One Friday afternoon I was making a Holy Hour before the Lord in the Blessed Sacrament. For the first twenty or thirty minutes, I brought before the Lord the intentions of those for whom I promised to pray. I also prayed for my wife, my family, my parents and children. I praised Him and thanked Him and spent the rest of the hour in silence. And then I prayed for something that I would pay for later: I asked Him to reveal to me my hidden sins.
Be careful what you pray for
That evening I stumbled across an article online that convicted me of the very sins I had been struggling with and blind to for some time. They were not obvious sins but pernicious and hidden faults, the kind that hide themselves under the covers and in the folds of one’s conscience to escape the light. Reading the article felt like two fingers digging into my ribcage – it hurt. That night my mind was filled with dreams (though I rarely dream). When I woke in the morning, I had breakfast with my family, did some things around the house, mowed the lawn; but my spirit was heavy and troubled, and the words of the Psalmist came to mind: “I know my transgressions, my sin is always before me” (Ps 51:3). The Lord had answered my prayer, and I was reminded to be careful what you pray for.
I was moved to go to Confession that evening. It may have seemed that I was being scrupulous. I had just been to Confession the Saturday before, and, at least on the surface, the sins I wanted to confess would not seem to be a big deal. But they weighed heavy and unmistakably on my conscience. According to the Catechism,
Without being strictly necessary, confession of everyday faults (venial sins) is nevertheless strongly recommended by the Church. Indeed the regular confession of our venial sins helps us form our conscience, fight against evil tendencies, let ourselves be healed by Christ and progress in the life of the Spirit. By receiving more frequently through this sacrament the gift of the Father’s mercy, we are spurred to be merciful as he is merciful. (CCC 1458)
I finished up the yard work and drove to the church, arriving about fifteen minutes early for Confession. I decided it was just enough time to pray my Rosary for the day. I drew up a kneeler and began to pray, focusing on the large crucifix on the wall in front of me. The chapel was empty except for one other person, and in those ensuing moments I could not take my eyes off the corpus on the cross. Tears began to form and run down my cheeks as I contemplated the mysteries alongside the image of my Savior pinned to a tree and writhing in agony before me. I loved Him who had first loved me, and I had offended Him. Though my sin hurt Him more, it also hurt me in my heart of hearts, and I was sorry. When I finished the “Hail Holy Queen” and entered the confessional, I confessed my sins and made a firm resolution to avoid those things that led me to sin. When the priest spoke the words of absolution, grace just flooded in.
What if we are without the sacrament of penance?
Thankfully, the Sacrament of Penance is readily available in my area of the country. I wrote in “The Hunger Years” that
a time is coming when people will seek absolution for their sins and find, not a priest unwilling to open the door, but no priest at all. A time is coming when people will notice they are hungry for the Eucharist, for the Holy Mass, for a blessing—the very things we take for granted today—and they will go away hungry because there is no priest to feed them. Faithful Catholics will want to have their children baptized, will want to get married, and will find waiting lists months long. The churches they knew from their youth will be museums. Those in mortal sin will beg for a priest to hear their confession and will not be able to find one. Those possessed by demons will have no recourse, and exorcists will be so overwhelmed they will have no choice but to turn people away.
What does this mean for the faithful and for sinners alike, that no priest may be available to them in their time of need for the ordinary means of forgiveness of sins by way of the Sacrament of Penance? It means we need to prepare for such a possibility at the hour of our death. If we should ever lack the “ordinary means,” we can prepare our souls by way of the extraordinary means of Perfect Contrition, what an Italian priest in a slim treatise on the topic calls “the Golden Key of Paradise.”
The Catechism defines contrition as “sorrow of the soul and detestation for the sin committed, together with the resolution not to sin again” (CCC 1451). We know that the Church teaches that there are two kinds of contrition: perfect and imperfect.
When it arises from a love by which God is loved above all else, contrition is called “perfect.” 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.
The contrition called “imperfect” 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. 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. (CCC 1452-53)
The grace of perfect contrition
Perfect Contrition is a grace given only to those of good will. It is important to remember that sorrow resides in the will, not in the senses; therefore, anyone can possess it. We should make an act of contrition – which takes no more than a minute or two, so there is no excuse not to do so for lack of time – every night before we go to bed, preferably before a crucifix or a picture of Our Lady. It is my contention, too, that we should aim to develop contrition from love (of the Lord) rather than from fear (of Hell), so as to bring it to perfection. When we do this, we develop contrition as a habit so that at the time of our death it comes spontaneously to the lips. The Gates of Heaven are unlocked to those who, through no fault of their own, have no recourse through ordinary means of confessing their sins. By their great love and sorrow for offending the Lord, they can gain Paradise.
We should never forget that Perfect Contrition is a great grace from God for which we should constantly pray. I mentioned, in the beginning, to “be careful what you pray for” because the Lord does grant the prayers of those who ask with a sincere heart; but such prayers can hurt, and hurt badly. It is a merciful pruning, however, that the Lord undertakes in us when we dispose ourselves to the mercy of the Divine Surgeon; He gets us to recognize our sins so we can repent of them.
Ask for the grace
The Lord encourages us to ask in order to receive, to knock so the door will be opened to us (cf. Lk 11:9). As the author of the treatise on the Golden Key of Paradise writes, “Ask for it (the grace of Perfect Contrition) often. It should be the object of your most ardent desires. Repeat often, ‘My God! Give me perfect sorrow for my sins.’ And if you sincerely mean what you say, Our Lord will hear your prayer.” Developing perfect contrition – the Key to Paradise – could mean the difference between our damnation and our being saved at the hour of judgment.