younger son treated him, asking for the inheritance that should come to him at the time of his father's death. Later, when the son has lost everything and is starving, what motivates him to return to his father? We wouldn't call this "perfect contrition." He's motivated by his hunger pains. Pain tells us that something is wrong and in this case the son "woke up" to the reality that life away from his loving father is horrible. And so he returns and is joyfully received by his father who runs to meet him as soon as he catches sight of him on the road back. Why does the father run to him and receive him back? Because he does not care about himself but his son. This is true love. Where the son's decision to return is motivated by the self-interest of getting out of his painful situation, the father's decision to embrace him is motivated by pure love. Imperfect contrition meets perfect love and is overwhelmed by it. We can imagine the son, not even able to finish his prepared speech before his father tells the servants to prepare for a party, coming to even greater sorrow and a more perfect contrition as he experiences such love.
But what about "sincere contrition?" This is related not so much to what motivates the contrition as the resolve one makes. Sincere contrition and resolve go together. Sincere contrition does not say "I'm sorry" while at the same time making plans to sin again.
We know we are weak and will have to battle the same temptations and probably confess the same sins again. Does that mean our contrition is not sincere? No. The devil would have us think that because we find ourselves falling into the same habits of sin our contrition or sorrow is not sincere. As long as we confess our sins asking for God's help to avoid our sinful habits in the future we are being sincere. We know we are weak and that's why we ask for God's grace to avoid our sins.
It's good to strive for perfect contrition but God accepts us as we are, just as the father accepted the wayward son motivated by hunger rather than sorrow. Seeing the joy he brought to his father must have softened the sin-hardened heart of the son. It must have made it easier for him to be faithful and, if he should slip in the future, have more perfect contrition. So it is with us as well. Our contrition may not be perfect, but when we see the joy we bring God by giving Him the opportunity to forgive our sins and heal us in the Sacrament of Reconciliation, it can be more and more motivated by love rather than by self-interest.