“Ask a Priest: Is a General Confession Just for a Select Few?

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Q: My questions regard a general confession. I have a friend who has been out of the Church for many years. He is having a very difficult time on all levels (spiritually, emotionally and physically). Because I care for him and want to see him better in all these levels, I suggested that he start by returning to church on a regular basis and consider a general confession. He agreed to it, but when he approached the parish priest he was advised that a general confession was advised only for alcoholics and drug addicts. I know that priests, just like medical doctors, will have different diagnoses and experiences and therefore will give different prescriptions. I am a bit at a loss on this issue, and my friend is confused. Can you please shed light on this issue? – R.

Answered by Fr. Edward McIlmail, LC

A: Thanks for your note and for your concern about your friend.

In principle just about anyone can do a general confession, though this type of confession isn’t common.

Basically it is a confession in which a penitent does an overview of his life and admits to the full range of categories of sin that he committed, including categories whose sins have already been absolved.

The general confession helps a person put his relationship with God in perspective. It helps him see all the wrong he has done, offer a profound act of contrition, and to acknowledge all the mercy that the Almighty has shown. The general confession can have a cathartic effect, allowing a person to wrap up his past mistakes, put them in God’s hands, and move on.

General confessions are more commonly done when people are preparing to embark on a new way of life, for instance, marriage or the seminary. Or it might be done by people, especially religious, doing an annual retreat.

People who are returning to the faith after years might also do it. In that case even a “regular” confession might be so wide-ranging as to be similar to a general confession.

It simply isn’t true that a general confession is only for alcoholics or drug addicts. Perhaps there was some miscommunication between your friend and that priest. (An aside: The term “general confession” is sometimes used at rites involving general absolution. But that is another matter.)

Nevertheless, general confessions are sometimes not recommended. In the case of, say, a scrupulous person, a spiritual director might dissuade the person from making a general confession since it could dredge up too many problems and bad memories for the penitent.

You mention that your friend has spiritual and emotional problems. Depending on what and how serious they are, a general confession might or might be advisable. It’s hard to gauge this through an e-mail.

The simplest thing might be for your friend to approach another priest about the general confession. Both you and your friend might benefit from watching our retreat guide on confession, “From Sorrow to Joy: A Retreat Guide on the Sacrament of Confession”.

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