There’s a prayer that we learned when we were in second grade that we recite every time we receive the sacrament of reconciliation. Despite our familiarity with the prayer, most of us aren’t aware of the hidden meaning of the prayer. I’m referring to the Act of Contrition which begins with the following sentence:
“Oh 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.”
There are two different types of fear that are present in the first sentence of the Act of Contrition. Do you know what those two types of fear are? Read the sentence again and attempt to figure out what I’m talking about.
The two types of fear are servile fear and filial fear. Fr. John A. Hardon’s Modern Catholic Dictionary describes servile and filial fear as follows:
• Servile Fear: Selfish fear based on the dread of pain to oneself that would follow if another were offended. It is the fear of punishment for wrongdoing, without being motivated by honor or a sense of duty, and least of all by love.
• Filial Fear: Fear of some impending evil based on love and reverence for the one who is feared. Actually filial fear is closer to love that dreads offending the one loved. Thus the filial fear of God is compatible with the highest love of God. A person, knowing his or her moral weakness, fears that he or she might displease or betray the one who is loved. It is selfless fear.
Both fears — servile and filial — have value. But which is better, (1) to be sorry for your sins because you fear that you may lose Heaven and end up in hell, or (2) to be sorry for your sins because they offend God, who is deserving of all your love?
There’s virtue in expressing sorrow for committing a sin because you fear that you have offended God and may not be worthy of spending eternity with Him in Heaven. The dreading of the loss of Heaven and the pains of hell is an indication that you are motivated by love of God and you do not want to lose Him for all eternity; however, your objective should always be to develop filial fear which leads to a pure rather than selfish love of God.
As we advance in holiness and perfection, our servile (selfish) fear is replaced with filial (selfless) fear. We should be mindful of the opportunities that arise each day to develop a deeper love of God.