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Monday, July 18, 2016


by Fr. O' Keeffe, 1891
                                       "A contrite and humble heart, O God,
                                           Thou wilt not despise."--Ps. l. 19.

The heart, my brethren, is the seat of the affections: love and courage and vigor come forth from it as from their source. Virtues, and vices also, of every kind spring from the heart. The virtues that adorn a good life have their origin in the heart. Hence, we say of a good man, he has a good heart. And of a bad man, on the contrary, we say, he has a bad heart. "The things which proceed out of the mouth," says our Blessed Lord, "come forth from the heart . . . . . For, from the heart come forth evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false testimonies, blasphemies" (Matt. xv. 18, 19).

When you see a man, or woman, whose profession, as a Christian, is, or at least ought to be, holy poverty, and yet is bent on making money, grasping at property, hunting after rich people, you know that there is avarice in that man or woman's heart. When you see a hypocrite trying to pass for a saint; when you see any one stooping to low tricks; wishing others to do everything above-board, so as to take unjust advantage thereby, whilst himself does everything under-board; trying to thwart his neighbor, and throw ridicule upon him: you know that such a man has a mean heart. Whenever, again, you see a man or a woman going about gossipping, or whispering among the people; wanting to know everybody's business, whilst neglecting his own; saying: "This one is selfish and ignorant and unfit to fill the position he is in"; when you observe some elderly, and perhaps single (?) persons, of either sex, given to an indulgence in sloth, or to intoxicating drink, or to ambition, or impurity, or any other vice: you know at once that such a person must certainly have a bad heart. The various powers of body and faculties of mind that are put to work in the doing of evil, are only the instruments in the service of the heart. They have no liberty of their own: the heart is their ruler and governor; and they have to obey whether they like it or not. From the heart, then, all proceeds.

When sin, therefore, is committed, the heart, my brethren, is the first and chief, and in fact the only criminal. And, consequently, when the sinner is penitent, and becomes sorry for his sin, it is his heart that should really feel the sorrow.

Now, my brethren, when we have true sorrow for sin the heart is, as it were, crushed and broken. Such sorrow is called by the expressive name of "contrition," which word is a compound of two Latin words signifying: a complete crushing together, or a breaking to pieces. The heart is hardened by pride and sin; by contrition it is smashed up into atoms. The sorrow of heart includes, of course, a sorrow of mind, arising from the painful knowledge of the nature of sin and the unspeakable hatred which God bears to it.

The Catechism defines contrition to be: " A hearty sorrow and detestation of sin for having offended God, with a firm resolution of sinning no more." As the malice of sin proceeds from the heart, so the repentance, sorrow, and detestation of sin must likewise proceed from the same source. The sorrow, then, must be a "hearty sorrow": no less will do. God Himself has given a strict precept to this effect. "The Lord hath uttered His voice before the face of His army: for His armies are exceeding great, for they are strong and execute His word: for the day of the Lord is great and very terrible; and who can stand it? Now, therefore, saith the Lord: Be converted to me with all your heart in fasting, and in weeping, and in mourning. And rend your hearts, and not your garments " (Joel xi. 12, 13).

The penitents of the Old Law used to express their sorrow for sin by changing their garments. Our Lord alludes to this custom, when upbraiding the two cities, wherein were done the most of His miracles, for that they had not done penance for their sins: "Woe to thee, Corozain, woe to thee, Bethsaida: for if in Tyre and Sidon had been wrought the miracles that have been wrought in you, they had long ago done penance in sackcloth and ashes" (Matt. xi. 21).

Contrition is a necessary part of the Sacrament of Penance: the other parts are: confession, satisfaction, and not the absolution given by the priest. Of course, it is not necessary here to state that it is only the sins committed after baptism which are forgiven by the Sacrament of Penance.

Contrition is essentially necessary, as a means to obtain the pardon of sin. For, whilst the sinner is in a state of mortal sin, his back is, as it were, turned upon God; but when he is in a state of grace his face is joyfully turned toward God. Now, this change, namely, the sorrow of heart, and detestation of sin, is necessary; as, otherwise, the sinner would be and would not be, at the same time, turned toward God. If there were no contrition, no change of heart required, the sinner could be, at the same time, both the friend and the enemy of God; which is supremely absurd. Whilst the sinner is in mortal sin, he is an enemy of God, and he cannot possibly be the friend of God, unless he changes from that state. It is by contrition the sinner changes from the one state to the other.

Again, contrition is necessary as a means of salvation for those who have fallen into mortal sin. Christ Himself has given a strict precept to this effect: " But except you do penance," He says, "you shall all likewise perish" (Luke xiii. 5). "Be penitent, therefore, and be converted, that your sins may be blotted out" (Acts iii. 9). The Catechism of the Council of Trent says: "To it (penance) in so special a manner belongs the efficacy of cancelling sins, that without penance we cannot by any means obtain or even hope for remission of sins" (Part II., chap. v.). A Christian in mortal sin may be saved without confession or absolution, but he cannot be saved without contrition.

Venial sins also require some kind of penance in order to be remitted. The Church performs daily penance toward their remission. St. Augustine says: "If venial sins could be remitted without penance, the daily penance performed for them by the Church would be to no purpose." Of course, there can be no penance without contrition.

Contrition is of two kinds: perfect and imperfect. Perfect contrition is a hatred for sin, because sin is offensive to God, who is infinitely good and perfect in Himself. Imperfect contrition, or attrition as it is called, is a hatred for sin arising from the fear of the punishment due to sin in the next life, or from any other supernatural motive. In perfect contrition there is a love of God for His sake alone!--in imperfect contrition a love for God for our own sake. Where contrition is, the whole heart is crushed; there is a perfect love of God, and a complete sorrow for sin. Where attrition is, only the surface, as it were, of the heart is touched: the love is imperfect, and the sorrow incomplete.

In attrition there is a mere beginning of love for God. This beginning is perfected into full love, or charity, by receiving the Sacrament of Penance. Attrition with confession and absolution secures to the sinner a state of grace. St. Alphonsus Liguori, a Doctor of the Universal Church, says: "Whenever a penitent has an act of sorrow, he has also, even explicitly, acts of Faith and Hope (not, indeed, by direct reflection upon them, but by actually exercising them): because, without doubt, he does then actually believe and hope, that, in virtue of the merits of Christ, his sins are forgiven him by the Sacrament of Penance. And we say that a beginning of love is found in any attrition--both in the fear of punishments to be inflicted by God, according to that of Ecclesiasticus xxv. I6: 'the fear of God is the beginning of His love'; and also in the hope of pardon and eternal happiness, according to these words of St. Thomas: 'From this, that we hope to obtain good things from any one, we begin to love him'" (St. Lig., Hom. Apostol.).

Sins are immediately remitted by perfect contrition. This is the only means we have for recovering God's friendship when we fall into mortal sin, and cannot go to confession, or are unable to make a confession. Perfect contrition includes the intention of going to confession. Yet before the reception of the sacrament the sins are forgiven, just as the lepers of old had been cured even before they had reached the priests (Luke xvii. l4). Attrition will not remit sin unless in the Sacrament of Penance.

A question is raised as to how long a person in mortal sin can remain without committing a fresh mortal sin in not making an act of contrition: either imperfect contrition, with the sacrament, or perfect contrition with or without the sacrament. There are various opinions given by theologians. The more probable opinion, however, held by St. Liguori and others, is, that for well-instructed Catholics to defer it longer than a month would be a mortal sin. It would be a mortal sin, also, not to do so whenever we are conscious of being in mortal sin, and are in probable danger of death; or whenever we are about to receive any sacrament which requires to be received in a state of grace. The same, also, if we are about to administer any sacrament. Sometimes the laity have to administer private baptism.

There are certain qualities, my brethren, which true contrition must have. 1. It must be universal. It must extend to all our mortal sins, not even one excepted. If there should happen to be even one mortal sin for which we have no sorrow, either implicit or explicit, that one mortal sin would be an insuperable obstacle to the infusion of grace into the soul; and without the infusion of grace no mortal sin can ever be forgiven. We cannot be in a state of mortal sin and in a state of grace at the same time. We must have true sorrow for all our sins. "Be converted and do penance for all your iniquities, and iniquity shall not be your ruin" (Ezech. xviii. 30). " You shall seek me, and you shall find me; when you shall seek me with all your heart. And I will be found by you, saith the Lord: and I will bring back your captivity, and I will gather you out of all nations, and from all the places to which I have driven you out " (Jer. xxix. 13, 14).

To have our sorrow universal we must have a firm purpose of avoiding all sin for the time to come. And we must, furthermore, repair the injury done to God by our sin; and if we have injured our neighbor in any way, we must repair the injury as soon as we can, and as far as we possibly can. "The sin is not forgiven, unless what was taken away be restored," says St. Augustine (Epist. v. 4). God will not forgive us if we do not forgive all others, without any exception. He has emphatically told us so. " But," says He, "if you will not forgive men " (that is, all men without exception), " neither will your Father forgive you your offenses " (Matt. vi. 15).

2. Our contrition, whether perfect or imperfect, must be supernatural: that is, our sorrow for sin must arise from supernatural motives--motives known to us by faith--such as the love of God, or the fear of hell, etc. To be sorry for sin because by it we have brought disgrace upon ourselves, or disease, or temporal loss, is not sufficient. Such sorrow is based on natural motives: it is a sorrow of this world. King Antiochus was sorry for his sins, because of the bodily pains he felt as arising from his sins; but his sorrow was of no avail. It was not founded on any motive known by faith: it was only natural sorrow, not supernatural.

3. Our contrition must be sovereign: that is, our sorrow for sin must be far beyond the sorrow that we would have for anything in this world. Sin is the greatest evil. God's grace and friendship are far greater in value than anything in this world ; therefore, our sorrow at losing them by sin should be greater far than our sorrow at losing anything else.

4. Our contrition must contain a firm resolution of sinning no more. Hence, we must be prepared to avoid the occasions of sin. Every person, place, or object that we have reason to know would be an occasion or cause to us of committing sin, must be carefully avoided. No matter how dear they may be to us; no matter how hard we may find it to avoid them, avoid them we must, or else our contrition is no contrition. It is only a mockery, a delusion, and a snare of the devil. A priest is not at liberty to give absolution to any one who is not prepared to avoid the immediate occasions of sin.

The man that has a firm, real resolution of sinning no more does not easily relapse into sin. Where there is true contrition God gives His grace; and the grace of God does solid, substantial work, which is not likely to be blown down with every slight wind of temptation. Where there is true contrition the penitent yields, not without great efforts and struggle, and not until after he has fought a long and brave fight with the enemy. The relapsing sinner, on the contrary, shows that he has only a half purpose; not a firm full purpose. His will is half for God, and half for the devil. He is a double-minded man; and "a double-minded man is inconstant in all his ways" (James i. 8). The best sign for knowing whether the contrition was good or bad is, the amendment of life, or the relapse of the sinner. "By their fruits you shall know them" (Matt. vii. 20).

Ah! my brethren, judging ourselves by this test, I fear that when we received the Sacrament of Penance we often had only false and bad contrition for our sins. "Be not without fear for sins forgiven " (Eccli. v. 5): that is, sins supposed to be forgiven.

To go to confession without having true contrition is to place yourselves at once in the hands of the devil to be led by him into hell. St. Chrysostom says: "The devil leads some by sin, others by penance into damnation." So cautious of profaning the Sacrament of Penance were the early Fathers of the Church, that they refused to give absolution to relapsing sinners sooner than at the time of death. St. Isidore speaks strongly on this subject. He says: "He is a scoffer, not a penitent, who commits what he repented of. Nor is he cleansed who weeps for his sins, yet does not forsake them, but reiterates after penance what he wept for." By contrition the sinner takes his soul away from the devil; but by relapse he makes atonement, as it were, to the devil.

You see, my brethren, how necessary it is for us to have true contrition for our sins. What if we thought our contrition sufficient, when in reality it was defective? Then, indeed, great would be the mistake. The Sacrament of Penance received unworthily, would be to us a source of ruin and damnation! Penance is a plank after shipwreck; and, as in time of shipwreck few save themselves by a plank, so it is only a few that save themselves by the plank of penance. True penitents, it is to be feared, are very rare. The time of St. Ambrose was remarkable for its illustrious penitents, and yet the Saint goes so far as to say: "I have more easily found him who shall have preserved his innocence unspotted, than he who, after a fall, shall have done worthy penance."

Let us, therefore, my brethren, pray for the great grace of true contrition. Contrition, whether perfect or imperfect, is a gift which we cannot have unless it be given us by God. The Prophet Jeremias cries out: "Convert me, and I shall be converted: for Thou art the Lord my God. For after Thou didst convert me, I did penance " (Jer. xxxi. 18, I9). "Destruction is thy own, O Israel: thy help is only in me" (Osee iii. 9). " No man can come to me," says our Lord, "except the Father, who hath sent me, draw him" (John vi. 44). God draws us to Himself by His grace. When grace touches the will, the will forthwith springs into a love for God, and a hearty sorrow for past sin; and a firm resolution not to sin ever again is the outcome. God gave the grace of contrition to Peter, who "wept bitterly" for his sins; He gave it to King David, who watered his couch with his tears; and He gave it to Mary Magdalen, who with contrition, fell down before her Saviour, and washed His sacred feet with her tears, and wiped them with her hair! " And Jesus said to her: Go in peace, and sin no more!" These words echoed in her ears: she sinned no more. She is now a saint in heaven, and the words of the Saviour to her still echo in her ears. Sweeter they grow, and sweeter, as some of the high-toned enrapturing chords of celestial music! Go in peace, and sin no more! Her peace to-day is the blaze of heaven's glory around her!

Ah! my brethren, the grace of true contrition is always ready in God's hands to be given to you. All God wants is that you ask it of Him. "Ask" it, He says, "and it shall be given to you" (Luke xi. 9).

It is natural to fall into sin: it is a disgrace to remain in sin: it is an honor to co-operate with God's grace, to do penance, and thus to get free of sin.

Where there is true contrition, there is a complete change of life: the "old man" is exchanged for the "new." The sinful pleasures, once loved, are now hated; the dangerous occasions of sin are avoided; the soul is filled with hope in the merciful forgiveness of God, and filled also with a desire to keep His commandments for the time to come.

My brethren, let us exhort you in the burning words of St. Paul: "But now lay you also away, anger, indignation, malice, blasphemy, filthy speech out of your mouth. Lie not one to another: stripping yourself of the old man with his deeds, and putting on the new, him who is renewed unto knowledge, according to the image of Him who created him" (Coloss. iii. 8, 9, etc.). Oh! would that every word in this book had a tongue to urge the importance and the necessity of contrition; for "a contrite and humble heart, O God, Thou wilt not despise" (Psalm 1. 19).