What is a General Confession?

General Confession and Scrupulosity


Dear Father John: What is a general confession?  And, under what circumstances should one make a general confession?  Should a scrupulous person make a general confession?

Thank you for your question.  I hope I can shed a little bit of light on the nature of general confession.

What “General Confession” Refers to

Usually, the term “general confession” refers to going to confession and confessing all the sins of one’s past life (or of an extended period, like the past year) instead of just those sins committed since one’s previous confession.  Traditionally, making this kind of confession has been a recommended spiritual practice for moments of major life transition.  For example, young people often make a general confession before professing religious vows or before being ordained to the priesthood.  Some retreat directors will also recommend making a general confession when retreatants participate in serious retreats like the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius.

So that’s what the term traditionally refers to.  But what’s the reason behind the tradition?

Why Make a General Confession?

The idea behind making a general confession is simple and profound.

Remember, the sacrament of reconciliation is meant to be a significant encounter with God’s mercy.  At particularly poignant moments in our faith journey (like those mentioned above), preparing a general confession gives us a good opportunity to prayerfully reflect on our whole life history, and on how faithful God has been to us throughout that history even when we weren’t so faithful to him.  Going over our whole past, or a significant chunk of that past, together with the Lord, is meant to bring us to a new appreciation of our need for God, of the abundance of his mercy, and of the depth of his care for us.

Another benefit sometimes accrues to this devotional practice as well.  When we patiently take time to review all the sins of our past life in the presence of God, the Holy Spirit will often enlighten us regarding not only individual falls, but regarding patterns of sin and underlying attitudes that make us vulnerable to temptation.  These insights can serve as a valuable guide as we prudently identify a path of spiritual growth for the future.  In other words, making a general confession can be an effective way to grow in self-knowledge, such an essential element for spiritual progress.

What About Scrupulous People?

In general, I would not recommend people suffering from scruples to make a general confession.  The exercise could easily exacerbate their own tendency to become obsessively preoccupied with their faults.  But even for them, when the context is right and the explanation is thorough, making a general confession at important junctures can be useful.

A Less Precise Use 

I should also mention that some people use the phrase “general confession” to refer to something the Church calls “general absolution.”  This refers to extreme situations (going into battle, a ship or a plane going down, etc.) in which a priest will absolve a whole group of people from their sins instead of hearing their confessions one by one.  In these cases, the priest will usually (if there is time and the conditions permit) ask all present to give some kind of sign of their repentance.  This shared sign could be described loosely as a “general confession.”  Even in these cases, however, the absolution only takes effect if the penitent intends to confess his mortal sins in a normal, private confession as soon as reasonably possible.

Thank you for question.  God bless you!  in Him, Fr John Bartunek, LC


Fr John Bartunek, LC, SThD
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About Fr. John Bartunek, LC

Fr. John Bartunek, LC, S.Th.D, received his BA in History from Stanford University in 1990. He comes from an evangelical Christian background and became a member of the Catholic Church in 1991. After college, he worked as a high school history teacher, drama director, and baseball coach. He then spent a year as a professional actor in Chicago before entering the religious Congregation of the Legionaries of Christ in 1993. He was ordained a Catholic priest in 2003 and earned his doctorate in moral theology in 2010. He provided spiritual support on the set of Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” while researching the 2005 Catholic best seller, “Inside the Passion”–the only authorized, behind-the-scene explanation of the film. Fr. John has contributed news commentary regarding religious issues on NBC, CNN, Fox, and the BBC. He also served as the English-language press liaison for the Vatican’s 2005 Synod of Bishops on the Eucharist. His most widely known book is called: “The Better Part: A Christ-Centered Resource for Personal Prayer”. His most recent books are “Spring Meditations”, “Seeking First the Kingdom: 30 Meditations on How to Love God with All Your Heart, Soul, Mind and Strength”, and “Answers: Catholic Advice for Your Spiritual Questions”. Fr. John currently splits his time between Michigan (where he continues his writing apostolate and serves as a confessor and spiritual director at the Queen of the Family Retreat Center) and Rome, where he teaches theology at Regina Apostolorum. His online, do-it-yourself retreats are available at RCSpirituality.org, and he answers questions about the spiritual life at SpiritualDirection.com.

This article is reprinted with permission from our friends at Roman Catholic Spiritual Direction.

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