By Father John Bayer
Special to The Texas Catholic
As the diocese develops its response to the pandemic, I think we’re all very excited to get back to celebrating the sacraments!
On the diocesan website, there is a decree published by Bishop Burns on April 30 outlining his plan to open churches incrementally. Right now, in what he calls phase one, there are still no public masses, but we can celebrate confessions, Eucharistic Adoration, sacraments of initiation and private family events (like weddings, funerals and quinceañeras), assuming the regulations for social distancing and attendance limits are observed. This phase lasts at least until May 18. It is important to be attentive to further instructions, especially when we arrive at our churches, in order to ensure safe celebrations.
It is becoming possible, once again, to go to confession! Thanks be to God! Still, I’m sure that many people, such as those who are contagious or are most at risk of suffering dangerously from the virus, still might not be able to go, at least not immediately.
If you’re still suffering from an inability to go to confession, recall the Vatican’s note about the sacrament during the pandemic (posted here on the Vatican website), as well as the Dallas diocese’s note about “perfect contrition” and the forgiveness of sins outside of confession (posted here on the website of St. Gabriel the Archangel Catholic Community in McKinney). To quote the Vatican’s note, “Where the individual faithful find themselves in the painful impossibility of receiving sacramental absolution, it should be remembered that perfect contrition, coming from the love of God, beloved above all things, expressed by a sincere request for forgiveness (that which the penitent is at present able to express) and accompanied by votum confessionis, that is, by the firm resolution to have recourse, as soon as possible, to sacramental confession, obtains forgiveness of sins, even mortal ones (cf. CCC, no. 1452).”
The Church’s teaching about confession is very beautiful, and the current pandemic gives us an occasion to think in particular about the idea of perfect contrition, or what The Catechism of the Catholic Church calls contrition, “When it arises from a love by which God is loved above all else” (CCC 1452). We can experience contrition, or sorrow for our sins, for other reasons than the love of God, since our sins are simply ugly and detrimental to our happiness, and they leave us exposed to temporal and perhaps even eternal punishment. However, there is something special about perfect contrition or contrition motivated by the love of God above all else, something which makes forgiveness of sins, even mortal sins, possible.
When we experience perfect contrition we are moved to convert by our vision of the goodness of God, rather than merely by our vision of our sins and their effects. We convert because we see God is infinitely worthy of our love, and we desire to give him everything we have and are. It is very healing to see God’s goodness, to know him for who he is – the one who is to be loved above all else. If we convert as the prodigal son did, then we are converting because we are dissatisfied with our miserable sins which leave us longing for the food of swine (cf. Luke 15:14-19); in this case, our return to God can be slow and sulky. But if during our return we raise our eyes and see God for who he is – a loving Father sprinting to embrace us – then our hearts can begin to flutter, and in that fluttering to heal the wounds of sin completely. The love that sin had diminished is now throttling full steam, as the vision of God leads us to a kind of self-forgetfulness that burns away our selfishness. Whenever we are gifted with a vision of God, we wonder things like, ‘Who are you that you are so kind and merciful, so good and beautiful, O God? I want to give you everything…’ That love is the fruit of Christ’s sacrifice; it is the very love that reconciles and heals.
I am grateful to the Church for taking this moment to remind us of perfect contrition. It is, I believe, one of the “good things” God can work out of this pandemic for those who love him (Rm 8:28). Of course, we can pursue such contrition even when things return to normal. In the meantime, if you are still unable to get to confession as soon as you like, take the chance to explore this distinction between perfect and imperfect contrition, and try to find your way interiorly, guided by the Catechism, to a renewal, or maybe a discovery, of the deepest love for God we can offer by his gift. Even a prayer for this knowledge is already a step within it.
Father John Bayer, O.Cist., is a theologian and monk at the Cistercian Abbey of Our Lady of Dallas.