Living the Act of Contrition
A while back, I was hanging out with a friend and having a beer.
I'll call him Angelo for the story. He then proceeded to tell me the story about how he did, indeed, screw up, and how his sin directly hurt a family member.
What struck me was Angelo’s authentic and powerful contrition.
He was heartily sorry for having offended. In choosing to do wrong and failing to do good, Angelo understood well that he had sinned against the one whom he should love above all things. But, perhaps most importantly, I could tell that flowing from his sorrow for his sin came his determination: Angelo was firmly resolved, with the help of God’s grace, to make things right again. He desired to amend his life. And with the position he put himself in, I’m sure he’d attest to a new meaning behind the words “with the help of God’s grace,” because while he was resolved to make things right, he had no idea how he was going to do it.
In that conversation, I saw Angelo as a living image of the Act of Contrition prayer. He explained everything to me, and I listened silently. After he talked he was pensive. It was clear that on his mind was the frequent thought of every man: How do I fix this?
Amending one’s life
Don’t take me to be naive, but my immediate thought was that God is really blessing my friend, and in fact his problem was mostly resolved already because Angelo had the right disposition.
Make no mistake; he was in an uncomfortable and unenviable position. However, while Angelo’s best course of action was unknown, there were three clear things in which he could take comfort: He was sorry, he wanted forgiveness, and he was set on making things right, or amending his life.
He also didn’t make excuses for his actions, and he didn’t think of himself as entitled to anyone’s forgiveness.
I couldn’t help but compare what I saw as awesome penitence in Angelo to the many men of my generation who make excuses or belittle their evil. After sinning against another, men might make a kind of worldly or false act of contrition. We say things like, “I may have screwed up — but I was also harmed.” Or, “I shouldn’t have to care too much about what I have done wrong, because I do so much good around here.” Or my personal favorite: “So I screwed up! Big deal, no one’s perfect.”
Can you imagine saying that sort of thing after confession? “I am heartily sorry for having offended thee — but she started it. And I’m not perfect. And what I did isn’t really that bad if you think about it.”
There is a Catholic legend that St. Peter, for the rest of his life after denying Christ, cried so much and so often that his wrinkles were worn deeply to act as channels for his tears. Was he despairing, or weak or unmanly? No. Precisely the opposite. He was truly sorry for having messed up, but he contemplated his sin in light of God’s great mercy. From this disposition, he was able to act and to exercise his will, and so he evangelized until his martyrdom.
In this way, St. Peter was also a living Act of Contrition. He was a man of contemplation and a man of action.
It is our duty as Catholic men — if we are to be leaders in our families and communities — to have a disposition of contrition for our sins and resolve to make things right again. And while I find that men are often skeptical of emotions in general, it is important to know that our emotions are properly ordered if we feel sorry for our sins. Every one of them, not the least of which are the ones that harm others.
A Catholic man knows that he must firmly resolve, with the help of God’s grace, to confess his sins, to do penance and to amend his life.
This article was originally written for The Catholic Spirit