What is perfect contrition?
Contrition is a pain of the soul and a hatred for sins committed. It must be accompanied by a good purpose, that is to say, a firm resolution to correct oneself and to sin no more.
In order for contrition to be real, it is necessary that it be interior, that it come from the depths of the heart; it must not then be a simple formula uttered without reflection. It is not necessary to show it either by sighs or tears etc. All those displays may be an indicator, but they are not the essence of contrition. That resides in the soul and in the will determined to run away from sin and return to God.
Beyond that, contrition must be universal, that is to say, it must be understood of all sins committed — at least of all mortal sins. Finally, it must be supernatural and not purely natural, for that has no use. This is why contrition, like every other good thing, must come from God and from His grace. Only the grace of God can engender it in us. However, God always grants us the necessary grace provided that we ask it of Him, provided that we possess good will and a sincere and supernatural repentance.
If our repentance is based on a motive of interest or for a purely natural reason (for instance, temporal evils, shame, or illness), we will have only natural contrition, without merit. However, if it is based on some truth of the Faith (such as Hell, Purgatory, Heaven, God, etc.), then we will truly possess a supernatural contrition.
This supernatural contrition can be, in turn, perfect or imperfect — and here we are come to our topic of perfect contrition.
What, then, is perfect contrition?
In a few words, perfect contrition is contrition based on the motive of love, and imperfect contrition is that which is based on the fear of God.
Perfect contrition is that which flows from the perfect love of God. Now, our love of God is perfect if we love Him because He is infinitely perfect, infinitely beautiful, and infinitely good (love of benevolence) or because He has shown us His love in a wonderful way (love of gratitude). Our love of God is imperfect, if we love Him because we expect something from Him.
Accordingly, in imperfect love, we think above all about the favors received, and in perfect love, we think above all of the goodness of the One Who bestows these favors. Imperfect love makes us preferably love the favor itself, whereas perfect love makes us love the Author of these favors, and our love is less for His gifts than for the love and the goodness that these gifts show.
From love, contrition flows. As a result, our contrition will be perfect, if we repent of our sins for the sake of the perfect love of God, whether from benevolence or from gratitude. It will be imperfect, if we repent of our faults owing to the fear of God, whether because sin has made us lose the reward that we have been promised, namely, Heaven; or because we have earned the punishment imposed on the sinner, namely, Hell or Purgatory.
In imperfect contrition, we think particularly about ourselves and about the evils that sin brings in to us, according to the light of faith. In perfect contrition, we especially think of God, His greatness, His beauty, His love, and His goodness; we consider sin an offense and that it has been the cause of the many sufferings endured to redeem us. We wish not only our own good, but that of God.
An example will help us grasp it better. When St. Peter had denied our Savior, “he went forth and wept bitterly.” Why did he weep? Was it for the shame that he was going to endure in front of the other apostles? In such a circumstance, it would have been a purely natural pain and without merit. Is it because his divine Master is perhaps going to strip him of his dignity as an apostle and Supreme Pastor, or drive him from His kingdom? In this case, the contrition would be good, but imperfect. No, those aren’t his reasons at all. He repents, he weeps because he has offended his beloved Master, so good, so holy, and so worthy of love. He weeps because he has responded to that immense love with base ingratitude, and that is perfect contrition.
Now, don’t you have the same motive as St. Peter to detest your sins, for the sake of love, for the sake of perfect love, and for the sake of gratitude?
There’s no doubt. God’s favors are more numerous than the hairs on your head and everyone of them should make you repeat the words of St. John: “Let us love God, because He first loved us” (1 John, 4, 19).
And how has He loved you?
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