After examining our conscience, the major portion of the preparation time for Confession should be devoted to the most important part of our confession: being sorry for our sins.
There are circumstances in which our sins can be forgiven without our examining our conscience. For example, if we were struck unconscious by a car, a priest could give us absolution and forgive our sins, even though we did not examine our conscience at all. As a matter of fact, we could not do so, because we would be unconscious.
So, there are circumstances in which sins can be forgiven without our examining our conscience or even confessing our sins. But there are no circumstances under God’s blue heaven in which our sins can be forgiven without our being sorry for them. Here we have touched the very heart of the sacrament of Penance, the most important part — namely, contrition. We must be sorry for our sins if we are to have them forgiven.
But please note well precisely what has been said: we must be sorry; not, we must feel sorry. These are two vastly different acts.
Feeling & Being Sorry for Sin
Feeling sorry is in the emotions, in the feelings. We could feel more sorry about seeing a cute little puppy run over and hurt in the street than about the gravest confession we ever made. That is, we could feel greater sorrow in the sensible order, manifested by the shedding of tears and other signs. That would be feeling sorry; but that is not what God asks of us in regard to sin.
We must be sorry; and being sorry is not in the emotions but in the will. Being sorry for our sins means that we hate the sin we have committed and have a firm determination not to commit sin again. The essence of sorrow is the regret or hatred of the evil we have done, accompanied by the firm determination, with God’s help, of not committing it again.
Obviously, the sincerity of our sorrow, when we come out of Confession, is found by asking ourselves what we have resolved not to do again. Suppose a companion were to walk up to us and slap us in the face and say, “I am sorry. I didn’t mean it.” But, if at the time of the apology, we knew that the next time we met coming around the corner, that companion intended to slap us again, we would not think much of the sorrow.
So, too, when we kneel down and tell our Lord that we are sorry for having slapped Him in the face, that we are sorry for having hurt Him, if He can read in our hearts that the next time we face the same occasion, we will not resist any harder than we did in the past, He does not think much of our sorrow.
Sorrow with Christ
Let us picture Christ, after His scourging, sitting in the courtyard of Pilate, the drunken rabble and the soldiers mocking Him. See Him there, clothed in an old purple rag with a crown of thorns on His head, a reed scepter in His hand. See the drunken soldiers with their mailed fists coming up and slapping Him, then genuflecting and spitting at Him and railing at Him, between swigs out of a bottle. Poor, gentle Christ!
Then imagine one soldier stepping forward from that crowd, reeling toward Christ. Suddenly a hush comes over them all. They fall back afraid, wondering. They watch breathlessly as they see that big, burly soldier go up and kneel before the gentle Christ with an apparent change of heart. They hear him say, “Master, I am sorry for my part in this. I am truly sorry.” Then, when the hush has completely subdued the crowd, imagine him standing up, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand and then hauling off and striking Christ across the face again, laughing jeeringly and getting the others to join in the laugh at his mock sorrow.
Just the relation of such an incident strikes horror into our hearts. Yet is that not precisely what we do when we go to Confession to tell our Lord we are sorry and at the same time have no intention of ever doing anything about that antipathy, about that unkindness, about that uncharitable speech, about that impatience, about that bitterness? We tell Him we are sorry, we pretend that we are sorry, but in reality we have no intention in the world of doing anything to change; for all practical purposes, we intend continuing to do the same thing over again.
Yet, unless we are sorry for our sins and intend, with God’s help, to do what we can to avoid them in the future, they are not and cannot be forgiven. Thus it is possible to confess venial sins and not have them forgiven, because we are not sorry for them.
We can be sorry and be as fearful as we will that we might fall in the future; but the purpose of amendment means that here and now, our intention and our resolution is, with God’s help, to do everything possible to try not to commit this sin again. We will use all the means necessary not to fall into this deliberate sin again.
Motive for Sorrow
It is not difficult to stir up such sorrow in our hearts and wills if we only think of the motives that we have for being sorry. If anyone in the world had done as much for us as our Lord has, and we continued to treat him with the same coldness and contempt and indifference that we show our Lord, we would not have a friend in the world. We would not be able to look ourselves in the face with any respect. In a word, the crucifix, the Passion of Christ, is the greatest motive in the world to stir up true sorrow for our sins.
Since being sorry for our sins is the most important part of our confessions, we should spend the greater part of our time of preparation for Confession in stirring up this sorrow. The act of contrition, the act of sorrow that we make during the actual administration of the sacrament of Penance is merely an external sign to the confessor that we are sorry. The only way he has of judging our sorrow is by that act of contrition. He has to take our word that we mean it.
If we wait to get into the confessional before we try to arouse our sorrow, the distractions of listening to the absolution or thinking about what penance the priest has given us, and so on, make poor circumstances in which to stir up true sorrow for our sins. Hence the wisdom of being sorry before we enter the confessional, for it is the most important part of Penance. Hence the importance of asking Almighty God for the grace of sorrow while assisting at Mass on the morning of the day we go to Confession.
The true sorrow we arouse for our sins at examination time does not, of course, militate in any way against our thanking God for the fact that we are not much worse than we are, that we do not have worse things to confess than we have. It recognizes that God’s grace and God’s goodness alone have prevented us from falling even lower. If we are troubled and upset at seeing ourselves down, that upset is not from love of God; it is from love of self.
If we really knew ourselves as we are, if we were truly humble, instead of being surprised at seeing ourselves down, we would wonder how we were ever erect.