Are you familiar with the concept of general confession? Lent is underway—in due time, you will be able to eat your candies again, have that evening glass of wine, or say a welcome goodbye to whatever you chose as a Lenten penance this year. It will be over, and you—and I—will be quite candidly relieved as we move forward into the joyful Season of Easter, Divine Mercy Sunday, and Pentecost. A glorious spring awaits.
I would suggest though if that is all Lent is to you, you are missing the point. I wish to issue a challenge about that pesky yearly obligation of going to the Sacrament of Confession or Reconciliation, followed by a worthy reception of our Lord in the Holy Eucharist. To some reading, Easter may be the only time you receive either of these sacraments. To others, you do so regularly. The message I have however is to both groups. My counsel today is about the first sacrament mentioned so you can receive the second with all the joy and graces attached. I am daring you to a general confession yet this Lent.
The concept of a traditional general confession is, for most of us, a dark and heavy-sounding chore of mammoth and forbidding proportions. Merely thinking about it may begin to churn your stomach a bit—rightly so. I have gone to general confession four times in my life. Each helped me to acknowledge certain specifics more totally but never easy. More about that in a moment.
First, for those of you dumbfounded and frightened, I will try to explain what a general confession is and is not. Then I will suggest a slight variation of it which may be just as effective yet simpler, especially during Lent. One does not receive forgiveness a second time at a general confession. When we confess our sins to God sincerely and through his authorized agent, the priest, God forgives us by the continued efficacy of the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. Take it to the bank—those sins are gone forever. But for most of us, there are sins we either forget to mention, hang onto a bit, or strain to word very carefully rather than blurting them out in graphic detail. I doubt being alone on that third point either.
Suppose I speak ill of someone in such a way that damages their reputation severely and do so with malice. To our Lord, that is the same as killing that person in our hearts (Matt 5: 21-24) and is a mortal or serious sin, one that bars us from worthy reception of the Eucharist or Holy Communion. If I go to confession, and the line is long, I might just say “I spoke badly of my neighbor two times,” and if repentant, the absolution is, of course, valid. Yet something is missing with that admission. Perhaps I told that person’s spouse that I saw them flirting with another, inflicting dire damage to them and their marriage or family. Did I still confess the sin? Yes. Was I sorry? Certainly. But it was a tepid sorrow or at least a far gentler retelling of the sin than saying how it really occurred. And, while forgiven, I might not gain the level of healing and grace needed to keep from falling into that sin in the future.
That is where a general confession comes in. The idea is to, carefully and prayerfully, relive our struggles with each of the Ten Commandments, Beatitudes, and Precepts of the Church. We then look deeply into ourselves, asking the Holy Spirit to help us understand why we fell in the first place. This is not meant to become scrupulosity, nor to place false condemnation upon us for already forgiven sins. It serves, however, to awaken us to our weaknesses. Obviously, we will never recall or confess every single sin we commit, nor is that God’s expectation. But a true general confession goes back as far and long as reasonably possible and at least mentions aloud the ugly events that occurred. Then later, one might go to another general confession, beginning at the time of the last one, and onward. As said, I have repeated this process four times, and each time was greatly beneficial.
It is important to realize that a confession such as this might take hours, and usually a penitent therefore needs an appointment. The first time I went, the priest did not even know the process, so that too can be a barrier, although not insurmountable. Go, if possible, to someone who has a good sense of orthodoxy and adventure. But during the long lines and busy-ness of the clergy during this holy season, I am not suggesting Lent as the time to do so—at least fully. So, what about now?
Let me suggest an alternative. For now. Do a thorough examination of conscience, slowly and carefully, with notebook in hand (and a paper shredder nearby!) searching out each weakness we become aware of. Notice where you have often slipped, asking God to reveal to you why this is happening. Twelve-step programs would call this a “fearless moral inventory.” You may feel the pangs of your former sins—that is okay. Just remind yourself, even through your tears, you are already forgiven.
But looking deeper is key here. Did I slander the person above because I was coveting their spouse and hoping to ruin their marriage? Did they hurt me, and I am looking for vengeance? Could I be just jealous of them and their seemingly-perfect life? If any of these are so, I have just discovered a deeper level of sin than originally confessed. What I thought was one sin was several at once. I may also discover fences to mend with people. I must be willing to do so unless it would further damage their lives in some way in the process. If not sure on this point, getting advice from a wise priest would be in order before taking that step.
Then, keep looking for similar underlying patterns. Do I practice this same thing with others, on a less vile or obvious level, and is the root sin an undercurrent I have yet to deal with? Eventually, I will notice two or three areas which stand out, and it is those repetitions I must resolve to end once for all.
Again, you may not have the time or opportunity to share every detail during Lent due to time constraints. But, for now, try adding one or two past sins to each of your next few confessions (note to self—do not shred that list yet)! Tell the priest in these or similar words “I have a sin, already confessed, but which I now realize was more serious than I did at that time” and then say it out loud, to God and to him. You can and should still be concise but be sure to confess the root cause or sin as best you can.
Keep in mind, this exercise in grace does not apply to new sins since your last confession. Confess those first, and if serious, in number and kind, in accord with Church practice. Then, next confession, and during Lent, I would suggest weekly if possible, bring up a few more past sins, and onward. Once more, be sure not to do this out of a false sense of scrupulosity or fear— Christ has buried the past already. Also, sins from before your baptism, whether as a child or adult, or those committed before the age of reason, are fully covered and need no further penance or remission from temporal punishment. You can include them if you find it to be helpful, but it is not necessary. The main point here is to make a firmer purpose of amendment, and it is difficult to do so unless you know yourself well.
General Confession—Me and You
For me, I recently recalled two past sinful events which terrorized me to say, even in the confessional. The first time, I thought of driving to another city (which is okay if you must) and intended to do so behind the screen instead of face to face. I had earlier confessed them quickly and taking absolute pains to avoid details. This time however I just said it, and how horrible I knew it was. To my surprise, I believe that the penance was one Hail Mary—one. The second time, the reparation was a decade of the Rosary. Priests are not out to get us, and most of them have heard virtually whatever you can think of. I then reaffirmed my resolve to never commit those sins again.
After the first two sessions, a third item came to mind that also was serious and a pattern. That, in fact, is typical—once you begin to dig into your dark areas the light may shine more than even you intended. No despair though. Two or three days later I was back in the box, and this time I ventured to face the priest. In less than five minutes a sin which had dogged my mind for years was out on the table—the table of the Lord’s mercy—and my resolve has since been firm. Penance this time was one Our Father, prayed slowly with the phrase “lead us not into temptation” as my focus.
The Holy Spirit, through the priest, reminded me that I yet might fall again one day, since I still have free will and weak flesh. But if I do, I plan to avoid the mistake of holding it inside me for literal years. Proverbs tells us that the “righteous man falls seven times and rises again” and I have fallen far more than that. I have found, though, new freedom to pray and delve into the Word, Mass, Rosary, and other devotions in ways I never thought possible. And grace to face myself.
So, take the dare. Liberation in Christ awaits. And, unlike our mothers universally used to say to us when growing up, this time do “slam the door”—to Satan. There is still time for a powerful and more holy Lent.
“He who conceals his transgressions will not prosper, but he who confesses and forsakes them will obtain mercy.”
Proverbs 28:13 Revised Standard Version, 2nd Catholic Edition