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After serving two terms as president, Ulysses Grant went on a world tour, accompanied by his wife.
One of the many stops on their trip was the Vatican. When Grant was presented to the pope, the holy father said, "I want to thank you for the religious privileges you granted to Catholic soldiers in your armies."
Thinking back, the general could not recall any special privileges he had granted to Catholics. Perceiving this, the pope explained, "I'm referring to the fact that before every battle, you told your officers to allow the Catholic soldiers an opportunity to go to confession."
Grant replied rather directly, as was his manner, saying, "I did that as a military measure because my soldiers fought better when they felt their consciences were clear. But I had no idea your holiness was aware of this custom."
"Ah, my friend," replied the pope, "There is nothing that affects my children anywhere in the world that is not known to me, and every such benefit is cordially remembered."
Despite the fact that he wasn't a Catholic, Grant understood the obvious benefit of confession — as should we all. If well-received, the sacrament of penance restores or increases sanctifying grace, forgives sins, obliterates the eternal punishment due for mortal sins, bestows strength to avoid future sin and restores merits that have been lost.
There are five elements necessary for a good confession:
Let's look at these five elements individually, beginning with a good examination of conscience.
In order to make a good examination of conscience, we must deliberately recall all sins we've committed since our last confession. This is done by going over (in our minds) all that is required of us by God's commandments and the Church's laws. The Church recommends that we do a brief examination of conscience each night before bedtime. That makes remembering what we wish to confess much easier when we're ready to make our confession.
There are several prayer books and leaflets available that have a printed examination guide to help guide us. They typically list God's commandments and key Church laws. Under each commandment and law are questions we should ask ourselves. The best two printed forms of an examination of conscience I've seen are found in the Queen of Apostles Prayer Book and the Handbook of Prayers.
Next, we have sorrow for our sins, which is called contrition. The two types of contrition are perfect and imperfect. Perfect contrition is sorrow for our sins with the purest of motives for the sorrow — hatred for our sins solely for the love of God and the offense our sins cause Him.
According to the Council of Trent, "Such contrition remits venial sins. It also obtains forgiveness of mortal sins if it includes the firm resolution to have recourse to sacramental confession as soon as possible."
Imperfect contrition, on the other hand, is sorrow for our sins for less pure reasons. Like perfect contrition, imperfect contrition is still a gift of God, a prompting from the Holy Spirit. We experience imperfect contrition when we're sorry for our sins because we fear Hell or despise the inherent evil of sin. Although perfect contrition is obviously the better of the two, it's fairly rare. However, we may receive the sacrament well if we have at least imperfect contrition.
The rite of the sacrament of penance allows for a recital of an act of contrition, of which there are many forms. We should be sincere in the recitation of this prayer. By an act of contrition, we mean an act of the will that causes us to be sorry for the sins we have committed.
We should not, however, confuse subjective emotion with an objective act. In other words, you may not emotionally feel sorrow for your sins, but you can still decide in your will to be sorry. We should be sorry for all our sins, including venial sins, because all sins offend God. However, one must at least be contrite for mortal sins. If all you're confessing are venial sins and don't have sorrow for them, recall a past mortal sin and be contrite about it.
Next is the firm purpose of amendment. This is the firm resolution to not sin again. In order to receive God's forgiveness, you must have this.
Being resolved not to sin again doesn't mean you will live up to that resolution. Yes, you should absolutely have your mind made up not to sin again and to avoid the near occasions of sin. But apart from Mary, few if any other human persons, went a lifetime free of all actual sin. (Jesus doesn't really count as He is a divine person and remained so even after his Incarnation.)
Even though most if not all of the other saints reached various degrees of perfection before dying they still (with a rare exception of perhaps someone like St. Jospeh) committed at least some venial sins. Even Pope St. John Paul II went to confession every day, and no one will deny he was a holy man (as holy as he was, I've often wondered what it would be like to be present during one of his confessions. What could he possibly have had to confess?).
Next week, we'll conclude our examination of the sacrament of penance with a look at the final two elements of the five necessary to make a good confession. Don't wait until reading next week's article if you need to go to confession, though. Your priest will happily help you through a good confession.