The Act of Perfect Contrition
The act of contrition as it is found in the Small Catechism of the Catholic Religion by Bishop John Neumann of the Congregation of the most holy Redeemer, Fourth Bishop of Philadelphia, Imprimatur by the Most Rev. James Gibbons, Archbishop of Baltimore, given 24 July 1884:
"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 offend 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."
Since this form of the act of contrition incorporates all the elements of the act of perfect contrition, I urge all of you, one and all, to memorize and use this act of contrition.
There are 5 qualities or elements that must be in the act of perfect contrition. Whether they are in the form of the contrition or not, they must be present. Hence, you see why I insist on the above wording, for it is flawless, and it incorporates all the 5 qualities of the act of perfect contrition. By the way, name the contrition properly. It is "an act of perfect contrition," not "a perfect act of contrition."
The 5 qualities of the act of perfect contrition are:
We shall study each of these qualities:
What do we mean when we say that the act of perfect contrition must be interior? We mean that it is an interior act of the mind and will. When a priest says his Divine Office correctly but with distractions (hopefully not intended) he fulfills his obligation that the law imposes on him. If, while you confer the sacrament of baptism, you say the words carefully with the intention to baptize as the Church baptizes, you confer the sacrament even though you had distractions during the rite. The act of contrition does not work as the above cases. It is something even independent of spoken words. The mind and heart must determine everything that is said in the above form of contrition. The mere perfect recitation of the form, as one says his prayers, is not sufficient.
There are many elements or divisions in this quality. The act of contrition must be supernatural as to the "power" with which it is performed. It must be made under the influence of actual grace. Actual grace is the supernatural assistance that enlightens the mind to know the will of God and strengthens the will to do the will of God. Hence, before starting the act of contrition, it is good (and I encourage you to do so) to ask for this special grace. Without it, the act of contrition is useless.
Secondly, the act must be supernatural as to "motive." Here we have 2 motives. The inferior motive (imperfect contrition) has to do with the dread of the loss of heaven and the pains of hell. The superior motive (perfect contrition) has to do with the fact that we have offended God who is all good. Together with the sacraments of Baptism and Penance, the inferior motive (fearing the loss of heaven and the pains of hell) is sufficient for forgiveness of all sins. However, outside of those sacraments, only the superior motive (being sorry for having offended God who is all good) will suffice for the forgiveness of all sins.
We must answer this question. Just why are you sorry for your sins. Is it because drinking made you sick? That is a natural motive, and it has no relation to forgiveness. While the natural motives are good in themselves, they will never work for forgiveness.
The act of contrition must include all of the mortal sins. One may never keep even one pet sin. Thus, if a person living in adultery is very sorry for his sins of eating meat on Fridays, but will not give up his sinful life of adultery, he cannot get rid of even one sin. One either leaves all of his sins behind, or he keeps all of them for God's just judgment at the moment of death. Unlike teeth, which when left alone, will pass away, sins, however, when left alone will never pass away.
When We say that the act of contrition must be supreme, we are saying that we must determine that we would rather die than commit a mortal sin. We must hate mortal sin (venial sin too, if possible) even more than death itself. Just think how careful we are about our lives. We avoid death at great sacrifices. A man will throw his possessions over-board to save his life. He will avoid the company of those who have a contagious sickness in order to save his life. In like manner, we must hate sin, in the act of contrition, as the greatest evil on earth.
In the above form of contrition, we express this determination with the word "detest." I might say that I do not like to eat spinach. However, I say that I "detest" eating rotten crow. In like manner, we do not say that we just do not like sin, but we detest it as we detest eating rotten crow.
Purpose of Amendment
There is a final element that is not mentioned in the qualities of the act of contrition, and that is the purpose of amendment. In practical speech, we make a division in regard to contrition and the purpose of amendment. However, there is no real distinction between the two except the element of past and future. If one is sorry for his sins, he determines automatically not to sin again. Any time that a person living in adultery is really sorry for his sins, he automatically leaves his sinful way of life. A person who is in bad company is not merely sorry for his sinful life-style, but he determines to give up one and all of his evil companions.
Intention to Confess
Once one knows the divine law of confession, he must also determine to confess all the mortal sins he has committed after baptism. To say that one is sorry without that intention to confess the sins, when one has a chance to do so, is a false act of contrition. One must determine to obey all God's commandments, and one of those commandments is that one must confess all mortal sins committed after baptism to a duly authorized priest. If there is no priest to be had, then God accepts the will for the deed. He will not accept the will for the deed if there is a duly authorized priest available. Remember the act of perfect contrition always takes away all sins immediately.
Fulfill the Obligations
For the act of contrition to be complete, one must fulfill all the obligations that follow from ones sins. A thief must return that which he has stolen. Likewise, a person who has taken away the good name of another must do what he can to give that good name back again.
The Merciful Hands of God
When one has done all that he can in regard to the act of perfect contrition, he still does not have an infallible assurance that he has sanctifying grace. However, he can and should have moral certitude that he is in the state of sanctifying grace. He should rest his case in the merciful hands of God.
An Act of the Will
Very briefly, we will say it this way. When we make the act of perfect contrition, we should pay very close attention to every word in the form, and we are to make the acts that are required by the form. Never say, I pray the act of contrition. Do say, I make the act of contrition. When persons get married, they do not merely say a formula, but they make an act of the will to join themselves in matrimony. When a person makes vows in religion, he does not merely recite a formula, but he makes an act of the will (expressed in words) to embrace the religious life. In like manner, the act of contrition is an act by which one is sorry for past sins, and that sorrow extends into the future so that it also requires the purpose of amendment never to commit those sins or any sins, for that matter, in the future.