Feeling sorrow for one’s sins and resolving not to repeat wrongdoing: it seems clear no person can do this perfectly on all acts, but the sincere penitent will try.
But the essential act of penance, on the part of the penitent, is contrition, a clear and decisive rejection of the sin committed, together with a resolution not to commit it again,* out of the love which one has for God and which is reborn with repentance. Understood in this way, contrition is therefore the beginning and the heart of conversion, of that evangelical metanoia which brings the person back to God like the prodigal son returning to his father, and which has in the sacrament of penance its visible sign and which perfects attrition. Hence “upon this contrition of heart depends the truth of penance.”(Order of Penance, 6c)
*Cf Council of Trent, Session XIV De Sacramento Poenitentiae, Chap. 4 De Contritione: Conciliorum Oecumenicorum Decreta, ed. cit., 705 (DS 1676-1677). Of course, in order to approach the sacrament of penance it is sufficient to have attrition, or imperfect repentance, due more to fear than to love. But in the sphere of the sacrament, the penitent, under the action of the grace that he receives, “ex attrito fit conmtus,” since penance really operates in the person who is well disposed to conversion in love: cf Council of Trent, ibid., ed. cit., 705 (DS 1678).
A few things … The connection of conversion to contrition involves an awareness of two things. First, the path of an adult seeker to Christ–what we often see in the Gospels as well as in RCIA in parishes. Second, there’s the understanding that the mature Christian undergoes continuing conversion. The aspiration to holiness never ends.
The Trent footnote affirms that human repentance is never complete or perfect. If a person has the inclination to ongoing conversion, God is pleased with this. Thomas Merton’s famous line, “I know that the desire to please you does, in fact, please you.”
This is an important paragraph:
While reiterating everything that the church, inspired by God’s word, teaches about contrition, I particularly wish to emphasize here just one aspect of this doctrine. It is one that should be better known and considered. Conversion and contention are often considered under the aspect of the undeniable demands which they involve and under the aspect of the mortification which they impose for the purpose of bringing about a radical change of life. But we all too well to recall and emphasize the fact that contrition and conversion are even more a drawing near to the holiness of God, a rediscovery of one’s true identity, which has been upset and disturbed by sin, a liberation in the very depth of self and thus a regaining of lost joy, the joy of being saved, (Cf Psalm 51:12) which the majority of people in our time are no longer capable of experiencing.
Again the notion particularly critical of the present age. I do agree that the aspiration to sanctity is vitally important. It needs reminding. Every Christian could aspire to sainthood. I’d say the majority of people of any time struggle to experience contrition and conversion. Every age has its blind spots. The 19th century had its share of sins lacking contrition: racism, colonialism, misogyny, slavery and other forms of servitude connected with industry or agriculture. Few to none of these were recognized outside of circles considered radical a century or two ago. I think we attend well when Pope John Paul II urges all believers to sanctity. We remain skeptical when he suggests any age is better or worse in awareness of sin or distance from sanctity.
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