Heaven Open to All by Perfect Contrition

by Rev. Timothy J. Halpin, S.J. 1928

19th Edition 1939

Nihil Obstat: Joannes J. Coyne, S.J.
Censor Theol. Deput.
Oct. 25, 1928

Imprimi Potest:
Eduardus, Archiep.
Dublin, Ireland
Oct. 25, 1928


There is a widespread belief that it is very difficult to make an act of perfect contrition, or of the love of God. Cardinal Billot, in his treatise on the Virtues, characterizes it as a prejudice which is a residue of Jansenism; others trace it to the false teachings of Luther and Calvin.

False Opinion Does Incalculable Harm

Whatever be its true origin the opinion is false and is doing incalculable harm to souls. There are Catholics who spend the greater part of their lives in mortal sin, at enmity with God, and liable at any moment to be lost, should death overtake them in that state. Many of them do not sin out of malice, they are well-meaning but weak souls, who have the misfortune to fall into mortal sin shortly after confession, and find it impossible or inconvenient to return immediately to the tribunal of Penance. Their lot is truly deplorable, their lives are an almost constant spiritual night of mortal sin interrupted only by short intervals of the sunshine of God's grace after each confession. All the good actions they perform while enemies of God, though salutary, are not and never can become truly meritorious. How great is the loss of merit and of eternal glory for those souls.

Is There a Remedy?

Is there no means to prevent this sad waste? Has the good God, who provided in such a lavish manner for all our spiritual wants and maladies, furnished no remedy for this case which is so common? Is there no easy means by which these poor souls can rise again, regain the grace they have lost and continue, with renewed energy the battle against temptation? Yes, there is. The teaching of the Church in regard to the justifying power of perfect contrition before the actual reception of the Sacrament of Penance is clear and explicit. Briefly but fully we have it set forth in the Decrees of the Council of Trent. “It sometimes happens that contrition is perfect through charity and reconciles men with God before the Sacrament (of Penance) is actually received.” (Sess. xiv. cap. 4). Here the Church is only stating clearly what was taught by the Fathers and is common doctrine of the Theologians.

Remedy Not Well Known

Yet clear and unmistakable as this teaching is, still, strange and sad to say, its full bearing is not well enough known and sufficiently appreciated by Catholics. More than one chaplain who served in the Army during the Great World War, or attended the stricken soldiers during the epidemic of influenza which followed it, expressed their heartfelt regret that this doctrine was not better known. They believe it would have saved countless ones of those who died without the ministrations of a priest. Certainly, it would have been for these unfortunate souls the source of greater calm and comfort in their last lonely struggle. Again, talk to the ordinary layman, even the more educated, about perfect contrition, and you will be surprised what hazy and uncertain notions he has about a thing so important in the spiritual life, and on which the eternal salvation of many will depend. True, Catholics ordinarily understand well enough the efficacy and the necessity of perfect contrition in the hour of death, when it is impossible to receive the Sacraments; but they do not realize that contrition is something more than an ordinary substitute for the Last Sacraments when these cannot be received. They do not understand that God has given them, in perfect contrition, an easy but very efficacious means for the sanctification of their daily lives. How important it is then that this false belief, this Jansenistic prejudice, in regard to the sanctifying force of perfect contrition, and the case with which it can be made, should be completely eradicated, and the true Catholic doctrine on this subject be brought to the knowledge of all!

The Church has proscribed the following proposition of Baius: “Through contrition, even when joined with perfect charity and without the actual reception of a Sacrament, there is no remission of crime without the actual reception of a Sacrament, except in a case of necessity or of martyrdom.” (Denzinger, N. 1o71). Still, this most severe doctrine of Baius on the efficacy of perfect contrition is held by many pious and practical Catholics of our own day and country.


What Theologians Say

Cardinal FranzelinIt is told of Cardinal Franzelin, that, while lecturing at the Roman College to the future priests, gathered before him from all parts of the globe, he became especially earnest and appealing when dealing with perfect contrition. He impressed on those students the necessity and advantages of spreading the teaching broadcast among the faithful to be entrusted to their care as priests. “Could I preach throughout the whole world,” he would say, “of nothing would I speak more frequently than of perfect contrition.” The holy and learned Cardinal seemed to realize how widespread was the ignorance of this teaching, and he fully appreciated the sanctifying force of perfect contrition, hence the emphasis he laid on the necessity of propagating the true doctrine.

Cardinal Louis Billot Cardinal Billot, the successor of Cardinal Franzelin as professor of Theology in the Roman College, wrote quite recently: “How often have I reflected within myself when alone, that though beyond doubt much good is effected by frequent sermons on confession, yet there is something more essential to be taught, recalled to memory, insisted on and infused into the daily lives of the faithful, something, however, to which but little attention is paid, if, in truth, a thought is ever given to it, namely, perfect contrition.”

Father Lehmkuhl, S.J., writes: “All Christians should be solidly instructed concerning the extent and efficiency of an act of perfect charity, and of perfect contrition. It is a matter of incalculable importance for the time of their own death, and for that of others at which they may be present. No one should forget this truth while in health; in time of sickness or in danger of death it is all the more important that the nature of perfect contrition should be clearly and deeply impressed on those who may have forgotten it or who only imperfectly understood it.”

Fr. Von Den DrieschFather Von Den Driesch calls perfect contrition “a Golden Key of Heaven.” He assures us it is not counterfeit; it is pure gold; it fits, and is easily handled. “It opens heaven for you at will, on any day and at any moment, when mortal sin has barred heaven against you, even when the priest, the bearer of the keys of God's mercy, cannot be with you to pronounce the words of absolution.”

Only Means of Salvation for Many

On an average 140,000 persons die every day, and only a very small percentage of them receive absolution or the Last Sacraments before expiring. The vast majority of them are not even Christians, and for them the only means of getting rid of their sins, and of escaping eternal damnation, is perfect contrition, or the love of God. But apart from those who do not belong to the True Fold, and for whom perfect contrition is the only plank of salvation, there is a large class of Catholics to whom a knowledge of this doctrine would be a source of untold good. I have referred to them already. They are those well-meaning but weak souls who fall into mortal sin shortly after confession, and who find it impossible or inconvenient to return immediately to confession.

Prevents Loss of Merit

Their lot is deplorable. Unless they make an act of perfect contrition, all the good actions they perform while enemies of God, though salutary, are not and can never become truly meritorious. How sad and unnecessary is this loss of merit and eternal glory. If these souls were really cognizant of the easy means at their disposal to regain God's grace, by an act of perfect contrition; instead of becoming discouraged and possibly committing new sins, not a few would rise again and continue with renewed energy the battle against temptation.

For Those in Doubt

Then again, it not infrequently happens that persons are in doubt whether they have really yielded to some strong temptation. The fear of having done so tortures them and fills them with sadness and discouragement. In order to remove the doubt, they foolishly go back in fruitless search, recall the temptation and examine all the circumstances, thereby exposing themselves to new dangers and greater temptations. Their time would have been much better spent in making an act of perfect contrition which would remit the sin, if any sin had been committed, restore grace to the soul and peace to a troubled conscience.

Means of Advancing in Holiness

And even for those already in the state of grace and free from doubts and anxieties, perfect contrition is an invaluable means of advancing in holiness, for by every act of perfect contrition that priceless treasure, sanctifying grace, is increased, venial faults may be forgiven, temporal punishment due to sin is commonly remitted, at least in part, and the soul is strengthened to resist temptation and carry on the fight to the end. How important it is then that all, just and sinners, Catholics and non-Catholics, should thoroughly understand the nature and efficacy of perfect contrition, and the case with which it can be made, but especially that they should frequently practice acts of contrition, so as to become familiar with the motives and have them ready at a moment's notice when needed.


CONTRITION, according to the Council of Trent, is “a heartfelt sorrow and detestation of sin committed, with a firm resolution of sinning no more.” It is made up of various elements: detestation, sorrow, and a resolution of amendment. The soul looks upon the past and detests the sins it has committed, and is grieved on their account. It looks to the future and has a firm resolve of sinning no more. The detestation arises from reflection on the enormity of the malice of sin. Even innocent souls experience this detestation, though properly speaking they cannot repent of the sins they have never committed. When we consider the great malice of sin, as actually existing in our souls and committed by us, we experience regret, sorrow affliction, for having committed it. The detestation produces sorrow, and from this detestation and this sorrow, if they be true and sincere, a firm purpose of amendment naturally follows: for it is not possible to repent sincerely of a fault while at the same time maintaining the will to repeat it. Contrition is, therefore, a change of heart and affections, by which sin, a delight to us before, becomes a cause of pain and suffering, making us hate what pleased us and fly from, as bitter and unpalatable, what formerly we thought sweet and delicious.

Interior Sorrow

To understand better the nature of contrition and obviate the defects that can vitiate it, let us here consider the notes or qualities which should accompany it. These notes or qualities are four: Contrition to be genuine must be interior, universal, supreme, and supernatural. Contrition must be interior, this means that it must be real and sincere, dwelling in the heart, that is, in the will, and not limited to words and exterior signs. What you say to God should be true. When you make an act of contrition you say: “O my God, I am heartily sorry for having offended Thee.” If interiorly you are not sorry in your heart and will, you are telling God a lie to His very face. The Old Testament prophets lay particular stress on the necessity of interior repentance. “Be converted to Me with all your heart, and rend your heart, not your garments.” (Joel ii, 13) was the call to Israel.

Sensible Emotion

Sensible emotion, which shows itself in sighs and tears, is desirable and good, when it is the consequence and the outcome of interior sorrow, as it really was in the case of many penitents mentioned in scripture --- such as David, Magdalene, St. Peter; but it is not at all necessary, for without it our sorrow can be very real and very intense, as was the case with St. Paul, with the good thief, and with many other admirable penitents, of whom we do not read that they broke into sighs and tears. Indeed, it not unfrequently happens that interior sorrow, when very deep and intense, oppresses the soul, arrests every exterior manifestation of itself and remains concentrated in the depths of the heart. Thus, the sorrow and grief of the Blessed Virgin at the sight of the agony and death of her Son was most intense, and yet it found no utterance in tears or signs or swoons.

Just as the absence of sensible emotions is no proof that our sorrow is defective, so, on the other hand, their presence is not sufficient reason for believing that we have true sorrow, since they may very well exist side by side with actual affection to sin, as was the case with Antiochus, Saul, and others, who exhibited great demonstrations of penance without being in the least really contrite. Hence these sensible emotions are, at best, but doubtful and unreliable signs of contrition, for they very often spring from nature or temperament, or from some source other than true sorrow.

Universal Sorrow

Contrition must be universal. This means that it must extend without exception or reserve to at least all mortal sins not yet forgiven. As for venial sins, though it is desirable to be very sorry for them also or at least for those of them that are more deliberate and serious, inasmuch as they are always an offence against God; yet it is not necessary for our justification, since venial sins do not deprive us of sanctifying grace. But regarding mortal sins, which are characterized in Holy Writ by the title of iniquities, there is no distinction or exception. “Cast away from you all your transgressions ... do penance for all your iniquities.” (Ezech. xviii.1), says the Prophet Ezechiel. And common sense teaches the same, for as it is the nature of each individual mortal sin to deprive us of God's friendship, we cannot regain the latter if unrepentant of any single mortal sin.

Favorite Sins

But you may ask, where will you find anyone, who, repenting of his sins, does not detest them all? Though such a thing does not seem likely, yet, in practice, exceptions and reservations are made, if not with the lips, at least with the heart. It not unfrequently happens that a person finds himself attached to one sin by some particular ties --- a sin which is especially dear to his heart and which may be called his favorite sin. For one man this sin will be avarice, for another, jealousy, and for a third his pet sin will be some sensual affection. These sins and others arising from special attachments are precisely the sins which people pretend not to see in examination of conscience, for fear of discovering a wound they would not have healed, and these are also the sins which are left out of account in exciting contrition, because the heart is more deeply attached to them, and does not want to give them up. Now, if your repentance is to have the effect of truly reconciling you to God and not merely that of lulling your conscience to rest and stifling remorse by means of hypocritical sorrow, it cannot exclude your favorite sin. Nay, it is the sins to which you are specially attached that you should have particularly in mind when exciting yourself to contrition, since they are the greatest plague of your conscience and the source of all your other sins.

Supreme Sorrow

Contrition must be supreme, that is to say, such as to make us hate and detest sin above every other evil. The reason is evident. Contrition must have a certain proportion to the greatness of the evil, which is sin. Now, as sin is the greatest and most supreme of all evils --- nay, it is even an infinite evil, in the sense that it is opposed to God, who is infinitely good, and because it involves the loss of Him, and therefore eternal damnation, which is the greatest of all misfortunes --- so our sorrow for it should surpass every other sorrow.

But when we say that sorrow for sin must be superior to every other sorrow, we do not mean superior in tenderness and sensibility (intensively sovereign), but in preference and esteem (appreciatively sovereign). In other words, it is not necessary for us to feel a keener and a more sensible sorrow than any caused by another misfortune, such as the loss of a fond parent, or a dear friend. It suffices that our reason looks upon sin as the greatest of evils and our will renounces it as such.

Supernatural Sorrow

Lastly, contrition must be supernatural, for both grace and the remission of sin being supernatural gifts, sorrow, which is the proximate disposition towards their attainment, must correspond to these effects and be of the same order with them and, consequently, it must be supernatural. Let us now see what this quality means. I am taking it last, for it is in this quality we see the difference between perfect and imperfect contrition. It is the quality hardest to understand and hardest to have. According to theologians, sorrow must be supernatural in a twofold sense --- that is both with reference to the motive which excites it in us, and to the principle from which it springs. In the first place it must come from God and be excited in us by His grace, without which we are of our own nature incapable of conceiving it. No one can, by merely natural powers, dispose himself for the grace of justification. For that he needs a preventing inspiration and help of the Holy Ghost, as the Council of Trent has defined (Sess. vi. cap. 3).

The Motives of Sorrow

In the next place, the motive which leads us to be sorry must be supernatural; that is to say, our sorrow must not spring from purely human considerations, such as sickness, disgrace, temporal loss, but from some truth taught to us by faith and hence in some way connected with God, who is the person offended. The temporal losses, inconveniences and misfortunes that befall us here on earth in consequence of our sins may be useful in detaching our affections from sin, and hence pave the way to conversion by inviting us to return to God, but they must not be the only motive of repentance. They are not sufficiently elevated; they produce merely human sorrow, such as might be conceived by a pagan who never heard the Name of God. If our contrition is to be supernatural it must rest on higher motives --- motives having some connection with God. These motives can be various, according to the various aspects under which faith presents the enormity and malice of sin. These are the principal motives of sorrow:

(1) The infinite goodness of God, who is offended by sin;
(2) The loathsomeness of sin, which is sovereignly displeasing to God;
(3) The everlasting reward which we lose by sin;
(4) The everlasting punishment to which sin makes us liable.

These motives are not all equal, and the acts of sorrow to which they lead are of different efficacy.

What is Perfect and Imperfect Contrition?

If we repent principally through the noble motive of having offended a God supremely good in Himself, lovable in Himself, and of Himself worthy of ineffable, infinite love, this sorrow, animated as it is by the love of God, is an act of perfect contrition. So pleasing and acceptable is this act to God, that it has power to destroy all the sins the soul can be guilty of and restore at once to it the grace of God, even before approaching the Sacrament of Penance. But if we detest our sins because they deprive us of the grace, friendship and sonship of God, and of the inheritance of heaven, and leave us liable to eternal damnation, our sorrow is an act of imperfect contrition or attrition. Perfect and imperfect contrition have much in common: they both include a sorrow of having offended God, accompanied by a firm purpose of sinning no more, both have all the qualities of true contrition, enumerated above, for, like perfect contrition, imperfect contrition is interior, universal, supreme and supernatural; but, they differ in their motives, and in their effects. Perfect contrition proceeds from a motive of the love of God, and reconciles the sinner before he actually receives the Sacrament. Imperfect contrition usually proceeds from the consideration of the filthiness of sin, from the apprehension of the loss of heaven or the punishments of hell, and it merely aids and prepares the sinner to be reconciled in the Sacrament of Penance. Those who have perfect contrition are thinking of the offence offered to God and are sorry out of love for God: those who have imperfect contrition are thinking of the injury done to themselves.

Is God’s Love for Us an adequate Motive of Perfect Contrition?

Let us here consider the question whether God's love for us is an adequate reason or motive of true love of charity or friendship for God, and whether the sorrow which has such love for its motive is perfect contrition. Suppose that you said in your heart, “O my God, I love Thee above all things with my whole heart and soul, because Thou lovest me.” Would this be an act of love in the proper sense? Yes, it would, and contrition having such love for its motive would be quite sufficient to justify you outside the Sacrament.

Proof from Scripture and the Fathers

Both the Holy Scriptures and the Fathers most frequently propose God's love for us as a motive of our love for God. Thus, St. John, in his first epistle, exhorts us: “Let us therefore love God because God first and hath loved us.” (1 John iv. 19); and again, in the same epistle: “Not as though we had loved God, but because He hath first loved us.” (1 John iv. 10). Similar quotations from other parts of the Old and New Testaments could be easily multiplied.

St. Augustine and St. Bernard and other saints speak in the same strain; let two quotations suffice: “If even a soul which was torpid, feeling itself loved, is aroused, and if he who was already fervid, by learning that he is loved in return, is more inflamed, it is manifest that there is no greater cause for the beginning or increase of love than the knowledge that we are loved.” (St. Augustine On Catechizing the Ignorant c. 4). If the worthiness of God is sought, when the cause of loving Him is sought, that is His chief worthiness; namely, because He has loved us first. He is manifestly worthy to be loved in return, especially, if we consider who has loved and whom and how much” (St. Bernard, On Loving God, c. i.)

God’s Relative Attributes Not Distinct from His Essence

Moreover, our love of God is perfect, and, therefore, capable of justifying outside the Sacrament, as often as the motive or reason of our love is something which is not distinct from God. Now all God's attributes, even His relative attributes, such as His love for us, called His benignity, or His mercy, or patience, or meekness, or clemency, are as much divine and as really and truly an element of the goodness of God, as is His Essence. The outward effects or works by which He uses or exerts these relative attributes, the benefits which He confers on us, may be created and finite, but the attributes themselves are intrinsic to the divine nature and are infinite perfections, and our act of love looks at them as they are in the divine nature.

The reason is manifest. There is no such thing as division of parts in God. He is one undivided simple Act. The divinity manifests itself to man through the divine attributes, and when we gaze in love upon His wisdom, His mercy, or His justice, we know that we are not looking about a part or fraction of the Divine Essence, but upon God's own substantial self. Hence our method of speaking about God --- His Essence, His Attributes, His Actions --- is only justified by the fact that our feeble intelligences are not equal to the task of taking in the boundless ocean of infinity at a glance. Everything divine is infinitely good. From whatever point of view faith presents the Infinite to us, we have ample reason to adore and love. and whenever our love terminates in God Himself, no matter what the aspect under which we view Him, we exercise the virtue of perfect charity.

Hence, if we love God because of any of His attributes, whether relative or absolute, then we really cherish an unselfish love towards Him, we love Him for His own sake.

It is precisely by thinking upon the relative Attributes of God --- His mercy towards sinners, the patience with which He awaits their conversion, His meekness, etc., that we are more easily drawn to love God. In fact, it would be hard to expect people to love God because of his absolute attributes

Relative Attributes Easiest Motives of Perfect Love

These latter are too far away from the ordinary mind, too much up in the cold stars, to stir the heart into warmth. We must think rather of the Heart of Jesus inflamed with love for us, of the agony and sufferings of our Beloved Lord, of His love for us in the Blessed Sacrament, of the many tokens of His loving kindness, with which He has strewn the path of life for each of us, in order to kindle our cold hearts with the glow of charity.


Remits Sin

A brief consideration of the wonderful effects of perfect contrition will doubtless impress on us its importance and usefulness. What are its effects? They are exceedingly great. The most important and the easiest to grasp is this: through perfect contrition all mortal sins on the soul and all venial sins for which the sinner is sorry are immediately forgiven, even before he has confessed them in the Sacrament of Penance. There are no sins, no matter how grievous nor how numerous, which are not effaced immediately, and forever by an act of perfect contrition. Moreover, perfect contrition has this effect, not only when in danger of death and no priest is at hand to administer the Sacraments, but when and wheresoever it is excited in the heart. Of this God assures us, both in the Old and New Testament. Thus, through the Prophet Ezechiel He tells us, “If the wicked do penance for all his sins which he had committed, living he shall live and shall not die, and I will not remember all his iniquities, which he hath done.” (Ezech. xviii, 21, 22).

Again, in Deuteronomy, we read, “And when you shalt seek there the Lord thy God thou shalt find him; yet so if thou seek him with all thy heart and in the affliction of thy soul.” (Deuter. iv. 29). In these texts we are assured that the wicked sinner who does penance for all his iniquities and seeks the Lord with all his heart and in the affliction of his soul, shall obtain forgiveness of all his sins and regain the supernatural life of grace and friendship of God. “Living he shall live, and I will not remember all his iniquities.” In the New Testament we read: “If anyone love Me…My Father will love him, and We will come and make Our abode with him.” (John xiv. 23); and, frequently, love is said to remit sins. “Many sins are forgiven her because she hath loved much.” (Luke vii. 47). Now what is said of love may be true also of perfect contrition, for perfect contrition, since it has the motive of charity, contains virtually at least an act of love of God. In the text just quoted from St. John, it is asserted that those who love God will be loved by Him in return, and He will come and make His abode with them. God, however, cannot love nor dwell in a soul which is still stained with grave sin. So, if these texts mean anything, they clearly show that perfect contrition removes sin.

To leave no doubt on this important matter the Council of Trent has defined it: “Contrition perfected by charity reconciles man with God, even before he has actually received the Sacrament of Penance.” (Sess. xiv. cap. 4.)

Contrition Does Not Dispense with Confession

Though perfect contrition remits sin immediately and forever, we must not on this account imagine we are dispensed thereby from the obligation of telling these sins later in confession ; for the Council immediately adds:  “Nevertheless, this reconciliation is not to be ascribed to contrition itself without the desire of the Sacrament (of Penance), which desire is included in contrition.” (Sess. xiv. cap. 4). Contrition, if sincere, embraces all that is prescribed by the Law of God; and since there is a command for all who have committed mortal sin to confess it sooner or later, contrition includes the intention of going to confession. But this desire of the Sacrament (the intention of going to confession) need not necessarily be explicit and expressly made, an implicit desire will do. St. Alphonsus says that for one who has a knowledge of the obligation to confess sins, it is not necessary for him to have confession before his mind when exciting himself to contrition. It suffices that he does not exclude it by the explicit intention not to confess his sins, but to content himself with an act of perfect contrition. Every Catholic knows that this obligation of confession exists. Others may not have this knowledge and yet may have the purpose to fulfil all the divine commands once they become known to them, and thus they have the implicit purpose of fulfilling this one too.

Only Annual Confession Necessary

There is no obligation to seek the first opportunity of going to confession to tell the mortal sins forgiven by perfect contrition. Were this required, then many, notwithstanding perfect contrition, would remain in mortal sin, for they do not intend to avail themselves of the first opportunity to go to confession. Perfect contrition will efface the mortal sins, even of a Catholic who confesses only once a year, in compliance with the ecclesiastical precept, though he may commit these sins almost twelve months before confession, but has the intention to tell them when going to confession at Easter. Of course, it is advisable to go frequently to confession, and especially to go soon after committing mortal sin, for through the Sacrament we get additional graces and are strengthened to resist temptations.

Confession Necessary Before Communion

Furthermore, before receiving Holy Communion, if you have committed a mortal sin since your last good confession, it is not enough to make an act of perfect contrition and be in the state of grace, but besides you are bound by precept to previously confess the sin and receive absolution for it. This is the meaning of the words of St. Paul as interpreted by the Council of Trent (Sess. xiii. c. 7); “Let a man prove himself; and so let him eat of that bread and drink of that chalice.” (1 Cor. xi. 29).

Remits Punishment

Contrition remits the everlasting punishment due to sin, for with the removal of the gilt of sin, the cause of damnation no longer exists. “Therefore,” writes St. Paul to the Romans, “there is no condemnation to them who are in Jesus Christ.” (Rom. viii, I). So that were the greatest sinner that ever lived --- one who had spent his whole life in offending God --- but to make an act of perfect contrition before expiring he would be saved forever from the flames of hell. This is a very important reflection, when we bear in mind how few of these who die every day receive absolution or the Last Sacraments before passing away. What a grand opportunity it gives Catholics of saving many of those outside the Fold whom they assist in their last earthly struggle.

Contrition remits more or less of the temporal punishment due to sin, according to the perfection of the sorrow, that is it shortens the time which should otherwise be spent in purgatory.

Restores and Increases Grace

Contrition gives back supernatural life to the sinner by communicating to him sanctifying grace, and it increases supernatural life in the soul of the just man by giving him an increase of sanctifying grace. The remission of sin is impossible without an infusion of grace. And according to a very generally accepted opinion, through contrition the soul receives back all the sanctifying grace it had before committing the sins now forgiven, and over and above it receives a new grace in recompense for its act of perfect contrition. The words of Ezechiel seem to prove this, “The wickedness of the wicked shall not hurt him in what day soever he shall turn from his wickedness.” (Ezech. xxxiii. 12). See what abundant means we have of increasing our treasures of grace and of laying up rich merits in heaven if only we frequently make use of this golden key to the treasury of heaven.

Restores Lost Merits

Contrition restores to life not only the infused virtues inseparable from sanctifying grace, but also the merits of the good woks performed in the state of grace, but destroyed by sin. “I will restore to you the years which the locust and the mildew and the palmer-worm have eaten.” (Joel ii. 25). Which words are interpreted by St. Jerome: “I will not suffer the harvest to perish which you have lost in the distress of your soul.”   “See,” says St. Ambrose, “how good the Lord is, how merciful He is. He not only forgives you your sins, but He restores to you what they had taken away.”


Widespread Impression

As we have already seen, there is a widespread impression that perfect contrition and perfect charity are extremely difficult to have, and rare, except in the case of saints, who are few. This error, which is much too general, comes from the fact that many Catholics confound intensive charity with appreciative charity. They are thinking of a very high degree of perfect love, such as inflamed the breast of St. Stanislaus Kostka after Holy Communion, of an intense sensible sorrow, such as the angelic Aloysius felt at his first confession. They believe that perfect contrition consists in feeling a very great love for God and a very intense sensible sorrow for sin, and that, as this sensible emotion does not depend on the will, it is consequently impossible, or at least very difficult, to have perfect contrition. Let us clearly understand the question here asked: “Is it easy to have perfect contrition?” There are countless degrees in love of God and in perfect contrition which has perfect love as its motive.

No Special Degree of Intensity Requires

God requires for justification no special degree of intensity or duration in the act of perfect love or perfect contrition. He always and immediately justifies all who have the substance of these acts even though they are still attached to venial sin and have the deliberate will to commit it in future. We are not inquiring whether it is easy to have the highest degree of love of God, or a very high degree such as the angels and saints have in heaven, or such as some few chosen souls have here on earth --- souls whom God favors with extraordinary spiritual enlightenments. The question to be answered is simply this. For ordinary souls here on earth, who, though they have no intention to give up venial sin, are resolved to avoid mortal sin in future, is it easy to have the lowest degree of love for God and of perfect contrition --- the minimum required for an act of love for God above all things and for His own sake? The answer is yes.

Connection Between Perfect Contrition and Perfect Charity

Before considering the proofs, it will be well to bear in mind what Catholic theologians call attention to in dealing with this question: that there is a close connection between an act of perfect contrition and an act of charity or the love of God. The motive of contrition is God's infinite goodness or any divine attribute which is loved above all things and which excites the sinner to hate sin above all other evils. So that wherever there is perfect contrition there is also perfect love. On the other hand, wherever there is perfect love and the consciousness that sin has been committed, it cannot be but that the love of God will move the sinner to detest sin above all things as being an offence against God whom he sovereignly loves. Hence it follows that if contrition is difficult an act of charity must be difficult, and if love is easy so must contrition be. The question, then, whether it is easy to make an act of perfect contrition, may be put in another way. We may ask: Is it easy to make an act of the perfect love of God? Here is our reason for answering yes.

Commandment to Love God

Almighty God has imposed on each member of the human race, from Adam down to the last man, a strict command to make acts of love of God. This command is recorded in Deuteronomy. “Hear, O Israel. Thou shalt love the Lord thy God, with thy whole heart and with thy whole soul and with thy whole strength.” (Deuter. vi. 4). In the New Law we find the same precept renewed by Jesus Christ and reported in three of the Gospels and in the Epistles of St. Paul. Thus, St. Matthew tells us that when a Doctor of the Law tempting Christ asked Him, “Which is the great commandment in the Law?” Jesus said to him: “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with thy whole heart and with thy whole soul and with thy whole mind. This is the greatest and the first commandment.” (Matt. xxii. 36, 37).

Here, and in the parallel passages of the Gospels of St. Mark and St. Luke, Our Lord openly and repeatedly affirms that to love God perfectly is a strict commandment, and in St. Luke He tells the lawyer that what he must do to possess eternal life is to love God --- “This do and you shalt live.” (Luke x. 28). Thus, according to Our Lord, to love God perfectly is as strict a commandment as to avoid murder, theft, lying, disobedience to parents, etc.

Now, the very fact that our loving Heavenly Father, knowing the ignorance and weakness of the masses of men of all times and places, requires everyone who has come to the use of reason to make acts of the love of God is sufficient proof that it must be easy to make such acts. For God does not command impossibilities. His commandments, according to St. John, are not heavy, and Christ assures us that His yoke is sweet and His burden light.

What Theologians and Spiritual Writers Say

St. Jure, in his classical work, “The Knowledge and Love of Jesus Christ,” confirms our conclusion: “Since it is commanded (he writes) it is possible. We go further and say that it is not only possible but easy. If it was possible for the Jews, under the Law of fear and severity, is it not still more easy under the Law of grace and love?” (Bk. I. ch. 14). St. Francis of Sales writes: “That the commandment of love may be fulfilled, God leaves no living man without furnishing him abundantly with all the means required thereto. He not only gives us simple sufficiency of means to love Him and in loving Him to save ourselves, but also a rich, ample and magnificent sufficiency, and such as ought to be expected from so great a bounty as His.” (The Love of God, Bk II. Ch. 8).

Here the holy Doctor asserts positively that our good God gives to all souls, even to souls in mortal sin, not only the graces which are necessary and sufficient, but also such as are amply abundant to enable them to make acts of perfect love, and He pours out these graces, not according to the measure of our strict necessities, but of the riches of His own goodness, and that He thus makes acts of perfect love not only possible but easy for the sinner.

Man is by Nature Inclined to Love God

Cardinal Billot, who for twenty-five years was professor of Theology in the Pontifical Gregorian University at Rome, writes: “It is necessary to remove the prejudice (which is a remnant of Jansenism) that an act of perfect love (or perfect contrition) is a thing of great difficulty. That this is most false is manifestly apparent, for this act is included in the limits of ordinary grace, as it lies within the limits of a commandment which is imposed upon all, and is even at the head of all the commandments. Moreover, by every rational creature, by a natural inclination of his own will, is inclined to love God above all things, as has already been noted from St. Thomas (P. I. q. 60, a. 5) --- Whatever difficulty there is in the act of perfect charity (or perfect contrition) is already overcome by the purpose of not sinning again; which purpose is included even in simple attrition. Consequently if we suppose that the will has turned away from sin (which turning away is necessarily required for justification at all times and in all circumstances), and thus removed the obstacle to loving God, then it is most easy to ascend to a high heart by assuming the motive of charity, than which there is nothing more sweet or delightful, and through which hard things become easy.” (Billot, Infused Virtues, page 415).

In this quotation, Cardinal Billot teaches that to hold that acts of perfect love and perfect sorrow are difficult is to follow a blind prejudice which is a remnant of Jansenism. He then gives the following reasons to show that acts of perfect love and perfect sorrow are easy for all who are resolved to avoid mortal sin in future. In the first place, as God commands all to love Him with their whole heart, He gives to all the graces necessary to make acts of love. Then, again, man by his very nature is inclined to love God above all things, and though he has inherited with fallen nature strong inclinations to evil, which are an obstacle to acts of love, still this obstacle is overcome by the resolution not to sin again, which is necessarily included even in attrition or imperfect contrition. So easy is perfect contrition, according to Rev. J. Von Den Driesch, that we may have it even without knowing it or thinking of it, “for example, while devoutly hearing Mass, while making the Stations of the Cross, while piously contemplating a crucifix or a picture of the Sacred Heart, while listening to a sermon, and so forth.” (Perfect Contrition, page 15).

Another proof that it is easy to have perfect contrition is this: God earnestly desires the salvation of all men without exception. Of this we have clear proof in Scripture and the writings of the Fathers. In this earnest desire of God there is necessarily included the readiness to furnish the means whereby all can claim it without great difficulty; otherwise the desire could scarcely be considered earnest and serious, it would be a mere levity.

The Only Means of Salvation for Most Men

Now, looking back over the history of the human race, we find that the vast majority of mankind have had so far but one means of securing heaven --- namely, perfect contrition, or perfect love of God. True, Christ instituted the Sacraments and since then attrition with their actual reception, is sufficient to remit sin and regain God's grace; but, during the four thousand years that preceded the coming of Christ there were no Sacraments that conferred grace, and even now, after the Gospel of Christ has been preached for nineteen centuries, not one-third of the population of the entire world are Christians, and can benefit by the Sacraments instituted by Christ. For all those who lived before the coming of Christ, and for the vast majority of those who have lived since then, the only plank of safety from the shipwreck of original and actual sin was an act of perfect contrition or perfect love. This was the only ark of salvation from sin and damnation provided for them by God, who earnestly desires that each may be saved, and ardently wishes that the Precious Blood of His Son, shed for this end, shall not be wasted. Can this solitary plank, thus made necessary by God, be so slippery that only a few can seize and hold it? Is the ark so hard to enter that the vast majority of those, for whose salvation it is intended must necessarily remain out of it and perish in the deluge? We shrink from such a thought. All that we know from the Scriptures of God and of Jesus Christ lead us to expect otherwise. There He is described as the Good Shepherd, who gave His life for His many stray sheep, yearns for their return and rejoices when even one comes back; there, too, He is described as a Father who is beside Himself with joy at the return of His prodigal son, whom he rushes to meet, embraces affectionately, clothes with new garments, and calls in the neighbors to rejoice at his return. Surely the solitary means this same God has provided for the return of so many stray sheep and of so many prodigals, must be very easy. Yes, perfect contrition and perfect love of God were easy in the Old Law, but they are doubly easy in the New Law. The coming of Christ, His Life, and Passion, and Death, have given us greater knowledge and clearer proof of the goodness and love of God, and consequently we find it much easier to love Him and to be sorry for our sins from the motive of love.*

* Under the Old Law an act of perfect charity or contrition was the only path to salvation, and even at present, for all those who cannot receive the Sacraments of Baptism or Penance, an act of perfect love or of perfect sorrow is the sole means they have of obtaining forgiveness of sin.  This path of justification --- the only one open to sinners under the old Dispensation --- has certainly not been closed under the New, although it derives its efficacy now from the desire of receiving the sacrament.  By instituting the Sacraments of the New Law, Christ Our Lord made the path to salvation more easy, for now attrition or imperfect contrition along with the Sacrament suffices.  In consequence of this, the abundance of grace and forgiveness under the New Dispensation becomes more apparent, for the necessity of perfect charity is lessened, while the ease with which it can be exercised is greatly increased.  In the New Law, so great are the motives impelling us to the love of God, the infinite benefits received, the heroic examples witnessed, the means so abundant and efficacious, that no comparison whatever can be made between them and the helps afforded in the Old Law.”  So writes Father Lehmkuhl, S.J., in his work on Moral Theology, Vol I, No. 451.


Contrition a Gift of God

Between knowing what perfect contrition is and having it there is a great difference. It would be of little use to have written the preceding pages on the nature, qualities and effects of contrition, if a little more were not added to point out the means of obtaining it. Let us begin by saying that contrition is a gift of God; consequently, it is not in our unaided power to procure it. Of ourselves we can indeed fall --- but, of ourselves we are powerless to rise; we can kill our own souls by sin --- but just as a corpse cannot of itself return to life, so a soul dead to sanctifying grace cannot of itself acquire spiritual life, but stands in need of one of those supernatural moving graces to penetrate it and revive it from its mortal lethargy. But if the grace of contrition is a gift of God, what must we commonly do to obtain it? Two things are demanded --- fervent prayer and attentive consideration of the motives of contrition. As a general rule the sinner must prepare the way and dispose his soul for the grace of contrition: “Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make straight His paths.”

Fervent Prayer

Now the first means to be employed is prayer. Prayer is that certain, universal means to which are attached all the graces and mercies of the Lord: “Ask and ye shall receive” and with much greater reason still, the special and precious grace of true repentance; “Convert me, O Lord, and I shall be converted to Thee.'' In disposing ourselves to repentance we must enter into ourselves so as to recognize the misery of our unhappy condition and our own absolute powerlessness to extricate ourselves therefrom by our own unaided resources; and hence we must turn to the Lord and earnestly beseech Him to pour into our intellect and will the abundance of lights and graces we stand in need of to see sin as it really is, and as it appears in His eyes, and to detest it as heartily as possible; and we should also strengthen the force of our own prayers by having recourse to the intercession of the Blessed Virgin, our Angel Guardian and our Patron Saints. This is precisely the way to begin; but it is also the point that is often not attended to.

Consideration of Motives

But prayer alone is not enough, God demands our further co-operation, so to prayer we must add the attentive consideration of the motives that are capable of exciting within us sorrow for our sins. Contrition is a profound sorrow and supreme hatred of sin --- a hatred that brings with it a firm resolution to fly sin and never commit it again. Now, a hatred such as this cannot be conceived by our will, if our intellect has not been persuaded and convinced of the greatness of the malice of sin. This conviction is not the work of a fleeting and superficial glance --- to obtain it recollection and reflection are necessary. Let us, therefore, dwell on the motives until, with reiterated strokes, we succeed in drawing forth from our hearts a fountain of true contrition.

Commence with Imperfect Contrition

In exciting ourselves to perfect contrition let us commence with imperfect contrition or attrition, which is the easiest, and from it let us try to reach perfect contrition which is more difficult. Their various motives do not exclude each other; but, on the contrary, assist and help each other. To make an act of perfect contrition it is not necessary to exclude all idea of our own advantage; in fact, the complete elimination of self-interest is altogether impossible. This is clear from the condemnation of the modified quietism advocated by Fenelon in the following proposition:

Self-Interest Not Excluded from Perfect Contrition

“There is the habitual state of love of God which is pure charity, without any admixture of the motive of self-interest. Neither fear of punishment nor desire for rewards have any further part in it. God is no longer loved for the sake of merit, or perfection, or for the happiness to be found in loving.” (Denz. N. 1327). Hence love of charity cannot exist without some admixture of the motive of self-interest.

Besides self-love, when correctly motived and ordinate, is not only a virtue, but the highest virtue of all; for there is no true love of self where there is not perfect love of God as the last end and supreme good. The so-called love which urges the performance of acts which avert from our last end is ultimately hatred of our supreme interests. Love of self and love of God are inseparably merged in one another.

Fear of God’s Judgments

Let us here note the series of acts by which, as by so many steps, we may more easily arrive at perfect sorrow. After having weighed the number and gravity of our sins, let us begin to stir our soul by the fear of God’s Judgments which faith presents to our minds, and let us say within ourselves: “God could have visited me with death in this state. If He had done so where should I now be? In the midst of endless torments of hell! How many that are less guilty than I who are already plunged therein.” Then let us reflect that God has borne with us and still bears with us through His pure compassion! Oh, how immense is the goodness of God towards me, who am so unworthy! How could I think of offending a God of such infinite goodness?

God's Mercy

Thus, the heart begins to be touched with bitterness and sorrow for the offence offered to a God who is so patient, so bountiful and so full of love for us, a God, who, though outraged and offended, still holds out His hands to us and offers us His mercy. To excite this love and this sorrow more and more in our hearts, let us go on to consider who God is and what He has done for us. What a Father He has been to us, and what kind of children we have been to Him? Let us especially dwell on the great blessing of redemption and let us call to mind how He became man and died on the Cross. Let us picture Him agonizing on the infamous gibbet, led hitherto by the burning desire He had to save us and open Heaven to us, while all the time He had and has no need for us in any way.

God’s Love for Us

These considerations will make us more and more conscious of our unworthy conduct towards that God who is so full of love for us; they will lead us to change our will, inspire us with hatred and abhorrence of sin, and will force us to say within ourselves: “Oh, how great is the evil I have done in offending so good a God, so loving a Father! But, I am sorry for my sins; I wish I had never committed them; I repent of them with my whole soul, with all my heart.”

God’s Goodness in Himself

The contrition here described is now perfect, and there is no need to consider higher motives to secure forgiveness for mortal sin. It is already that “contrition made perfect through charity” which, according to the Council of Trent, “reconciles man with God before the Sacrament (of Penance) is actually received.” If, however, we desire to have a still higher degree of perfect contrition, and thereby greatly increase our merit in heaven, we can easily do so. From the consideration of God’s goodness to us, it will not be difficult to call to mind the great goodness of God in Himself, and comprehend how much He deserves to be loved for His own sake alone. “If God is so good towards me, who am so bad, so loving to me, who am so ungrateful, even though He derives no advantage from loving me and doing good to me, is He not a God of the greatest goodness, a goodness without limit or measure? How had I the heart to offend Him so often? Alas, why is my heart not broken with sorrow? No sin for me O my God, for the future, but Thy love alone.”  “Thou art the God of my heart and the God that is my portion forever.”

Made in a Moment

From this long but very important explanation of how to make acts of perfect contrition, it must not be concluded that much time or great efforts are required to produce these acts: they are easily made and take only a moment, provided, of course, you understand what perfect contrition is and are familiar with the motives. Hence the importance of frequently making acts of perfect contrition, so as to become perfectly familiar with the motives and have them always ready at a moment’s notice.


  1. If at any time you should have the misfortune of offending God grievously, do not remain in that wretched state till your next confession, but rise immediately from it by making an act of perfect contrition, and thus regain the priceless blessing of sanctifying grace.
  2. As you should begin each day by offering to God all your thoughts, words, and actions, so you should end the day with a brief examination of conscience and an act of perfect contrition before you lie down to sleep.
  3. Should death overtake you when no priest is at hand to administer the Sacraments, do not waste your energy in vainly longing for a priest, but with perfect tranquility excite yourself to an act of perfect charity, accompanied with sorrow for your sins, and then put your trust in God's goodness.
  4. Should it ever fall to your lot to assist a dying person, Catholic or non-Catholic --- who has no opportunity of receiving the Sacraments, help him to make acts of the love of God and of perfect contrition, reminding him that he may thus certainly obtain forgiveness for his sins, and inspiring him with lively sentiments of hope and confidence in God's infinite mercy.


  1. O my God, I am sorry that I have sinned against Thee, for Thou art so good; I will never sin again. O pardon me and help me with Thy grace.
  2. O 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.
  3. O my God, from the bottom of my heart I am sorry for all my sins, because by them I deserve Thy just punishment in this life and in the next; because I have been ungrateful to Thee, my greatest Benefactor, and above all, because I have offended Thee, the Most Perfect and the Most Amiable God, my Savior, who hast died on the Cross for my sins, I am firmly resolved to amend my life, never more to offend Thee, and to avoid the occasions of sin.
  4. O my God, I am heartily sorry for having offended Thee, because Thou art so very good, and I firmly purpose by the help of Thy grace not to offend Thee again.*

* On November 12th, 1920, the Holy See granted an Indulgence of 300 days each time to all who shall recite this Act of Contrition devoutly and with a contrite heart. On January 13th, 1921, it further declared the English translation here given to be an accurate version of the original in Italian.


Addendum by a traditional Catholic priest

The booklet, “HEAVEN OPEN TO ALL by Perfect Contrition,” may lead the uninstructed to the belief that one can receive forgiveness and grace OUTSIDE the Church, that is, outside the Church that Christ founded, namely the holy Roman Catholic Church. It is a dogma of our faith that there is no salvation outside the Church. Hence, before anyone can receive forgiveness and sanctifying grace one must be WITHIN the Church.

The very first step in that regard is the knowledge of and belief in the four things necessary for salvation. Those four things are:

  1. belief in God the creator of heaven and earth,
  2. belief that God rewards the good and punishes evil (heaven and hell),
  3. belief in the Blessed Trinity (three persons in one God), and
  4. belief in Christ, the Divine Redeemer, and a desire to receive from Him forgiveness and sanctifying grace which alone will give him (if he has it when he dies) the joys of heaven forever.

Once one has the above faith he must hope for what is promised, namely, to receive forgiveness and grace.

Lastly, he must love God with an act of perfect love, as is so well explained in this booklet, “Heaven Open to All by Perfect Contrition.”

If a Buddhist without the above faith makes the act of perfect contrition devoid of the knowledge of and belief in God the creator of heaven and earth, plus ignorance of the Blessed Trinity and the order of our Divine Savior, he is not WITHIN the Church, and he will not have heaven open to him. St. Paul says (God says) without faith it is impossible to please God.

Here a whole book could be written. Being a MEMBER of the Church, and being WITHIN the are not the same thing. A member of the Church has a valid baptism of water, has the true faith and is subject to the Roman Pontiff, the Pope. That Pope may be alive or dead (the last known true Pope). When one knows and believes the four things necessary for salvation, he comes WITHIN the Church as soon as he makes the acts of divine hope and divine charity.

The act of perfect contrition can only exist in those who are either MEMBERS of the Church or WITHIN the Church. A person who vaguely exists WITHIN the Church gets forgiveness and grace only as long as he is invincibly ignorant of the fact that he must be a member of the Church. Once he knows that he must be a member of the Church and (for whatever reason) he refuses to enter it, he can no longer make the act of perfect contrition and perfect love which included the determination to obey God in His command to enter and remain in His Church all his life.

The act of perfect contrition most perfectly expressed is as follows: “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.”


Over-All Review --- Perfect and Imperfect Contrition
The New Catholic Dictionary
Pallen & Wynne

Imprimatur – October 1, 1929

Contrition (Lat., conterere, to bruise), sorrow for, and detestation of, one's past actual sins, with the purpose not to sin in future. Contrition is the principal act of the virtue of penance, and an essential element of the Sacrament of Penance. To be conducive to salvation and to justification contrition must be based on a supernatural motive and must extend to all mortal sins. Contrition is called perfect when its motive is love for God. Such contrition procures the remission of sins without the actual reception of a sacrament, though it must contain, at least implicitly, the intention of receiving either Baptism (in the case of an unbaptized person), or Penance (in the case of one already baptized). Contrition proceeding from any other supernatural motive than Divine charity is called imperfect contrition, or attrition, and constitutes a sufficient disposition for the remission of sins, through the actual reception of Baptism or of Penance --- C.E.; Pohle-Preuss, The Sacraments, III, St. L., 1024. (F. J. C.)