On that first Easter day, Christ appeared to the disciples in his risen body, and gave them the power to forgive sins: “He breathed on them and said, ‘Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained’ ” (see John 20:19–23). In this moment he instituted the sacrament of penance.
Penance (or confession, or reconciliation) is the sacrament by which we are forgiven any sins we have committed after baptism, especially our grave sins, that is, our mortal sins, which are called mortal because they bring about a kind of spiritual death. The forgiveness of grave sins ordinarily requires the sacrament of penance.
But what if we cannot get to confession? When sacramental penance is unavailable — as it is to many Catholics in this time of pandemic — it is important to remember that perfect (that is, complete) contrition “obtains the forgiveness of mortal sins if it includes the firm resolution to have recourse to sacramental confession as soon as possible” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1452).
So what is contrition, and when is it “perfect”? Contrition is a voluntary sorrow and detestation for sins committed, together with the firm purpose of confessing and making satisfaction for them, and of avoiding all sin, in the future. Contrition is called perfect or complete when it is true and interior, supernatural, supreme, and universal. Each part of this definition is important, and merits closer attention.
First, it helps to know that “contrition” comes from the Latin verb meaning “to grind into small pieces.” In the Christian life, we talk about contrition as a kind of spiritual pulverizing, a breaking of our hard, stony hearts by sorrow when we have lost the grace of God and our own innocence. We should emphasize that we cannot produce contrition by our natural human efforts: It arises from supernatural charity, and is a gift from God.
Contrition is voluntary, meaning it is something deliberate that involves a movement of our will. Contrition is not primarily a feeling or emotion; instead it is primarily an active turning (conversion) of our will away from sin and toward God.
Here the first mover of our will is God, whose grace moves us to reject sin and to choose the way of holiness and love instead, putting our faith in Jesus and the saving power of his sacrifice. Perfect or complete contrition is more than a word on our lips: It is an interior reality, born of faith and love, a real heartbreak and a determination to leave sin behind and to cling to God.
Contrition is a sorrow and detestation for sins committed. That is, contrition is more than a decision to stop sinning, or to make a new start: It is a real hatred for our own past wrongdoing. If we have perfect contrition, we will wish we had never done the evil we did. Contrition includes, moreover, the firm determination to confess our sins, to make satisfaction for them (that is, to do penance and make restitution), and to avoid all sin in the future.
Perfect or complete contrition is also supernatural, supreme, and universal. In this context “supernatural” means our contrition comes from the grace of God: We are sorry because we love God, and not only because we are afraid of going to hell, or dismayed by the inherent ugliness of sin, or disappointed in ourselves, or saddened to have to go to confession!
“Supreme” means we are sorry because we know God is the highest good, and that sin, because it offends and separates us from him, is the worst evil. It also means we deliberately reject sin more than we reject anything else, and choose God in preference to everything. If we are saddened by our sins but still prefer them over complete conversion, our contrition is not yet supreme.
Finally our contrition, to be perfect, must be “universal”: It must apply to all our mortal sins, without exception. Even if we cannot remember each one of our sins at the moment, universal contrition is possible because we can still, in an instant, by God’s grace, despise everything that is not pleasing to God. Our contrition is universal if we would reject every sin out of love for God, and forgive everyone who has sinned against us, regardless of whether we can, at the moment, actually recall every sin of ours or every person we ought to forgive.
We may not know how long it will be before we can all return to Mass, to frequent Communion and confession. But meanwhile, we must not imagine God has left us alone: He is always our loving Father, and his infinite goodness and mercy are ours still. Christ, risen from the dead, forever lives to make intercession for us. Even when we cannot approach his mysteries, the sacraments, Christ is not far from us.
In this difficult time we might especially seek the intercession of St. Thérèse of Lisieux. She knew, in the last months of her life, that she might die without the sacraments, but her serenity was undisturbed.
“Without doubt,” she said, “it is a great thing to receive the Sacraments; but when the good God does not permit this, it is good all the same: everything is grace.” All things, in other words, work for good for those who love God (see Romans 8:28).
Editor’s note: At his livestreamed morning Mass March 20, Pope Francis reminded Catholics that people who cannot get to confession because of the coronavirus lockdown or another serious reason, can go to God directly, be specific about their sins, request pardon, and experience God’s loving forgiveness.
“This is the right time, the opportune moment. An act of contrition done well, and our souls will become white like the snow,” the pope said.
Lent is a special time “to let God wash us, purify us, to let God embrace us,” the pope said, and the best place for that is the confessional.
“But many people today would tell me, ‘Father, where can I find a priest, a confessor, because I can’t leave the house? And I want to make peace with the Lord, I want him to embrace me, I want the Father's embrace.’ ”
The pope said his response would be: “Do what the Catechism [of the Catholic Church] says. It is very clear: If you cannot find a priest to confess to, speak directly with God, your father, and tell him the truth. Say, ‘Lord, I did this, this, this. Forgive me,’ and ask for pardon with all your heart. ... I will go to confession afterward, but forgive me now.’ And immediately you will return to a state of grace with God.”