The Act of Contrition is traditionally used in when confessing one’s sins in the sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation. One of the requirements for forgiveness is contrition, that you are actually sorry for your sins. Contrition doesn’t have to mean that you feel bad, because our feelings are often out of our control. Rather, contrition means that we reject our sins and resolve to avoid committing them in the future.
A pious practice is also to pray the Act of Contrition daily after doing an examination of conscience. A nightly examination of conscience involves looking at your day. You will examine where you failed to do the good you could have done (sins of omission) and where you have done wrong (sins of commission). Then express repentance for those sins. Your examination should also involve seeing where you did the right thing and where you resisted temptation. Then you will thank God for the grace he gives you to follow him faithfully. This examination gives you a good idea of where and how God is acting in your life. A nightly examination of conscience also shows you the areas where you fall short so that you can invite God to bring his transforming grace into those areas of your life.
The Act of Contrition
There are actually several versions of the Act of Contrition. It is not essential to use one prayer rather than another, although some prayers are more commonly used. You may even use an Act of Contrition that you make yourself. If you do this during the sacrament of Confession, however, the priest may have some confusion because he will not be used to hearing it. One way to counteract his confusion is to make sure you say “Amen” at the end of your prayer.
There are elements that must be part of every Act of Contrition. This includes versions you memorize or versions you create:
- An expression of being sorry for your sins
- A resolution not to sin again
- Often this includes a statement that shows we are aware that we can only avoid sin by God’s grace.
Praying a memorized prayer that the Church approves can be very useful because you know that it has those elements in it already.
A Common Version
O, my God, I am heartily sorry for having offended you and I detest all my sins, because of your just punishments but most of all because I have offended you, my God, Who are all good and deserving of all my love.
I firmly resolve, with the help of your grace, to sin no more and avoid the near occasions of sin.
This is the traditional Act of Contrition prayer. In confession it’s not required that you pray this exact prayer. It is often provided on a sheet in the confessional and it is certainly acceptable. Because it is often provided, it is a great prayer if you don’t have an Act of Contrition memorized or if you get nervous and blank out on the prayer you have memorized. You can just read it as you pray and then you will be sure that you are saying a proper Act of Contrition.
Note that it includes the essential elements: a statement that we are sorry for our sins, as well as a resolve to sin no more and to avoid the things that tempt us to sin. It also shows that God’s grace is necessary for us to put into practice our resolution not to sin again.
My God, I am sorry for my sins with all my heart. In choosing to do wrong and failing to do good, I have sinned against you whom I should love above all things. I firmly intend, with your help, to do penance, to sin no more, and to avoid whatever leads me to sin. Our Savior Jesus Christ suffered and died for us. In his name, my God, have mercy.
This is a less commonly prayed version of the Act of Contrition, with simpler language than the previous prayer. It, too, contains an expression that we are sorry for our sins and a resolution to sin no more as we rely on God’s help. This prayer also includes a plea for mercy. Because Confession is the sacrament of mercy, this is an excellent part of the prayer.
A Simple Version
O my God, I am sorry for my sins because I have offended you. I know I should love you above all things. Help me to do penance, to do better, and to avoid anything that might lead me to sin. Amen.
This is a great version for children to pray, because it is very simple but still contains the essential elements of an Act of Contrition. Even though it is simple, it contains the expression that we are sorry for our sins and that we resolve to avoid sin in the future.
Keep In Mind
It may be difficult for you to pray that you intend not to sin again. As fallen human beings, we are aware that most likely, we will sin again after Confession. We may even sin again in the same ways. The Catholic Church knows this. There is a reason that the Church allows people to receive the sacrament of Confession again and again.
What we mean when we say that we resolve not to sin again is that we are committed to rejecting our sins. We should not go to Confession thinking, “I’m going to apologize for my sins and then I’m going to leave and commit them again. It’s okay because I can always go back to Confession.” Rather, we should think, “I will do whatever I can not to commit these sins again. Even though I know I might fall back into my sin, I don’t want to do that. I will try my best not to do that.”
Living out what we pray in the Act of Contrition will allow God’s grace to transform us. It is okay to confess the same sins again and again, because transformation takes time. If we allow God’s grace to transform us, however, we should eventually see a change in what we confess.
There is something wrong if at the age of 30 you are confessing exactly the same things you confessed at the age of 15, or if at the age of 50 you are confessing exactly the same sins as you confessed at age 30. But if you confess at 30 many of the same sins you confessed at 29, that’s not a problem. As you grow in faith, you will probably find that some of the sins you used to commit you don’t commit anymore, and you will therefore stop confessing them. Likewise, you will become aware of sins you did not realize before, and you will start confessing them. Gradually, your confessions will change.
The Act of Contrition is not merely a requirement to receive absolution in the sacrament of Confession. It is also an excellent prayer that allows God to transform us into the saints he calls us to be.