From a reader…
I went to confession this afternoon. It was my first time going at this particular church. When the priest asked me to say an Act of Contrition, I started, “O my God, I am heartily sorry…” and he cut me off. He told me that I had to use the Act of Contrition printed on a card on the kneeler. Respectfully (I really do mean it), I asked him what difference it made. He told me “as your confessor I am asking you to say the form of the prayer the Church includes in the rite of penance.” I did what he asked because it seemed wrong to get into an argument in the confessional but it was bizarre because I’ve always used that form and never had a problem.
The version he required me to say was:
“My God, I am sorry for my sins with all my heart. In choosing to do wrong and failing to do good, I have sinned against you whom I should love above all things.
I firmly intend, with your help, to do penance, to sin no more, and to avoid whatever leads me to sin. Our Savior Jesus Christ suffered and died for us. In his name, my God, have mercy.”
From what I can see both are approved forms of the Act of Contrition. Can a priest require a particular one? It didn’t go there but I was left wondering if he would have withheld absolution if I insisted on the traditional form.
Thankfully, he used the proper form of absolution and didn’t bother me about not going face to face. That has not always been my experience.
Firstly, you had a chance to go confession. Good. He didn’t insist on face to face. Good. He imparted absolution using the proper form (I suppose). Good. He wanted you to make an Act of Contrition. Good.
Now the problem: Can the confessor insist on the use of a particular act of contrition on the grounds that it is in the Ordo, the Rite for penance and reconciliation?
On the face of it, I think not, given that the Ordo itself provides options for the Act of Contrition. I don’t have the actual book in front of me right now, but online I found this:
45. The priest then asks the penitent to express his sorrow, which the penitent may do in these or similar words:
My God, I am sorry for my sins with all my heart. In choosing to do wrong and failing to do good, I have sinned against you whom I should love above all things. I firmly intend, with your help, to do penance, to sin no more, and to avoid whatever leads me to sin. Our Savior Jesus Christ suffered and died for us. In his name, my God, have mercy.
Other prayers of the penitent may be chosen from nos. 85-92.
Lord Jesus, Son of God have mercy on me, a sinner.
Note that even in this truncated form, there is an option for an extremely brief expression of sorrow. There are also seven pages of option to choose from. I have a recollection of them as being rather sloppy, but… hey. And note what I emphasized: “in these or similar words”. The rite itself provides for variations.
In my opinion it was wrong for that priest to be so insistent on one particular Act that he favored when the rite seems to leave it to the penitent.
What I suspect was going on in the head of Fr. Rigid in that confessional moment was guided by the idea that you were engaged in a liturgical moment, and that the liturgy you were actively participating in had its proper texts and, by God, you were going to stick to the script, as it were, without deviations.
There is a strange kind of rigidity in certain clerical hierophants of the Novus Ordo, a rigidity shot through with irony as they insist on this option over that option.
Some people are less aware that making a confession and being absolved is also a liturgical rite. We tend to be a little free flowing with how people start and finish, perhaps. It’s a sensitive moment and it is of supreme importance that people feel comfortable enough to confess all their mortal sins in both kind and number. Thus, maybe we fudge a bit in the flow of the rite. This particular confessor, in the question, was sticking to the red and the black.
I am amused with myself at this moment. I’m the guy always saying, “Say The Black – Do The Red” and here I am hinting that, perhaps in this particular liturgical moment – the rite of penance – that’s sort’a kind’a optional (except in the absolutely necessary elements for validity). I’m the guy who warns against liturgical minimalism (“As long as it’s valid, what difference do the details make?”)! There’s clearly a difference of approach between “traditional” precision and “Novus Ordo” precision.
But I digress.
Circling back, it is good that he wanted an Act of Contrition.
The Act of Contrition is good for the penitent. It is also useful for the priest.
It is useful for the priest because, before he can impart absolution he has to be reasonably sure that the penitent is sorry and has a firm purpose of amendment. The Act of Contrition states the things that the priest needs to hear so he can give absolution.
Some Acts of Contrition – and there are quit a few! – are better than others in this regard.
For example, I think that the Act which you, the questioner here, started and which the priest halted (wrongly) is superior to the Act he insisted on, the first option in the Novus Ordo version book.
For example, the classic Act:
Deus meus, ex toto corde pænitet me omnium meorum peccatorum, eaque detestor, quia peccando, non solum pœnas a te iuste statutas promeritus sum, sed præsertim quia offendi te, summum bonum, ac dignum qui super omnia diligaris. Ideo firmiter propono, adiuvante gratia tua, de cetero me non peccaturum peccandique occasiones proximas fugiturum. Amen.
O my God, I am heartily sorry for having offended Thee, and I detest all my sins because I dread the loss of Heaven and the pains of hell, but most of all because they have offended Thee, my God, Who art all good and deserving of all my love. I firmly resolve, with the help of Thy grace, to confess my sins, to do penance, and to amend my life. Amen.
Both in this and in the Act insisted upon by the confessor – which if memory serves is only an American option – there is an expression of “contrition”. One might expect an expression of contrition in an Act of Contrition.
Contrition, or sorrow for sins, is more perfect when it comes from love of God (“because they have offended Thee, my God, Who art all good and deserving of all my love”) . It is less perfect when it comes from fear of punishment (“because I dread the loss of Heaven and the pains of hell”). The latter is also called “attrition”. Sorrow for sin because of fear is less perfect BUT… it is sufficient an expression of sorrow so that the priest can give absolution. That’s why it comes first in the classic Act of Contrition. As a matter of fact, some old confessors would start giving absolution as soon as they heard that part, the attrition part. Why? Because confessors were taught that when they were sufficiently convinced of the penitents sincerity and sorrow they were not to delay absolution unreasonably. So, taking that pretty literally, they would start the form quietly while the penitent was finishing his Act of Contrition. Sometimes all a penitent would hear is the business part of the form… “et ego te absolvo…” etc. Some priests still do this.
In any event, the older, traditional Act of Contrition is rather more complete than that American version in the new-fangled book as one of the options.
Bottom line: Father was too rigid in insisting that you do his preferred Act of Contrition when you clearly knew the traditional one and were launched into it.
I might have a different view if, before hand, he had said something like, “Sometimes we can get a little complacent in using a memorized form which perhaps we have said for so long that it has lost some of its meaning. How about this time using a different one? There is a card there with some options. However, chose as you please.”
Of course he wouldn’t have known ahead of time which you preferred, but… hey… I’m spitballing here.
Fathers… do insist on some Act of Contrition. Exhort, urge, persuade that people should memorize an Act of Contrition and that they should say it often, not just when they go to confession. Break it down and teach about it from the pulpit. People are far more ready to do things when they know why they are doing them. But, Fathers, don’t be rigid jackasses and impose your preferred version. You might, outside of the confessional, make an argument for one or the other as I am doing now, but not inside the confessional.
GO TO CONFESSION!