Earlier today, I posted the news that the disgraced former bishop of Wheeling-Charleston, Michael J. Bransfield, had written a letter of apology to the faithful. It was published on the diocesan website. A number of people who read it on social media were underwhelmed. More than a few considered it unsatisfactory. And it is. It expresses no real remorse, and admits no wrongdoing. All it says is, in effect, “If you were hurt, I’m sorry.”
I suggested that perhaps a good model for an apology is the Act of Contrition. It admits fault, it apologizes for doing wrong, expresses remorse for offending God, and promises to make amends and change one’s life. I posted the version I know and recite (see below). This prayer was taught to me by the Sisters of St. Joseph (of Chestnut Hill, Pennsylvania) back in the mid-1960s, and I’ve been saying it regularly for over 50 years. (Further searching reveals this is the version enshrined in the Baltimore Catechism.)
I quickly learned from readers around the country that this is not the one they were taught.
A little digging around Google reveals that there are different versions, taught at different times.
An explanation, from Wikipedia:
Within the Catholic Church, the term “act of contrition” is often applied to one particular formula, which is not given expressly in the handbook of Indulgences.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church notes that “Among the penitent’s acts, contrition occupies first place. Contrition is ‘sorrow of the soul and detestation for the sin committed together with the resolution not to sin again.’ 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 1451–1452).
There are different versions of the Act of Contrition, but all generally include an expression of sorrow, an acknowledgment of wrongdoing and a promise to amend one’s life and avoid sin. The Latin text and a number of English versions that approximate to the Latin text are given here.
Latin text and other English variants
- Deus meus, ex toto corde pænitet me omnium meorum peccatorum,
- eaque detestor, quia peccando,
- non solum pœnas a te iuste statutas promeritus sum,
- sed præsertim quia offendi te,
- summum bonum, ac dignum qui super omnia diligaris.
- Ideo firmiter propono,
- adiuvante gratia tua,
- de cetero me non peccaturum peccandique occasiones proximas fugiturum.
- O my God, I am heartily sorry for having offended Thee,
- and I detest all my sins because I dread the loss of Heaven and the pains of hell,
- But most of all because they have offended Thee, my God, Who art all good and deserving of all my love.
- I firmly resolve, with the help of Thy grace,
- to confess my sins,
- to do penance,
- and to amend my life. Amen.
A popular Catholic American English version
- 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. Amen.
A modern version taught in Religious Education
- Lord have mercy on me
- Do not look upon my sins
- But take away all my guilt
- Create in me a clean heart
- And renew within me an upright spirit
Sacrosanctum concilium (the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy) called for the revision of the Rite of Penance so that it more clearly express both the nature and effect of the sacrament. Consequently, the Rite of Penance was revised in 1973. The revised rite offered several possible options for making an Act of Contrition. One may choose one of the general formula prayers or other prayers of contrition.
The following are some formulas for acts of contrition that differ more considerably from the Latin text given above.
- My Lord, I am heartily sorry for all my sins,
- help me to live like Jesus and not sin again.
- Oh my God, I am sorry that I have sinned against You.
- Because You are so good, and with Your help,
- I will try not to sin again.
- Oh My God, because You are so good,
- I am very sorry that I have sinned against You,
- and by the help of Your grace, I will try not sin again.
So there you have it.
Back to the Bransfield letter and apologies: if you want to apologize you need to admit that you realize what you did was wrong, own up to it, express remorse and regret, say you’re sorry for offending or hurting someone, and vow to learn, grow and do better — i.e., “amend my life, Amen.”
Bishop Bransfield didn’t do that. He wrote: “If anything I said or did caused others to feel [sexually harassed], then I am profoundly sorry.” In other words: if you are upset, it’s your problem, not mine, but I’m sorry you feel that way.
We live in an age when few people really want to accept responsibility for their bad actions or admit when they are wrong. The Bransfield letter is an example of that.
But, as St. Paul might say: let me show you a more excellent way.
If you want to find the gold standard for Catholic apologies, look no further than St. John Paul, who in 2000 made headlines with a very public act of contrition:
Saying ”we humbly ask forgiveness,” John Paul II today delivered the most sweeping papal apology ever, repenting for the errors of his church over the last 2,000 years.
”We cannot not recognize the betrayal of the Gospel committed by some of our brothers, especially in the second millennium,” the pope, dressed in purple robes for Lent, said in his homily. ”Recognizing the deviations of the past serves to reawaken our consciences to the compromises of the present.”
The public act of repentance, solemnly woven into the liturgy of Sunday Mass inside St. Peter’s Basilica, was an unprecedented moment in the history of the Roman Catholic Church, one that the ailing 79-year-old pope pushed forward over the doubts of even many of his own cardinals and bishops. He has said repeatedly that the new evangelization he is calling for in the third millennium can take place only after what he has described as a church-wide ”purification of memory.”
To underline the apology’s religious significance, seven cardinals and bishops stood before the pope and cited some of the key Catholic lapses, past and present, including religious intolerance and injustice toward Jews, women, indigenous peoples, immigrants, the poor and the unborn.
The pope also mentioned the persecution of Catholics by other faiths. ”As we ask forgiveness for our sins, we also forgive the sins committed by others against us,” he said.
A gesture like that requires honesty, humility, sincerity and a genuine desire to right what is wrong.
Bishop Bransfield, take note.