By Fr. Adrian Mascarenhas –
When I say the Act of Contrition, are my sins taken away immediately? Or is my prayer simply a request that God in his mercy will grant forgiveness- as in the sacrament of penance?
Like all sacraments, the Sacrament of Reconciliation also has four elements, namely the matter, the form, the minister and of course the candidate. The MINISTER and the CANDIDATE in this case are the priest (or bishop) and the penitent respectively.
The MATTER consists of
(a) Contrition (feeling truly sorry for one’s sins out of love of God),
(b) Confession (declaring one’s sorrow to the church, represented by her minister) and
(c) Satisfaction (doing something to repair the harm caused by sin).
The FORM on the other hand consists of a valid ABSOLUTION granted by the minister. All these elements are necessary to make a valid confession.
We see, therefore, that contrition by itself, no matter how sincere, is not a Sacrament but is only the beginning of one. It lacks that “outward sign of inward grace” that makes a Sacrament valid.
However, true contrition is definitely a gift of God. The love of God is present in it by definition. True contrition always contains in itself a desire to make a Sacramental Confession and be absolved of one’s sins. If this desire is lacking or is weak, then one’s contrition is not perfect. (True contrition also includes the desire to change one’s life and correct the harm caused by sin).
The kind of repentance that is necessary also varies depending on the seriousness of the sin.
(a) In the case of grave sins, it is important to confess to a priest and receive absolution. Merely making an Act of Contrition would be insufficient unless in certain exceptional cases it is impossible to confess one’s sin.
(b) In the case of venial sins, an Act of Contrition might suffice. However, it is good to confess these sins also, especially if they are repeated often.
Though it is not part of the Sacrament as such, it is always recommended to reconcile with the persons whom we have harmed. This is not only a meritorious act but it is also a testimony to the genuineness of our repentance. Forgiveness from God alone is sufficient for our salvation, but if we are unable to make the effort to reconcile with others, we need to look into our lives and see whether our repentance is sincere. Hence I recommend – as far as is practically possible – saying sorry to the people whom one has hurt BEFORE going for Confession to the priest.
Rev. Fr. Adrian Mascarenhas has served as the Assistant Parish Priest of St. Patrick’s Church and Ascension Church, and has completed two years of ministry at St. Peter’s Church, Bangalore, India. He received his licentiate in sacred theology from Dharmaram Vidya Kshethram and is currently pursuing a doctorate in Fundamental Theology at the Pontifical Lateran University, Rome.