The Act of Contrition and Personal Health
By Fr. Jerry Pokorsky ( bio - articles - email ) | Mar 21, 2022
Among the many muscular prayers in the Catholic arsenal is the traditional Act of Contrition. It is a prayer that we should recite routinely, especially before we retire in the evening. In the Gospel, various infirmities are metaphors for sin: leprosy, blindness, paralysis, etc. Let’s update the list with contemporary examples to bolster our understanding of the Act of Contrition.
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O my God, I am heartily sorry for having offended Thee, and I detest all my sins…
We generally understand how to maintain our health. Eat and drink in moderation, maintain a balanced diet, and so on. We may feel uncomfortably overweight, but we must identify the specific acts of nutritional misbehavior that cause us to feel uncomfortable. Sins are not feelings; sins are unjust or uncharitable actions—thoughts, words, and deeds—committed with knowledge and consent. A good examination of conscience measures our behavior against a listing of sins clustered about each of the Ten Commandments.
People with sensitive skin would do well to visit a dermatologist every so often. A pre-cancerous lesion is like a venial sin. It’s helpful to identify and zap them before they grow out of control. Remove them with a devout Act of Contrition or during the Penitential Rite of the Mass. Do not allow the lesions to fester and maintain periodic inspections.
Short of breath? Chest pains? It’s time to visit a cardiologist. Medical tests may reveal a heart blockage requiring a stent or open-heart surgery. A mortal sin is like a heart blockage, and a good Confession is like heart surgery: uncomfortable and scary, but, well, necessary to save lives. Loathe and fear mortal sin and its effects more than the China virus.
I dread the loss of heaven and the pains of hell.
There are two ways of viewing our health. We may strive for good health because we fear the discomfort of poor health and loss of life. There’s nothing wrong with this motivation, but it’s imperfect. Traditional Catholic moral theology teaches that imperfect contrition involves fear of God’s punishment. We all fear—or should fear—God’s wrath. “Do not be deceived; God is not mocked, for whatever a man sows, that he will also reap.” (Gal. 6:7)
But most of all because they offend Thee, my God, Who are all good and deserving of all my love.
It is better to choose good nutritional practices because we love the gift of life. Traditional Catholic moral teaching reminds us that love perfects fear of punishment. We need perfect contrition for the forgiveness of mortal sins.
We can be sure that we fear God’s just punishment, but we can never have certainty that we have achieved perfect contrition. The Sacrament of Penance comes to the rescue by raising imperfect contrition to perfect contrition.
I firmly resolve, with the help of Thy grace...
Diagnostic medical technology is like God’s grace. We need to beg God’s graces to enlighten our hearts so that we know our sins and trust in His mercy (cf. the opening prayer of the priest in Confession). Some have a firm resolve to avoid carbs for dietary purposes. Avoid sin with comparable determination.
…to confess my sins,…
An accurate medical diagnosis requires honesty with the doctor. We must also be honest in confessing all of our mortal sins: nature and number (but without excessive detail), to the best of our ability—to the priest who hears and forgives sins in the name of Jesus. “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven.” (Jn. 20:23) If we deliberately withhold a mortal sin, the entire Confession is invalidated, and we leave the confessional with another mortal sin on our soul.
..to do penance, to amend my life,…
Expecting instantaneous good health is unreasonable, but we should take steps in the right direction by changing unhealthy choices. In the spiritual life, breaking patterns of sin may take some time, but we must place our hands on the plowshare of virtuous living, hitting a rock here and there, and not look back.
… to avoid the near occasions of sin…
Staying home when sick prevents the spread of contagion, so use common sense. Most mortal sins do not happen by chance. We usually place ourselves in sinful situations. Avoid them. Don’t light a match amidst gasoline fumes.
The Seal of Confession
Doctors and nurses practice reasonable confidentiality when it comes to our health. The seal of Confession is of a much higher order and unique. A priest must not reveal the sins of a penitent under any circumstances. Indeed, the Church honors priests martyred for their refusal to break the seal of Confession.
The Day of Judgement
We often feel the anxiety of sitting in a doctor’s office waiting for the diagnosis and prognosis. When we die, we will similarly await His judgment.
Is the diagnosis terminal? If we die in the state of mortal sin, Jesus reveals our destination. “Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.” (Mt. 25:41) Perhaps the medical procedures and tests promise a reasonable recovery with physical therapy, and we received the Sacraments before death. Next stop: Purgatory for spiritual rehab.
In rare instances, a soul (a martyr, for example) receives an absolutely clean bill of health: “Well done, good and faithful servant…enter into the joy of your master.” (Mt. 25:23)
Schedule a Confession with your annual medical exam. There are usually several doctors and priests to choose from. Choose competence and doctrinal orthodoxy. Or schedule your annual physical with your Lenten Confession. Memorize and pray that Act of Contrition often:
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, to amend my life, and to avoid the near occasions of sin.
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