Monday, September 24, 2018

There is no ‘try’ in the Act of Contrition. And there is a very sound reason why.

I have been hearing confessions for the past 17 years of being a Catholic priest, and I have noticed something that happens frequently in the penitents and the way that they pray the Act of Contrition.  Very often, they add the word ‘try’ at the last part of this prayer, and this does affect the ways that the penitent lives in his restored state of Sanctifying Grace which he received as a result of the confession that was just made.  

For the benefit of non-Catholic readers, perhaps a bit of explanation would help you to understand the context of this reflection.  At every celebration of the Sacrament of Reconciliation or confession, after all the sins have been told to the priest confessor, there is some counsel or advice given to the penitent, at the end of which the penitent is required to pray what is called the Act of Contrition or Act of Sorrow.  

There are different variations to this prayer, and one very common one has the penitent saying “O my God, I am sorry for having offended you.  Because you are so good, and with the help of your grace, I will not sin again”.  The other versions are essentially variations of this but the content is always the same in that there is sorrow or contrition expressed, there is a plea for God’s help in terms of being responsive to his grace, and there is a firm commitment to not sin in the future.  In none of the versions of this prayer is there the word ‘try’ where the penitent says that he will try to not sin again.  Yet, many penitents have inserted it right there where it doesn’t belong. 

To non-Star Wars geeks, the above picture features Yoda, the Jedi Grand Master who trains his protege Luke Skywalker in the ways of The Force, and stresses the imperative to 'do' which is strong, rather than 'try', which is weak.

It does seem rather trivial, you may think.  After all, it is just a little word, made up of three letters.  “Surely God wouldn’t mind or take any offence!” you may say.  What’s the big deal?  Am I trying to create a storm in a teacup by writing a whole blog centered on the added use of one small word?  On the surface, it may appear to be so, but I hope that by the end of this read, you will experience a light bulb moment.

Our Christian doctrine has always stressed the power and necessity of God’s grace.  It is his love, his energy and his power that makes all things possible.  As Christians, we believe strongly in the primacy of grace, where it is God’s initial movement of love that creates anything and makes anything possible.  It is by God’s grace that he has created out of nothing, and it is by God’s grace that we are made.  It is by God’s grace that we receive his love, and it is ultimately by God’s grace that we sinners have the undeserved mercy of God which accords us the promise of heaven for eternity after our life on this earth ends. Why Mary is so esteemed in our Catholic belief is because we see in scripture that she is hailed by the angel Gabriel as one who is ‘full of grace’, a human being who has the plenitude of God’s love and grace.

Powerful as God’s grace is, God does desire for our cooperation with it in our lives. The fuller we are in this cooperation with grace, the more fruitful our lives will be.  A person who cooperates with great love and effort with God’s grace will result in a life that bears the fruit of holiness, greater charity, zeal, patience, forgiveness, peace, joy and love for God and for one’s fellowman in great amounts.  Mary, who cooperated most fully with God’s grace could live so perfectly a human life because of her full cooperation at every point in her life.  

It then naturally follows that a person who doesn’t put in much effort in cooperating with God’s grace will naturally therefore not bear much in terms of fruitfulness.  His or her ‘state of grace’ will slowly be diminished as the days post-confession go by. What does a cooperating soul look like? It is one which has a great desire for holiness and sanctification.  It has a heart that is grounded in humility and seeks what God’s desires and wills, and it has one eye always cast on the sights on heaven and its eternal promises. At the same time, it is also one that isn’t just lost on these lofty thoughts alone.  It is one that is grounded very much in making great effort to love God concretely by living a righteous life, loving the people that God loves (which means all people), and not loving what God does not love (all sins and disordered inclinations).  These are all the ways that one cooperates with God’s grace.  When one fully cooperates with God’s grace on offer, one can live a holy and sanctified life.  This is the truth that the Church teaches.  One reason why many habitual sinners find themselves stuck in their habits despite frequent confession is because of a lack of effort put in cooperating with God’s grace, especially in moments of weakness and temptation.

Understanding this, we begin to see how nefarious and injurious it is when we inadvertently slip in the word ‘try’ when we make the Act of Contrition or Sorrow. We are saying that with the help of God’s grace, at best, we can only try to reach holiness.  The adding of this word weakens (and even insults) very much the power of God’s grace, and at the same time shows a great lack of desire in us to want to cooperate with God’s grace in our lives.  I am saying that I will only be half-hearted, unenthusiastic and lackluster in my efforts at holiness post-confession.  Omit the word try, and it changes the entire intention of the prayer.  It shows the great trust and confidence in the power of God’s grace and the great possibility of living a holy life when I not just try, but actually make it a point to be conscious of every moment to give my life over to God’s grace working in me. It shows that I will henceforth have a steely resolve to cooperate willingly and with great love with God.  The word ‘try’ unconsciously added to the prayer undermines greatly a soul’s potential greatness, and at the same time undermines the power of God’s grace.  In the church’s formulation of all the versions of the Act of Contrition, there is always a clear indication of a firm intention and a resolution for holiness. The word ‘try’ does weaken one’s resolve.

Am I making a mountain out of a molehill?  Only if our prayers that we pray are mere words that we form with our lips and have nothing to do with our hearts and inner disposition.  But if the aim of prayer is loving God and through that, having our lives moulded and shaped into the best versions of ourselves, then no. 


  1. “Powerful as God’s grace is, God does desire for our cooperation with it in our lives. The fuller we are in this cooperation with grace, the more fruitful our lives will be. …………”
    Thanks so much for the paragraphs following the above line. It helps to clarify much...and brings back a flood of memories....

    When my elder child was about eleven he came back one day from Sunday Catechism class looking a bit angry and distressed. Sharing our little anecdotes of the day over lunch, which was our norm, I learnt that he was reprimanded by his Catechism teacher because he had insisted that putting the word “try” Into the Act of Contrition prayer was not right because he felt it weakened his “promise” or resolve to God , not to sin again. Besides, his mom had not told him so ! He was still at that stage where “my dad or my mom knows best” So his teacher was livid with him because she had just learnt at a Retreat that if one didn’t use this word “try” , one would be guilty of being prideful for no matter how one tried he or she would definitely sin again.

    At that time, I was only taking baby-steps to catechize myself so as to be one or two steps ahead of the children so that I would be able to guide them. I was thus not so learned to speak so coherently and authoritatively like what you did in your blog today - thus though I agreed with my son , I felt that I had failed him miserably. I remembered telling him that God listens to the words of our hearts and if our hearts resolve firmly never to hurt Him by our sins again - we should just say the prayer as usual, ………………as he has remembered it verbatim when he was being prepared for First Holy Communion. Then as an aside caution, really - try ! not to disrupt his Catechism class and distress his teacher for the classes then were forty full - for I know he has an enquiring mind that delights in seeking the Truth.

    God bless you, Fr.


  2. On the flip side of the coin, I have heard many many variations(mostly shortened or abridged versions)of the the Prayer of Absolution said by priests in the confessional.

    Some say it while the Act of Contrition is being said by the penitent,some say it after, some say it silently or not at all even.

    In my view, being too caught up by the rules and rubrics of Sacraments is to miss the forest for the trees. The spiritual efficacy of not just confession but any Sacrament in my view is first and foremost dependent on a person's spiritual disposition and a desire for an encounter with God, everything else is secondary.

    The crux of the issue when it comes to sin is whether one has remorse or compunction towards it, not just feelings of guilt or even shame. One can follow all the rules and rubrics and still be sacrilegious in receiving any Sacrament with the consequence of it having little spiritual effect.

    Only God knows the state of a penitent's heart. If trying (presumably one's best or utmost) is all that one can do, I do not think one should change one's choice of words or worse still stay away from confession or any other Sacrament. I once read somewhere that even if you have to go for confession over and over again confessing the same sin till you die, but each and every time you confess you are truly remorseful and spiritually fighting it as best as you can, each and every confession does not lose its efficacy.

    Having said that, I do see where you are coming from but I wonder how effective changing the choice of words would be. Far better to increase the feelings of remorse in a penitent. In this regard I would like to share one particular experience I had in confession. After confessing my sins, the priest was silent for what felt like eternity and I even began to think he had fallen asleep until he finally spoke. I do not know whether he did it intentionally but I think having a period of silence is very useful in making a penitent feel remorseful!

    Lastly, I hope you are fine with people sharing their personal opinions and experience in your blog. The last time I commented on worthy reception of communion I felt the Lord gently telling me not to comment on Church teaching on your blog and will refrain from doing so.

    I do recognize that the flock is diverse and there must be a reason the Church has the rules that she has. My main point is still we should not miss the forest for the tress. To use a sports analogy, I think people who want to learn a sport should just try it without being too fixated with the rules. Rules are important but a good coach will know you first develop a love for the game first. The motivation to learn and follow the rules will come automatically when the love for the game develops.

    1. Thank you, Jonathan, for your much thought-out comment. No, I do not mind at all people sharing their personal opinions and experiences, just as long as they are respectful and do not end up shaming people who are named.

      As for the true sentiments behind the formulated words of composed prayers, I am in total agreement with you that this is the 'gold standard' (my words) of anyone praying. But as a priest/counsellor/spiritual director/advisor, I have no ability to enter into that very personal space. I can suggest, advise and as a result, hope to enlighten the person that the affective dimension of prayer where one wills oneself to love is far more important, it is beyond anyone's control. Only the person activating his or her free will to act in love can do this (with the help of God's grace, of course).

      You hit the proverbial nail on the head to say that the flock is diverse. Just look at any congregation present at any Mass anywhere in the world. The way each individual responds to the prayers, how each person postures himself, the kind of enthused or cold response to the celebrant's prayers, etc., are never uniform. Yet, this doesn't and shouldn't prevent us from encouraging a richer and warmer response from them.

      Thank you once again for your time and effort. God bless.

      Fr Luke

  3. I totally agree with you we should try our best to follow best practices and norms and have an orthodoxy of sorts when celebrating the Sacraments but unfortunately due to the diversity and individual idiosyncrasies of both priests and laity all over the world,what usually happens is less than ideal. Both form and substance is important and ideal to have but if one has to choose one to prioritize, I think substance is always preferable and more important than form. Too much form without substance can easily become a meaningless ritual and you cannot really ever have too much substance in my view!

    On the topic of confession, what about penance? Nowadays,some priests give it, some priest don't give it. If given, it varies widely in "severity"! I remember as kids we used to compare notes to know which priest to go to if we wanted the lightest penance! Even now as an adult, it all seems very arbitrary to me. When not given or given lightly, grace seems "cheap", when it is more "severe", grace seems to have to be "earned".

    Then there is the related issue of indulgence. I still hear people saying you can gain a special indulgence when you make a confession or go to Mass during special days or follow certain special "conditions" or "criteria".

    I don't envy your job as a priest Fr Luke but the faith still has to be lived by the laity despite all these idiosyncrasies and inconsistencies. To me, whatever bells and whistles added or subtracted, whatever warts and all to the form, whether norms and best practices are followed or not, a Mass is a Mass, a Confession is a Confession, period.

    As for penance, I have resolved my conundrum based on a penance an old priest once gave me which is to do what you yourself think will be sufficient reparation and atonement for what you have done. Another brilliant way to make a penitent feel remorse!