ASK FATHER: In confession, the priest insisted on his Act of Contrition rather than the one I know.

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.

And, everyone….


About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. JakeMC says:

    The English version I learned back in 1961 is only slightly different from the one you quote; instead of “because I dread the loss of Heaven and the pains of Hell,” it says simply “because of Thy just punishment;” and it ends “…with the help of Thy grace, to sin no more, and to avoid the near occasions of sin.” The modern one the priest wanted the penitent to use said exactly the same thing, only using simpler words. While I naturally prefer the one I’ve been using for fifty years, I can see the need for simpler words today. Given the state of catechesis in too many places, I suspect many people wouldn’t even know what the phrase “occasions of sin” means, much less the difference between “near” and “remote” ones.
    At least the new version was still recognizable. I recently saw a modern version of the Salve Regina; I was halfway through reading it before I realized what prayer it was supposed to be.

  2. Josephus Corvus says:

    JakeMC: I learned the same one you did in the mid to late 70s. What’s really interesting is that (while I don’t pretend to be fluent in Latin), the Latin version seems to correspond more specifically to the one we learned rather than classic English version that Father included. I don’t see anything in the Latin that would correspond directly to “loss of Heaven,” “confess my sins,” “amend my life.” Clearly, the same ideas are there; I just found it strange that the translation does not seem to match as closely as it could. I wonder what the history of the differences is?

    In the case of the original question, I could see a situation in which the priest has heard so many versions of things that may or not be actual acts of contrition that he just picked on that he knew was legitimate and went with that across the board.

  3. Simon_GNR says:

    I went to confession yesterday with my regular confessor. I used the Act of Contrition I learnt years ago – “O My God, because you are so good, I am very sorry that I have sinned against you, but with the help of your grace I will not sin again.” (Father used the full traditional Latin formula for Absolution and I’m happy with that. I wouldn’t dream of asking him to say it in English.)

    The above is just about the only Act of Contrition I have ever used since I became a Catholic and the priest/bishop has never questioned it or found it unsuitable. Father Z’s inquirer has been pretty unlucky I think.

    Priests around here (England) tend to be pleased that some of their flock want to avail themselves of the Sacrament of Penance and, apart from the Covid-1984 “crisis” of the last year or so, I’ve never had any difficulty being able to find a priest available for confession.

  4. Bthompson says:

    I could conceive of a charitable read wherein a priest with a desire to be faithful, or who has had a conversion to using the proper form of absolution after not doing so in the past, but also possessing a lack of knowledge/sense were to think: It is really important that I say all and only the words of absolution the Church provides, ergo it is also important that the penitent does the same in his major prayer.

    Although, I could equally conceive (a perhaps more readily, alas) of a priest wanting to “pastorally” help people “modernize” their faith. This would be the same sort of guy who pedantically uses the formal 2nd person “you” rather than “thee” in the Our Father or Hail Mary.

  5. Alice says:

    Both my husband and I were prepared for our first confessions by our parents. My husband “dreads the loss of heaven and the pains of hell” while I fear “just punishments.” My kids learned the latest version. The only time a priest has asked me to say a different Act of Contrition was when there were time constraints.

  6. Prayerful says:

    The Act of Contrition I say is the form for Ireland, which is: ‘Oh my God! I am heartily sorry for having offended Thee, and I detest my sins above every other evil because they displease Thee, my God, who for Thy infinite goodness art so deserving of all my love, and I firmly resolve, by Thy holy grace, never more to offend Thee, and to amend my life, Amen.’ The one I learned for First Confession in the 80s was embarrassing and juvenile, so I dropped it as soon as I learned of something better, and I started to go more often than some occasion like Christmas or Easter.

    I would be puzzled if a priest insisted on some new text. Once I had a sort of temporary brain freeze, so the priest suggested: ‘Lord Jesus, Son of God have mercy on me, a sinner,’ which is the nearest to any sort of direction.

  7. teomatteo says:

    Confession of a confession of a confiteor. I had been away from the sacrament for some time and the priest ask me to say an act of contrition. I was so befuddled that all I could blurt out was the confiteor. He said, “well, ok, that’ll do but give me an ‘Act of Contrition’ next time.” Humbled, embarrassed…

  8. jaykay says:

    Prayerful: the version you quote is the one I learned in Ireland back in the 60s with the very small difference that it ends: “… and I firmly resolve, *with* the help of Thy holy grace…”. I would think that people of my generation would still automatically use it (not to mention the older ones) as the default, since it was literally drilled into us – and you tend to remember things learned that way!

    I’ve seen a much shorter version affixed in some confessionals, but no Priest has ever insisted on my using it.

  9. Fr_Andrew says:

    If I may suggest an alternative possibility …

    In one place were I once was as a visiting priest for a time, the form in common use for the Act of Contrition was arguably not really a proper Act of Contrition, saying something like “My God I am very sorry that I have sinned against you, and I will try not to sin any more.” Most people used this. There was a longer form occasionally used, but it was only slightly better and did not ever suggest that the penitent was sorrowful for the offense given to God by sin. Arguably it was not even attrition, because there was no clear supernatural motive expressed.

    One of the good priests there was a bit of a Fr Rigid, insisting on a form he had taught the parish (which was the one found in the actual catechism used in the place).

    Perhaps in this place the questioner experienced, that Fr Rigid may have been trying to escape a similar situation and get his faithful to use a proper act rather than an improper one.

    Given Fr Rigid managed to offer an otherwise very traditionally-oriented experience without face-to-face, not messing with the rite, etc. perhaps he’s also trying to fix other issues?

    Just a thought.

  10. TonyO says:

    I am going to run slightly askew from everyone above: when I was taught to go to confession (about 1969), I was not taught to say an Act of Confession as part of confession, though I was taught the prayer itself, independently. For at least the next 6 to 8 years, no priest asked me to say an act of contrition in the confessional. So it took me quite by surprise when priests “started” doing so (i.e. it being new to my experience).

    I note that what is ESSENTIAL is that the priest have an adequate basis to understand that the penitent has at least attrition and a purpose of amendment. This he can get from (any) reasonable act of contrition, but that’s not the ONLY way he can achieve this. For someone returning to church after 20 years away, the mere fact of returning is pretty good assurance of attrition, and undoubtedly the necessary additional questions and answers will help Fr. assess the purpose of amendment (or to state it baldly and hear some sort of affirmative response). (And besides, the poor penitent almost certainly doesn’t remember the act of contrition.) There are a thousand different ways Fr. might be confident of the proper disposition of the penitent. Hence an act of contrition is merely an adequate basis for judging the penitent has the proper disposition, but cannot constitute the only basis.

    Except that the act of contrition may have become so rote that the penitent may indeed recite it without the proper disposition. Which could, in theory, make the prayer (or ANY standard prayer), over time, NOT adequate to provide Fr. with a good basis to reasonably believe the penitent has the proper disposition to be absolved.

    And the Church, with 20 centuries of practice, knows this. Which makes me wonder whether putting the act of contrition into the (current) prescribed model of confession represents (a) a reminder to the penitent of what their proper disposition should be, and then (b) a de jure basis for the priest to absolve, i.e. prescribes to the priest he may now absolve EVEN THOUGH he has no definite and confirmed reason to be confident of the penitent’s inner disposition. Just as a priest may give communion to a communicant who says the “amen”, without any definite knowledge of whether the communicant actually believes in the Real Presence (and knowledge that, by statistics, many do not). If so, then a priest should NEVER withhold absolution from a penitent who has manifested the proper disposition in other ways, merely because he has not yet recited one of the offered forms of an act of confession. (And, indeed, the form of the rite expressly allows “or similar words” leaving open the possibility that the penitent could advance ANY act of confession, even one of his own making, if it clearly expressed contrition and purpose of amendment.)

  11. JakeMC says:

    BThompson: Glad to see that someone out there understands the difference between “You” and “Thee.” When we call God “Abba,” that is an intimate term for a father, a term a child uses; it only makes sense that we use “Thee,” just as Germans use “du” instead of “Sie,” the Spanish “tu” instead of “usted,” and the French “tu” instead of “vous.”
    We need to contemplate this deeply; personally, I think it just may be key to finding that ideal deep-seated love of God – or at least, to approaching it.

  12. Imrahil says:

    Dear JakeMC,

    well, the French don’t use the intimate form. The “tu” was forcibly introduced in the liturgy reform for God, before, it was “Dieu, vous”; even after the reform, however, the Blessed Virgin or also St. Joseph are still “vous”.

    Other countries, other customs. I do prefer the German manner of thouing God over the traditional French one; and the circumstance where not even parents thou their babies, but still everyone thous God (making the “thou” aquire an air of formality quite the reverse to what it means) that is, I guess, the most fascinating use of them all.

  13. olivia says:

    Here in Poland the preists never ask for an Act of Contrition. Instead it is taught to all children to say “Lord have mercy on me a sinner” over and over, while striking their breast, while the priest gives absolution, its a part of the form not a result of being prompted by the priest. When I go to confession in English the (Franciscan) priests always absolves in Latin and never asks for the Act of Contrition. So I just say it under my breath while I am being absolved. So, yet another variation. In large parishes here there is almost always a priest hearing confession during Mass. I guess they figure if the people are already there they will give them a chance. Ideally you would go before or after Mass but the lines during Mass are always long and people in line are still participating so it works out. Luckily Poland has “extra” priests for these larger parishes. A blessing I do not take for granted.

  14. In addition to giving several forms of the act of contrition, the rubrics for this sacrament seem to say (sorry I don’t have them in front of me) rather plainly, to me, that the penitent must manifest contrition in some way apparent to the confessor. Recall that the Church teaches this contrition must not be perfect in order for the penitent to receive absolution. As any priest who hears confessions for even a short time will discover, there is a great deal of anxiety among penitents about whether they’ve “done it right” and whether they are really forgiven. I am highly confident this difficulty has *always* been with us, so the Church has had centuries to reflect on this.

    In the judgment of this parish priest, there is no need for a penitent to get worked up about whether s/he said the right prayer; say the one you are familiar with or whatever prayer the priest invites you to pray. Sometimes people mix-and-match parts of different acts of contrition. No problem, I think. If you and the confessor forget to include an act of contrition, you are still validly absolved; you can say it later. And, as a confessor, I don’t police the wording of the prayer.

  15. Skeinster says:

    There is a scene towards the end of “The Detective”, a police movie from the early 50’s in which one officer helps another, who has been fatally wounded, to make the Act of Contrition.
    Very touching.
    Go to confession!

  16. JakeMC says:

    I stand corrected, Imrahil. Thanks.
    However you view the “thees” and “thous,” I still stand by my childhood instinct when they first started changing the English prayers: Prayer is special, and should have a special language. For me, it’s either Latin, or the old flowery version of the vernacular. So much more expressive!

  17. Imrahil says:

    To the general topic,

    I rather like the order “1. confess the sins, with a brief prayer at the end; 2. some counsel, etc. if time allows, 3. ‘say now an act of contrition’ followed by same, 4. absolution”. Some confessors do it in that way. I regret to say that I don’t have an act of contrition at the ready because I’m just not used to it, but I know what has to go in there, so to speak.

    Some confessors around here do it, but it’s rather unusual. So, rather often, a “my Jesus, mercy!” or (what I usually say) “these were the sins I have made up my mind about; I want also to include all the others and to pray, in humility and repentance, to our Lord for forgiveness” has to pass for the act of contrition. (I had to bring myself to at least include saying anything about repentance.)

    But then, if I am not quite misinformed, contrition or attrition is something you must have for absolution, but not necessarily (for validity) expressly express.

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