It is important throughout our life and at the moment of our death.
First and foremost, it is important during our life. What, in reality, is more important than grace? It beautifies our soul; it penetrates it and transforms it into a creature of a new order by making it a child of God and heir to heaven. It renders all the works and sufferings of the Christian worthy of eternal life, it is the magic wand that changes all into gold - into the gold of supernatural merits.
What, on the contrary, is sadder than a Christian in the state of sin! All his sufferings, all his works, all his prayers remain barren, without any merit for heaven. He is an enemy of God, and if he dies, he goes to hell.
The state of grace, therefore, is of capital importance and necessary to the Christian.
If you have lost grace, you can recover it in two ways:
(1) by confession,
(2) by perfect contrition.
Confession is the ordinary means, but since it is not always available, God has given us an extraordinary means: perfect contrition.
Let us suppose that one day you have the misfortune to commit a mortal sin. After the worries of the day, in the quiet of the night your conscience awakens; it condemns you forcefully, and you are in agony. What are you to do? Well, then, God puts in your hands the golden key, which will open for you the gates of heaven. Repent of your sins intensely, for the love of the good and bountiful God.
On the contrary, how much is to be pitied the Christian who ignores the practice of perfect contrition. He goes to bed and rises in the state of mortal sin. He lives in this manner two, three, four or more months, from year to year, perhaps. The dark night in which he is shrouded is not for one moment interrupted after confession. A sad state, to live almost always in mortal sin, as an enemy of God, without any merit for heaven and in danger of eternal damnation!
Another benefit: if before receiving a sacrament, say Confirmation or Matrimony, for instance, you recall an unpardoned sin, perfect contrition allows you to receive this sacrament worthily. Only for Communion is confession required.
Even for a Christian in a state of grace, the frequent practice of perfect contrition is very useful.
First, we are never certain of being in a state of grace. Now, every act of perfect contrition increases this certainty. It often occurs to us to wonder whether we have given in to temptation. Such doubts delay and discourage the soul on the path of virtue. What are we then to do? Scrutinize ourselves if we have or have not consented to temptation? This would be fruitless. Make an act of perfect contrition and be at ease.
Even supposing that we possessed certainty of being in a state of grace, perfect contrition will still be very useful to us. Each act of perfect contrition increases grace and an ounce of grace is worth more than all the treasures in the world. Each act of perfect contrition erases the venial sins that disfigure the soul; thus the soul grows more and more beautiful. Each act of perfect contrition remits temporal punishment due to sin.
Let us remember the words of the Savior regarding Mary Magdalene: "Many sins are forgiven her, because she hath loved much" (St. Luke 7, 47). And if this forgiveness of temporal punishment makes us appreciate and value indulgences, good works, almsgiving, charity toward God, which is the queen of the virtues, it stands in the first rank of these good works.
Lastly, with each act of perfect contrition and of love, our soul strengthens itself in good, and thus it has firm confidence of obtaining the paramount grace of final perseverance.
The practice of perfect contrition is, therefore, very important during our life, but most especially at the hour of our death and above all if we are in danger of sudden death.
One day, a large fire broke out in a heavily populated city, and many were found dead. Among the many persons who cried out in the courtyard of a house, a twelve-year-old child, on his knees, begged for the grace of contrition; then he entreated his companions to pray with him. Entirely hapless, perhaps they owed him their salvation.
Now, similar dangers threaten us at every moment and at the time when we least think about them.
You can be the victim of some accident, fall out of a tree, be run over by a train or a bus; you can be taken unawares at night by a fire in your bedroom; you can make a misstep on a stairway or fall in the midst of your work. They carry you away, dying. They run to look for a priest, but the priest is late in coming, and the time is short.
What do you do?
Immediately make an act of perfect contrition. Repent mightily out of love and gratitude to God and Jesus Christ crucified. Perfect contrition will have afforded you the key to heaven.
It is not the case that it is lawful for everyone to wait until the last hour in the hope of being free from every sin by means of a simple act of perfect contrition. It is very doubtful, in fact, that perfect contrition can avail those who have misused it in order to sin. The benefits detailed are chiefly for those who have good will.
"But," you will ask me, "will I have the time to make an act of perfect contrition?" Yes, with God's grace. Perfect contrition does not require much time, especially if, during your life, you have practiced it often. It takes only an instant to make it from the depths of your soul. Besides, God's grace is more efficacious at the moment of danger, and our mind is much more active. At death's door, the seconds seem like hours. I speak from personal experience.
On July 20, 1886, I came very close to death. It was a matter of eight to ten seconds of pain, the time it takes to pray half an Our Father. In this very brief moment, thousands of thoughts crossed my mind.
My whole life passed before me with an unimaginable speed; at the same time I thought of what was in store for me after death. All that, I repeat, happened during the short period of half a Pater. Fortunately, my life was spared. God thus willed it so that I could write The Key to Heaven. Well! The first thing I had to do in such a danger was to make what they taught us in catechism - an act of contrition - and to have recourse to God in seeking His protection.
Truly, it was then that I learned to love and treasure, as is proper, perfect contrition. Afterward, I made it known and prized everywhere when I had the opportunity. What a loss that people do not better understand its importance in this last moment!
Everyone rushes about; they do not understand the tears and cries; they lose their heads; they go to find the doctor or the priest; they bring fresh water and all the remedies that they secretly possess. And while the sick person is in agony, no one, perhaps, has pity on his immortal soul; no one suggests to him to make an act of perfect contrition. If you find yourself in a similar situation, hasten to the side of the dying person and, calmly and serenely presenting to him, if possible, the image of Jesus crucified, with a sure and firm voice, tell him to think and to repeat from the depths of his soul what you are
about to say. Then slowly and clearly recite the act of contrition even though it would appear that the sick person understands and comprehends nothing. You will have done a supremely good work that will earn you his eternal gratitude.
Even if you are dealing with a heretic, help him in his last moments in the same way. It is not necessary to speak to him about confession. Urge him to make an act of love of God and of Jesus crucified in slowly reciting to him the act of contrition.
FATHER AUGUSTINE LEHMKUHL, S. J.