Consecrated to the Heart of the Redeemer under the patronage of the Theotokos and Fr. Gerard Manley Hopkins, S.J.

09 February 2013

Act of Attrition

As a priest I am privileged to participate in a very specific manner in the "ministry of reconciliation."  Recall Saint Paul's description of Christ's tremendous gift to His Church, to one and all:
Whoever is in Christ is a new creation: the old things have passed away; behold, new things have come. And all this is from God, who has reconciled us to Himself through Christ and given us the ministry of reconciliation, namely, God was reconciling the world to Himself in Christ, not counting their trespasses against them and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. (2 Cor 5:17-19).
In the "formula for absolution" in the Sacrament of Reconciliation we hear echoes of Paul's words:
God, the Father of mercies, through the death and resurrection of His Son, has reconciled the world to Himself and sent the Holy Spirit among us for the forgiveness of sins.  Through the ministry of the Church, may God give you pardon and peace, and I absolve you from your sins in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.
This goes to show that, in Penance and every other ecclesial service, I act not merely on my own behalf but on the Lord's.  At the same time, the Sacrament is an intensely personal encounter of the priest and the penitent.  It can be, for either party, a moment for mingled nervousness and delight.

All of this is prelude to a reflection on the Act of Contrition, which immediately precedes the imparting of absolution.  While the most recent Rite of Penance presents a contemporary version to be offered "in these or similar words," the traditional form (which itself has some variants) is still taught and used in many parishes.
O my God, I am heartily sorry for having offended Thee; and I detest all my sins because of Thy just punishments, but most of all, because they offend Thee, my God, who art all-good and deserving of all my love.  I firmly resolve, with the help of Thy grace, to sin no more and to avoid the near occasion of sin.  Amen.
The confessions of children often feature variations on this Act that aren't found in any book.  Some kids omit a phrase or an entire sentence.  Others will replace virtually any word in the Act that has two or three syllables with a similar-sounding word.  Most children make only one or two substitutions per recitation.  Following is a conglomeration of substitutions:
O my God, I am hardly sorry for having defended Thee; and I contest all my sins because of Thy just punishments, but most of all, because they defend Thee, my God, who art all-good and preserving of all my love.  I firmly dissolve, with the help of my grace, to sin no more and to avoid the near temptation of sin.  Amen.
Any priest can add to this ecclesial version of "Kids Say the Darndest Things."  We do so with tremendous respect for our children, whom we are forming in the ministry of reconciliation by guiding them to:
  • Awareness of sin, as a conscious and free choice against the God whom we are to love above all else, against the neighbor whom we are to love as ourselves, and against our own very best interests.  
  • Examination for particular sins, mortal and venial; modeling the desire to become free from both kinds, eager to let go of unworthy attitudes/actions as we become aware of them.
  • Repentance for sins, in light of the countless manifestations of God's tender mercies in our lives. We always revisit the distinction between "imperfect" and "perfect" contrition, the former being based on the fear of punishment (temporal and eternal), and the latter based on our love for God and our deepest desire not to offend Him.  To be "hardly" sorry, to "contest" our sins--by more frequent confession, these attitudes give way to a joyful repentance that is free of self-justification.
  • Confession of sins that is integral, omitting nothing because of embarrassment or fear.  This may be the most difficult part of the sacrament, yet the most rewarding!  Children and adults must be assured that priests have heard it all before.  But we are quick to remember that, in the sacrament,  the person approaching us is a fellow wounded member of Christ's Body who desires to be made whole.  I make regular use of the sacrament, at least every 3,000 miles!
  • Satisfaction for sins, made by the prompt and attentive discharge of the token penance that the confessor assigns.  The best motive for satisfaction is gratitude--gratitude for forgiveness received and for forthcoming chances to put grace to work.  Yes, as we move forward in the Christian life, our greatest satisfaction for sins is that which gives God the greatest satisfaction: "approaching the throne of grace to receive mercy and to find grace for timely help" (Heb 4:16).  Call upon Him in the foxhole.  Yeah, He knows as well as you: that's where we tend to call upon Him!  He'll listen!  ++  The best method of satisfaction is actual change--taking concerted actions contrary to previous sinful patterns.  That's avoiding the near occasion ("temptation") of sin: if I don't really want to repeat this behavior, I have to do something different.  So often as penitents we ignore this, but then we can't wonder how we revert to the attitude or action so easily.
Parents participate in the Church's ministry of reconciliation by teaching their children well:
  • Modeling forgiveness: promptly seeking your spouse's and children's forgiveness when necessary; promptly offering forgiveness without heaping shame upon others for their misdeeds;  promptly going to Confession regularly, whether your children know it or not (I don't think it would hurt if they actually saw you head toward the confessional on occasion, not to make a spectacle of yourself but to assure them that it's OK to go.  You won't disintegrate!)
  • Talking about patterns of vice and particular sins:  In a non-threatening, non-embarrassing forum (i.e., not right after the kid has done something wrong and you've caught him), you lead with your own weaknesses (this isn't Confession, it's not a grossly candid, Jerry Springer-esque sort of sharing that burdens children with an inappropriate insecurity about their home life).  "I have weaknesses, too" may be a good start, but it's insufficient for the long haul.  In the wake of manifestations of particular behaviors and attitudes, it will be helpful to share your own experiences in the same areas.  Even if there isn't a direct correspondence of actions, you can share about situations that had a similar outcome or similar feelings involved.  As parents begin to foster an atmosphere of honesty, the question will arise of how to answer direct questions about particularly sensitive matters ("Mom, did you ever do drugs?").  I suggest that there is a way to be honest about past sinful choices or habits that encourages children not to follow suit (although they very well may), as if your past is their permission slip.  I have heard it put very well: "You don't have to do it the way I did."  They still have the choice, but now it is fortified by solid, unappealing experience.
The Domestic Church of the family has much to do with maximizing contrition and minimizing attrition.  As young people learn genuine contrition, I believe that the chance of losing them to secular society and to other religions will decrease.  Be encouraged that older people can learn contrition, too; it's never too late to become the best possible person and example.

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