Repentance, Contrition, and Forgiveness

The readings for today (11th Sunday in Ordinary Time, year C) fit nicely with the theme of the Jubilee Year of Mercy.  Hint:  they’re all about repentance, contrition, and forgiveness.

The first reading (2 Samuel 12:7-10, 13) was about David being confronted with having taken the wife of Uriah the Hittite, and confessing his sin.  The second reading, from Galatians (Galatians 2:16, 19-21), is the passage about being justified by faith in Jesus, rather than works of the law.  The Gospel (Luke 7:36-8:3) was the dinner at the Pharisee’s house where the repentant woman washes Jesus’ feet with her tears.  It is really a beautiful set of readings that expresses how astounding it is that God forgives us, and forgives us freely.  When we deserve His harsh judgement, instead we get His infinite mercy.

One interesting point about the first reading is that, although David confesses his sin to Nathan the prophet, and receives forgiveness, the effect of the sin (“the sword shall never depart from your house”) remains.  David’s sons die by the sword.

The second reading and the Gospel tie together neatly, since the epistle is about how faith justifies us, and the Gospel references that the woman’s faith saved her.  In essence, if we don’t have faith that God can forgive us, we’re lost.  I find it interesting that in several places in the Bible, including in this Gospel passage, the Jews are taken aback when Jesus tells someone that his or her sins are forgiven.  This appears incredible to them, since only God can forgive sins.  The people who come to Jesus have faith that He is the Lord, and therefore able to grant forgiveness.

During his homily, the priest stated that, “God forgives us the moment we repent.”  This struck me as…shall we say, an incomplete formulation.  I can work around to it, though, by the idea that repentance is the initial movement of the conscience that causes one to seek out absolution through the sacrament of confession.  When we take that first step, to repent and to convert our lives, God is ready to forgive us.  As the Catechism of the Catholic Church states,

1431 Interior repentance is a radical reorientation of our whole life, a return, a conversion to God with all our heart, an end of sin, a turning away from evil, with repugnance toward the evil actions we have committed. At the same time it entails the desire and resolution to change one’s life, with hope in God’s mercy and trust in the help of his grace. This conversion of heart is accompanied by a salutary pain and sadness which the Fathers called animi cruciatus (affliction of spirit) and compunctio cordis (repentance of heart).

While I was thinking about this paragraph, in the back of my mind I thought I remembered something more about repentance and forgiveness even absent sacramental confession.  Sure enough, the Catechism discusses perfect vs. imperfect contrition:

1450 “Penance requires . . . the sinner to endure all things willingly, be contrite of heart, confess with the lips, and practice complete humility and fruitful satisfaction.”


1451 Among the penitent’s acts contrition occupies first place. Contrition is “sorrow of the soul and detestation for the sin committed, together with the resolution not to sin again.”

1452 When it arises from a love by which God is loved above all else, contrition is called “perfect” (contrition of charity). Such contrition remits venial sins; it also obtains forgiveness of mortal sins if it includes the firm resolution to have recourse to sacramental confession as soon as possible.

1453 The contrition called “imperfect” (or “attrition”) is also a gift of God, a prompting of the Holy Spirit. It is born of the consideration of sin’s ugliness or the fear of eternal damnation and the other penalties threatening the sinner (contrition of fear). Such a stirring of conscience can initiate an interior process which, under the prompting of grace, will be brought to completion by sacramental absolution. By itself however, imperfect contrition cannot obtain the forgiveness of grave sins, but it disposes one to obtain forgiveness in the sacrament of Penance.

So, while the priest could have elaborated a little more about perfect contrition, he wasn’t wrong.

At least I learned a couple of things about myself today  1) I need to study the Catechism more closely and 2) the idea that I would think first of imperfect contrition rather than perfect contrition says something about the state of my conscience.  Time to visit the confessional!


One thought on “Repentance, Contrition, and Forgiveness

  1. This morning’s mass readings also has the sins of a father being punished on the sons and NOT on the Father (who has repented of them) –

    “Then the LORD said to Elijah the Tishbite,
    ‘Have you seen that Ahab has humbled himself before me?
    Since he has humbled himself before me,
    I will not bring the evil in his time.
    I will bring the evil upon his house during the reign of his son'” (1 Kings 21:17-29)

    I think there is some mystery here but a couple more clues. One insight is that forgiveness (even absolution) does not repair damage. This is why penance is necessary because we need strength to further the work of grace that begins with contrition. And that’s just our relationship with God. Beyond this there is also need for restitution, working to make things right with the people whom we have harmed with our sins. This is may not be possible. People may not forgive and often perpetuate the harm caused to them. Then there is the particular slant here – sin hurts the sinner’s children indirectly. I think, terrifyingly, that it may be that they learn everything us and so are marked by our misdeeds in ways that extend far beyond our own growth and reconciliation.

    Then there is the insight that God has not sinned yet punishment falls on God’s son. This must be because Jesus is also the Son of Man. This, this our hope, that the precious one, the innocent one, would be offered in our place. I never thought of it this way before but thinking about laying our children on the sacrificial pyre raises the stakes far beyond any other punishment that God might visit on me. If I have fiery eternity I deserve it but what about the little ones?

    There is more here – the man blind from birth (John 8), who suffered neither because he had sinned nor because his parents had sinned but so that God’s glory might be revealed.

    Mercy is social.

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