Fourth Sunday of Lent: Luke 15:1-3, 11-32
“His son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you; I no longer deserve to be called your son.’ [But his father said,] ‘Let us celebrate with a feast, because this son of mine was dead, and has come to life again; he was lost, and has been found.’”—By this we see that contrition must lead to confession of sin, which sin is forgiven by divine absolution.
Penance, as a sacrament, is composed of matter and form. The matter of this sacrament is nothing less than the contrition and confession of the penitent (sins being the remote matter). The form is the absolution granted by the priest (ST III, q.84, a.1, ad 2). We will consider the matter supplied by the penitent. In this regard, penance is twofold, external and internal. Internal penance is that by which one grieves for a sin one has committed. As man should always be displeased at having sinned, so man should experience some sorrow for his past sins throughout his whole life, even after they have been sacramentally absolved (ST III, q.84, a.8). This sorrow need not always be in act, but should at least be an habitual sorrow for sin and a resolve to avoid future sin (ST III, q.84, a.9). External penance is that by which a man shows external signs of sorrow for sin, confesses his sins to a priest and makes satisfaction (ST III, q.84, a.8).
In penance, the first act is the operation of God in turning man’s heart back to him, the second is an act of faith, the third a movement of servile fear, the fourth is a movement of hope resulting in a purpose of amendment, the fifth is an act of charity whereby sin is displeasing in itself and not merely on account of the punishment incurred thereby, sixth is a movement of filial fear whereby a man offers to make amends to God through chaste fear of him (ST III, q.85, a.5).
These are all present in the parable of the prodigal son (here follows my own interpretation of the text):
“[The prodigal son] longed to eat his fill of the pods on which the swine fed, but nobody gave him any. Coming to his senses [God grants conversion]
he thought, ‘How many of my father’s hired workers have more than enough food to eat, but here am I, dying from hunger. [servile fear]
I shall get up and go to my father and I shall say to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I no longer deserve to be called your son; treat me as you would treat one of your hired workers.’ [hope and purpose of amendment]
So he got up and went back to his father. [charity whereby sin is displeasing in itself]
While he was still a long way off, his father caught sight of him, and was filled with compassion. He ran to his son, embraced him and kissed him. His son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you; I no longer deserve to be called your son.’ [filial fear]
But his father ordered his servants, ‘Quickly bring the finest robe and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Take the fattened calf and slaughter it. Then let us celebrate with a fest, because this son of mine was dead, and has come to life again; he was lost, and has been found.’ [absolution and restoration to grace]”
But it remains to consider why contrition in the heart must be expressed through external confession of sins:
It must be recognized that penance is a species of justice, since the penitent grieves for the sin committed insofar as it is an offence against God. Thus, the penitent purposes to amend his life, which amendment requires not only the cessation of sin, but also some degree of compensation is required by which satisfaction may be made before God who has been offended. Now this compensation cannot be that which is between equals, since God so far exceeds his creation, but it is that between unequals, as between a master and a servant or between a father and a son. Therefore, the justice attained is a relative justice, as between unequal parties (ST III, q.85, a.3).
Now, since what is desired by the penitent is not merely this relative justice, but even more he desires the reconciliation of friendship with God. Accordingly, the first act required from the penitent is the desire to atone for his sin, and this is supplied through contrition. The second act is that he should atone for his sin according to the will of God whom he offended, and this is accomplished through confessing his sins to the priest who stands in God’s place. Finally, the penitent must then accomplish the atonement and this is completed through satisfaction. Hence it is clear that contrition, confession, and satisfaction follow each upon the other and are all necessary parts of the sacrament of Penance (ST III, q.90, a.2). What is more, contrition implies the purpose both of confessing and of making satisfaction (ST III, q.90, a.2 ad 2). We may now consider contrition in itself.
Contrition: “An assumed sorrow for sins, together with the purpose of confessing them and of making satisfaction for them.” It is an “assumed sorrow” insofar as it is guided by reason and not merely a passion. It includes the “purpose of confessing” and “of making satisfaction” since these are required in restoring justice and in gaining the reconciliation of friendship with God (ST Supplementum, q.1, a.1). It is “for sins” insofar as it is for his own actual sins which he has committed. Thus, one is not contrite, properly speaking, for the sins of others (ST Supplementum, q.2, a.5), nor for original sin (ST Supplementum, q.2, a.2), but for every actual sin he as committed (ST Supplementum, q.2, a.3) and not for future sins not yet committed (ST Supplementum, q.2, a.4).
Finally, we may consider whether and in what manner contrition forgives sins:
St. Thomas argues that contrition can be considered either as a) part of the sacrament of penance or b) as an act of virtue. In either case, contrition forgives sins, though in different ways. As part of the sacrament, contrition operates primarily as an instrument for the forgiveness of sins. As an individual act of virtue (outside the sacrament), contrition is a quasi-material cause of the forgiveness of sin. Thus, even outside of the sacrament, contrition can bring forgiveness of sins (ST Supplementum, q.5, a.1). However, it is important to note that, in the case of mortal sin, even though this may be forgiven through an act of contrition outside the sacrament, one ought not approach the Eucharist until the sin has been forgiven through the ministers of the Church in sacramental confession—since the Eucharist is distributed through the ministers of the Church, it is necessary to be first forgiven by the ministers of the Church (i.e. the priests); according to the law of the Church (ST Supplementum, q.5, a.1, ad 3).
With all this in mind, we may record here the “conditions for confession” which the medieval masters assigned for the sacrament of penance (ST Supplementum, q.9, a.4):
Simple, humble, pure, faithful,
Frequent, undisguised, discreet, voluntary, shamefaced,
Entire, secret, tearful, not delayed,
Courageously accusing, ready to obey.