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During confession, if I mention (in passing or in reference to) a sin I've committed in the distant past, the priest usually asks if I had confessed it before. If I say yes, he says it has been absolved and I don't have to confess it again. What is the difference between a general confession and a regular confession if past sins that have been absolved need not be confessed again?

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  • That's a good question that I'd love to know the answer to, but I'm going to slightly reword it so it doesn't look like the advice you'd ask your priest if you don't mind.
    – Peter Turner
    Commented Jun 7, 2023 at 19:47
  • Not at all. Thank you, Peter, God bless you. Commented Jun 8, 2023 at 20:31

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I assume that by "general confession" you mean privately confessing your sins to a priest, but in a way that is general and covers a large portion of your life history. It is important that the priest understands that you are making a general confession and agrees to hear your general confession. Priests have time constraints that often prevent them from hearing general confessions, and usually a special meeting needs to be scheduled for a general confession.

General confessions are not a matter of necessity. Most people never make a general confession. The purpose is therefore different from ordinary confession, for ordinary confession primarily exists for the absolution of mortal sins. Here are some of the reasons why someone might want to make a general confession:

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 is a General Confession", by Fr. John Bartunek

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How does general confession work when ordinary confession absolves you of all your past sins?

This is one of those questions that for individuals who take their spiritual life very important and to such a degree that they voluntarily have chosen to reveal all their past sins to their confessor or spiritual director. This type of fraternal openness with one’s spiritual director allows the individual to be best directed in the ways of the spiritual life. Nothing is more hated by Satan than a soul that will divulge all the sins and failures of someone striving to become a veritable saint.

True that this form of confession has already had their past sins already forgiven in past confessions, and as such could in a sense be looked on as a confession of devotion, since it is not necessary to be retold in confession again. Yet, a it is a true confession of all one’s past sins and as such the confessor is equally obliged to keep the seal of confession about the sins of his spiritual child! Thus both confessor and penitent are protected.

A general confession is the confession of all of one’s sins over the course of one’s life up to the present time. It is made when a penitent wants to undergo a more thorough review and purification, usually in preparation for a significant time of seeking the Lord or deepening conversion. It is understood that the penitent has already confessed these sins previously. That said, current sins should also be included, usually at the end.

In making a general confession, we are not re-forgiven for sins we’ve previously confessed. The forgiveness we have already received is sufficient. Rather we are seeking a deeper contrition (sadness for sin) along with a matured understanding of God’s mercy and healing power. A general confession usually takes longer than an ordinary confession, so it is best to notify a priest of your desire in advance. He may decide to schedule an appointment with you rather than direct you to one of the customary times when confession is offered at the local parish. - Making a General Confession

A general confession allows a spiritual director to guide a soul towards holiness in ways that a particular confession is unable to!

Most religious make a general confession shortly before their taking on of religious vows. Many seminarians will do so before their ordination to the diaconate.

Many souls striving to be as holy as possible also avail themselves of this wholesome practice.

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.

What Is A General Confession?

Bearing the souls entire life before a confessor or spiritual director bears much fruit in the ways of holiness. It enables the priest to direct a soul most intimately, knowing most if not all of the weaknesses of the penitent, this taking spiritual direction to a whole new level. It also protects the penitent from the wiles of the Devil in the sense that the spiritual fight is fortified by the sacraments. The Devil hates souls that are truly very open about their sins and temptations, both past and present, that are wholly confessed in the sacrament of reconciliation. The Demon has no way of knowing what is confessed in confession to a priest in an absolute manner, but can sense the infusion of graces into the penitent though a sense of intuition. He knows when souls are increasing in holiness and when sanctifying grace has been restored to sinners. It is not hard to understand the importance of making a general confession to a priest that is well endowed in guiding souls in holiness.

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  • "To whoever has, more will be given unto him and he will have abundance..."
    – Peter Turner
    Commented Apr 22 at 13:25

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