The National Catholic Review

One of my earliest religious memories is of learning the Act of Contrition from a Sister of St. Joseph during a C.C.D. class in our parish church in suburban Philadelphia. It was probably a Sunday morning after Mass; I must have been around seven or eight, and was most likely preparing for first holy Communion.

I’m not sure why I recall this particular moment with such vividness, but I can easily remember the sister standing in her black habit (this must have been in the late 1960’s) with her back turned toward the class, facing the blackboard. Over the blackboard marched a long line of dark-green cardboard squares demonstrating the proper way to write the alphabet. As if replicating the perfection of those letters, Sister drew an enormous letter O on the board, and followed this with the rest of the prayer: O my God, I am heartily sorry.... I, like the rest of the students, carefully copied the prayer on a sheet of pale-green lined paper.

We were instructed to learn the prayer for class the following Sunday. I remember staring dumbly at the blackboard, crowded with words, wondering how I could ever memorize something so long. And initially, I found the Act of Contrition difficult to understand. First of all, am I hardly sorry? No, said Sister, heartily. And do I dread the loss of heaven and the pains of hell more than offending God? No, she explained, most of all I detest my sins because I don’t wish to offend God.

That was the first and last time I was taught the Act of Contrition. The prayer remained with me for some years, and whenever I was waiting in a confessional line, preparing to receive Communion during Mass, or thinking about some sin I had done, I would say the Act of Contrition and remember Sister at the blackboard and that big, flourishing O.

But as a young adult, during a time when my faith was placed on the back burner, I forgot the Act of Contrition, at least the way it had been taught to me. For I didn’t call upon the prayer much in college, nor during my days working in corporate America. (Not that I couldn’t have used it.) It wasn’t until the Jesuit novitiate that I found myself saying the prayer with any regularity.

The problem was that I had forgotten the original ending. The first part I remembered well enough, but I couldn’t recall what came after I firmly resolve. What was I supposed to resolve? Too embarrassed to ask anyone, I scouted around the novitiate for some books on prayer. But the guidebooks offered only alternate versions of the prayer (avoid the near occasion of sin popped up a lot), and none had a familiar ring to it. There seemed to be as many permutations as there were books on prayer. Maybe, I thought, Sister had made up her own version.

So over the years I’ve been actively on the lookout for the formula I had first learned in C.C.D. But there seemed to be no way to track down the original. (Needless to say, I hadn’t kept that sheet of pale-green paper.) I briefly toyed with the idea of calling the motherhouse of the Sisters of St. Joseph, but ultimately rejected this course of action. It could have been a truly embarrassing conversation: You don’t know the Act of Contrition?

Then, a few weeks ago, during a confession, one penitent, as many do, began to say the Act of Contrition. To my surprise, at the close of the prayer, he recited the ending exactly as I had been taught it. Unfortunately, he said it rather hurriedly, and I certainly wasn’t going to ask him to repeat it. (Excuse me, could you say your Act of Contrition again?)

That night I mentioned my search to a Jesuit, originally from Philadelphia, who lives in my community. Did he, by chance, know the prayer as the Sisters of St. Joseph would have taught it? Of course, he said, and out of his mouth came the prayeras if he were reading it from the blackboard in 1968. He ended, I firmly resolve with the help of thy grace, to avoid sin, to do penance, and to amend my life. Amen.

So my little search had ended. It took 20 years, but at least now I know what I need to firmly resolve.

James Martin, S.J., an associate editor of America, is author of In Good Company: The Fast Track from the Corporate World to Poverty, Chastity and Obedience.

Comments

Stephen Paesani | 5/12/2003 - 8:59am
Like Fr. Martin I was taught by the Sisters of St. Joseph, althjough it was in a South Philadelphia parish school during the EARLY 1960's!

When we learend the Act of Contrition the last line was, "I firmly resolve, with the help of thy grace, to CONFESS my sins, to do penance and to amend my life. Amen".

The line never made sense to me because we were saying it in the confessional AFTER we had just confessed our sins.

But the prayer has carried me throigh all these years and I am still working on that resolution, especially amending my life!

John Paul Kelly | 5/9/2003 - 2:10pm
There was a comment in the most recent America magazine about the editor's first exposure to the Act of Contrition. Judging from Fr. Martin's article, I am about ten years older than he, but had a different teaching of the Act of Contrition. I was taught for eight glorious or ignominious years (depending on how one looked at it; for me it was the former), by the Dominican Sisters. Apparently, the Dominican Sisters were more realistic about humankind's propensity to sin than the Sisters of St. Joseph. I recall the final paragraph of the Act of Contrition to be as follows: "...I firmly resolve, with the help of thy grace, "to confess my sins," to do penance, and to amend my life. Amen." The good editor's friend remembers the resolution in place of my "to confess my sins" to be "to avoid sin." I said lots of Acts of Contrition with the Dominican Sisters of the Springfield, Illinois mother house and they always contained a resolution to "confess my sins" which we did every Saturday evening, 7:30, St. Malachy's Catholic Church.

I love the magazine. Keep up the good work.

Stephen Paesani | 5/12/2003 - 8:59am
Like Fr. Martin I was taught by the Sisters of St. Joseph, althjough it was in a South Philadelphia parish school during the EARLY 1960's!

When we learend the Act of Contrition the last line was, "I firmly resolve, with the help of thy grace, to CONFESS my sins, to do penance and to amend my life. Amen".

The line never made sense to me because we were saying it in the confessional AFTER we had just confessed our sins.

But the prayer has carried me throigh all these years and I am still working on that resolution, especially amending my life!

John Paul Kelly | 5/9/2003 - 2:10pm
There was a comment in the most recent America magazine about the editor's first exposure to the Act of Contrition. Judging from Fr. Martin's article, I am about ten years older than he, but had a different teaching of the Act of Contrition. I was taught for eight glorious or ignominious years (depending on how one looked at it; for me it was the former), by the Dominican Sisters. Apparently, the Dominican Sisters were more realistic about humankind's propensity to sin than the Sisters of St. Joseph. I recall the final paragraph of the Act of Contrition to be as follows: "...I firmly resolve, with the help of thy grace, "to confess my sins," to do penance, and to amend my life. Amen." The good editor's friend remembers the resolution in place of my "to confess my sins" to be "to avoid sin." I said lots of Acts of Contrition with the Dominican Sisters of the Springfield, Illinois mother house and they always contained a resolution to "confess my sins" which we did every Saturday evening, 7:30, St. Malachy's Catholic Church.

I love the magazine. Keep up the good work.

James J. Conn, S.J. | 2/7/2007 - 9:20am
The Sisters of St. Joseph taught me to say, “I firmly resolve with the help of Thy grace to confess my sins, to do penance, and to amend my life.” It strikes me that “avoiding sin” and “amending life” are the same, although I used to think that the resolution to confess sins was strange in view of the fact that I had just done so (Of Many Things, 5/12).

On a related topic, when I teach the canon law of the sacraments to students each summer at The Catholic University of America, I am amazed at the students’ cluelessness on the difference between perfect and imperfect contrition, the former being sorrow for love of God, and the latter being sorrow for fear of punishment or hope of reward (and sufficient for forgiveness only in sacramental confession). They are also vague about the necessary matter for an integral confession: “all serious sins by number and species committed after baptism not yet directly remitted through the power of the keys or acknowledged in individual confession that I remember after a diligent examination of conscience.” I marvel that many of us knew these things at the age of seven and that there are priests in my class who do not know them at 40!

The writer is professor of canon law at the Pontifical Gregorian University.

Jeanne Voges, O.S.B. | 2/7/2007 - 9:13am
I love to read the Of Many Things column inside the front cover of America. This time, when I read the May 12 issue, I shouted when I reached the end of the article and you claimed to have found the correct ending of the Act of Contrition.

It is almost correct.

The way I taught it in the 50’s and 60’s ended thus: “I firmly resolve with the help of thy grace, to confess my sins, to do penance, and to amend my life. Amen.”

You can check it out on page 128 in the little beige-colored copy of The Baltimore Catechism No. 2, by Rev. M. Philipps (copyright 1911).

This is one of our old treasures! And I am so glad that we do not use it anymore.

Rose Christine Wagner, S.S.J. | 2/7/2007 - 9:41am
As a Sister of St Joseph who labored over teaching the words, but more important, the meaning, of the Act of Contrition to many a distracted second, third and fourth grader during the 1950’s and 60’s in schools in Philadelphia, I was delighted on reading, first, the remembrances of James Martin, S.J., in Of Many Things (5/12) and then the letters debating the words of the ending. What a joy! They did listen; they do remember!

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