"O eternal God, you know what is hidden"

“O eternal God, you know what is hidden
and are aware of all things before they come to be"
(Dan 13:42)
Today's readings seem to present a stark contrast.

A Pairing of Opposites 

In the first reading from the book of Daniel, Susanna is falsely accused of adultery. The Lord hears her sincere prayer and delivers her from punishment through the young Daniel.

In the Gospel reading, however, the woman caught in adultery is not innocent. She had been caught in the very act of adultery. Yet she is also saved.

On the surface, these readings seem to be complete opposites: one is about divine justice, the other about divine mercy. Yet the Church in her wisdom combines them today because they both reveal the same underlying truth:

God knows our hearts...and he cares deeply about what is in them.

A Time of Contrition

Our Lenten journey is a time of contrition, a time to examine our hearts and root out the darkness that is hiding there. A time to invite the light of Christ into our lives to prepare to live the glory of Easter. Of course, we should be doing this everyday--but Lent is Mother Church's way of giving us a special reminder that we are in need of God's mercy.

Normally, for Catholics, this means the Sacrament of Reconciliation, a.k.a. Confession.

Unfortunately, due to the current health crisis, this sacrament is only being made available in extreme circumstances. Regular confessions are cancelled, no penance services are scheduled. So what are we to do?

Recently, the Holy Father discussed this very problem and reminded the faithful of the Church's constant teaching: like the woman caught in adultery, we need to turn to Jesus for forgiveness and salvation.

Exceptional Time, Exceptional Graces

"Wait!" You may be thinking. "Did the Pope say we didn't need to go to confession? Is he changing the Church's understanding of the sacrament?"

The answer to both of those questions is, of course, no.

The Church has always recognized that forgiveness comes only from God. The sacrament is a visible sign of that forgiveness--and visible signs are important. Sacramental confession allows us to unburden ourselves of our sins and to hear those beautiful words of absolution. In short, it allows us to have confidence in our forgiveness.

This ability of the Church to visibly forgive sins in Christ's name was so important, it was the first command the Jesus gave to his apostles on Easter Sunday (see John 20:19-23). So it is a gift not to be taken lightly. The Lord's expectation was that the grace of forgiveness would flow out from the ministers of the Church.

On the other hand, though, the sacraments are not 'magic'. They are visible signs of invisible grace, and God can provide that invisible grace in other ways. In the Catechism it reminds us:

"When it arises from a love by which God is loved above all else, contrition is called ‘perfect’ - contrition of charity. 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.”
(CCC 1452)
This reiterates the same teaching from session 14 of the Council of Trent.

The bottom line: God knows our hearts and can forgive us, even if the sacrament is not available.

Being Contrite

How do you have perfect contrition?

Contrition, you probably already realize, means having sorrow for your sins...wanting forgiveness and being resolved not to commit those sins in the future. To, as Jesus says to the woman in today's Gospel, "Go, and from now on do not sin any more."

The 'perfect' part? That is about you motives. Perfect Contrition isn't 'fire insurance'...it isn't about trying to get out of punishment. The 'perfect' part of Perfect Contrition is about wanting to be reconciled with God out of love for him.

Where do you start? Just like preparing for confession, start with a sincere examination of conscience. Desire, more than anything to be reunited to God. Next, tell him so. Any of the Acts of Contrition that you would normally use during confession are a good expression of that when said with your whole heart.

And you need to be resolved to receive the gift of the Sacrament of Reconciliation as soon as its available to you.

A Moment of Contrition

What does all this look like in practice? I can illustrate with a short story:

A number of years ago now I was at Camp Munz, a juvenile probation camp that used to be located in Lake Hughes. We had just finished a communion service and I was waiting in the office for any of the young men who wanted to show up for faith sharing afterward.

Only one young man showed up.

He looked sad and nervous. I introduced myself and asked how he was doing. Still looking down at his shoes, he asked:
"When is father going to be here for confessions?"
I had to give him the bad news: we wouldn't have a priest there for over a month. The young man looked like he had been punched in the gut. He began to explain how he had done some horrible things and felt very far away from God...that he wanted Jesus back in his life again.

So, I shared with him what I shared with you above. I told him, "We are going to pray a prayer together...you just have to really mean it. God will know."

Then I set the crucifix on the table, and we both knelt down. I said "repeat after me" and led him through the act of contrition: "My God, I am sorry for my sins with all my heart..."

By the end of the prayer, this 16 year old gang member had tears streaming down his face.

Perfect Contrition.

And yes, he did make a full confession when the priest was able to come out the next time. So, maybe take a moment to say the prayer yourself, and really mean it.

Act of Contrition
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.

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