Which Act of Contrition Should We Pray in Confession?

When I first became Catholic, I would alternate between saying the official Act of Contrition (see below) and one that I would make up by myself.

For those that are not Catholic, when a Catholic goes to confession, it goes like this:

Bless me Father for I have sinned, it has been (2 weeks) since my last confession and I accuse myself of the following sins:

Here we list sins by kind and number

For these sins and those I cannot now remember and for my sins against charity toward God and neighbor, I humbly repent and ask for counsel, penance, and absolution.

Here, the priest gives advice or exhortation and imposes a penance (e.g. “say 3 Our Fathers and 3 Hail Marys”).

And then the priest says, Now if you’ll make an Act of Contrition I will give you absolution. This proves that we really are sorry and not just going through the motions.

We say the Act of Contrition and then the priest absolves us by saying: “I absolve you of your sins in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”

Now the “Act of Contrition” is a prayer that we say to God and the priest listens to us while we say it. This act of the will “proves” to the priest that we are seeking reconciliation with God. The priest stands as a legal and sacramental witness to this repentance. If someone said, “I don’t want to pray the Act of Contrition,” then the priest would say, “I will not absolve you.” As the Council of Trent teaches (Session 14), contrition is a necessary component of the sacrament of Penance. No sadness for sin, no grace.

Now this should reveal the absolutely important role of the Act of Contrition. It becomes the heartfelt prayer of the penitent to God. We list our sins to the priest as God’s representative, but we make our act of contrition directly to God.

Here’s the traditional Act of Contrition:

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 offend Thee, my God,

Who are all good and deserving of all my love.

I firmly resolve, with the help of Thy grace,

to sin no more and avoid the near occasions of sin. Amen.*

Now I used to make up a “custom” Act of Contrition some times in confession. However, a holy priest told me not to do this. I was shocked and I asked him why.

The holy priest explained that the more contrite we are, the more sanctifying grace we receive in the sacrament of Penance. Father also stated that a greater contrition remits more temporal punishment (crudely: remits more time off in purgatory). Most importantly, Father stated that most “custom Acts of Contrition” do not make explicit the essential elements of an Acts of Contrition.  Such custom Acts of Contrition can be ambiguous and my not mention love of God or an the explicit intention to avoid sin and the occasion of sin “to sin no more.”

The official Act of Contrition contains the necessary part of contrition stipulated by the Council of Trent, and so the words can excite in us the right and proper sentiments, thoughts, and most importantly, movement of the will toward God.

This, of course, does not forbid you making a “custom” Act of Contrition with all the right components. However, you might be flustered and forget it. Shoot, some of us still get flustered saying the traditional memorized version that we’ve been saying for years and years.

So as the holy priest said, if you want to make sure that you cover all the elements of contrition and that you excite your will to a true contrition with all the attending extra graces, use the Church’s recommended Act of Contrition…that’s they way all the saints did it.

PS: A great way to memorize the Act of Contrition (and have your children memorize it) is to begin the Rosary every evening with the Act of Contrition.

* An alternative version of the Act of Contrition substitutes “just judgments” for the “the loss of heaven and the pains of hell.” As far as I can tell, the version above is more official. The version with “just judgments” usually appears in children’s catechisms (e.g. Baltimore Catechism). Perhaps someone knows the origin of this difference. Please share it with us.

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  • Leila

    I have read that one can use an act such as “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me.” What would your priest say to that?

  • Fr. Patrick

    In my opinion that priest is pushing more of an agenda, rather than listening to a person’s Confession. There is not a “only do this Act of Contrition” type of regulation, or even a recommendation. The Act of Contrition is only an external way of professing what is in your heart; God knows whether you are contrite or not. More as a tool foir yourself, as long as you state you are sorry, ask God for Help, and resolve to not sin again–these are what should be in your AOC. Some people like written prayers; some like spontaneous prayer. It’s a choice.

    The Rite says at #18-20: “After this [confessing of sins] the penitent manifests his contrition and resolution to begin a new life by means of a prayer for God’s pardon. It is desirable that this prayer should be based on the words of Scripture.”, page 20 in the Ritual.

    The Rite says at #45: “The priest then asks the penitent to express his sorrow, which the penitent may do in these or similar words: [10 examples are given]”, page 37-39 of the Ritual.

    • Raguel

      External acts help express what is in our hearts, they also help us come to a better understanding of our feelings. Journalling is a perfect example of this.

      The priest is not pushing an adgenda, I think he is just taking confession more seriously than many priests do. The official act of contrition is more traditional as well as more time consuming. I think if a priest is against it, even if you don’t encourage it, you are the one pushing an adgenda. Its a little piece of tradition you feel unnecessary, and how many places do we see that today?

  • Brighter Boy

    Growing up, I used to say the most popular prayers my parents taught me,. Hai Mary, Our Father, God Bless everyone even the dog and cats. But now at 77 yrs old I still say them, but slowly knowing what each phrase means. /then I just fall asleep talking to God, telling Him how I feel, sorry etc, and ask how I can be better person. I then fall asleep. I hope this is good.

  • Debbie

    My confessor, a wise Irish priest, taught me the Irish Act of Contrition, which is basically the same as the traditional Act of Contrition, with the addition of the following: “I detest all my sins, above every other evil.” I have found the additon of “above every other evil” to be a source of great conviction for my of my own views of my own sins. Quite often, while I detest my own sins, I can think of many other evils that I detest more. That line has given me much to pray about….

  • Mariyka

    My little brother is having a hard time memorizing the act of contrition, and his first confession is in a couple of weeks. I found this children’s version on the internet:

    O my God, I am sorry for my sins because I have
    offended you. I know I should love you above all things. Help me to do penance,
    to do better, and to avoid anything that might lead me to sin. Amen.

    Would this be ok for his first confession? Of course I will make sure he will memorize the traditional one soon so he can use it sooner.

  • RobinJeanne

    I learned it with “just judgments” but we didn’t have the Baltimore Catechism but my mom di, maybe she taugh me the version I know. I still like it better then then new one they want us to teach the childrem. for some reason, I doesn’t feel contrite when I read the word, they feel weak, maybe?

  • Michelle Barrett

    The one I was taught is “Oh, my God, I am very sorry for all 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 into sin. Our Savior, Jesus Christ, suffered and died for us. In his name, my God, have mercy.

    • Brittany Yowell

      This is the same version I learned…it was on a prayer card in the Confessional when I came back to the Church 10 years ago. It is also the version I am given to teach the kids in their 2nd grade Sacrament Prep program as they prepare for the Sacrament of Reconciliation (1st Confession).

  • Chase Goodman

    Each sacrament requires proper form and matter. The form is the absolution, the matter is the contrition and penance of the penitent. Obedience to the confessor is vital to true contrition. If the confessor asks you for a specific act of contrition, do as he says. But as long as you cover the important parts (contrition, admission of guilt, necessity of love of God above all, firm intention of penance, petition for mercy), and are earnestly contrite, any act of contrition will do. A formula is helpful, stick to the formula if you need it, but an act of contrition of your own fashioning can be a good thing.

  • defiant12314

    This is the one I use

    “Oh My God I am heartally sorry for having offended thee, becuase my sins offened against thy infinate majesty and have crucified my Loving Saviour Jesus and with the help of thy Grace I shall perform my pennance and endevor to sin no more”.

    Four Years ago I met an English Priest in Fatima who was annoyed that many of the ‘modern’ acts of contrition didn’t mention the fact that our sins have crucified Jesus”, thats around about when I started to use this one.

  • cececole

    A priest I know has told me he uses “Jesus Christ, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

    I am a catechist and version we teach the children is:

    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, sin no more and avoid whatever leads me to sin.
    Our Savior, Jesus Christ, suffered and died for us.
    In His Name, my God, have Mercy.

    A bit expanded version of the traditional one I learned as a child (as you posted) in more modern language and covers all the “elements of contrition”. I am 110% for teaching it to children and children (all of us) memorizing prayers. I will continue to use one of the standard prayers. But for someone (who has a better grasp on their spiritual life than I) it seems as a custom Act of Contrition would be acceptable. From what Fr Patrick has cited, sounds as if there are many ways to satisfy the requirements.

    • Lisa in Texas

      That’s the one I taught my kids. We say it every night as a part of our bedtime prayers, too.

  • Mary Fran

    We have a priest who doesn’t even ask us to say an act of contrition. He just launches into the absolution. I haven’t yet asked him about this. It just doesn’t seem right to not allow me to express my contrition. How does he even know I’m sorry?

    • Mary Anne

      I had a priest like this before, and I asked someone in authority in the diocese about it, and he replied that I should just say my act of contrition after confession in my pew.

  • Matt

    What if the priest does not ask you to say an act of contrition, is the absolution still valid?

  • Raguel

    I dont think I have ever had a priest tell me to say an official act of contrition, they all to some degree or another tell me to say a custom one. In other cases they don’t let me say any act of contrition. In another case one priest started saying his absolution in the middle of me saying my more official act of contrition because he was apparently in a rush. I live in a very sad diocese.

  • Ron

    When I learned the Act of Contrition (late 1950s) 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.”

  • Fr. John

    As the act of contrition that is being done as part of the sacrament of penance, I think that the above-stated “Act of Contrition” is deficient in one aspect: it doesn’t mention the intention to do one’s penance. That is a necessary part of contrition. As such, I’ve typically heard most of the above “Act of Contrition,” but with the following last line: “I firmly resolve, with the help of Thy grace, to sin no more, TO DO PENANCE, and to avoid the near occasions of sin. Amen.”