How (and Why) to Make a General Confession

“You're only as sick as your secrets.” ~ Alcoholics Anonymous

“Though your sins be like scarlet, they may become white as snow.” ~ Isaiah 1:18 

Candles at the Fatima Shrine in Portugal.

“What do you see when you're in the dark, and the demons come?” Mitch Leary (John Malcovich) asks Frank Horrigan (Clint Eastwood) in a creepy late night phone call in the 1993 movie In the Line of Fire. Eastwood, a secret service agent, failed to take a bullet for President Kennedy on that fatal day in Dallas, and the assassination haunts him to the present day. “Do you really have the guts to take a bullet, Frank?” Malcovich further taunts him in the brilliant, gripping screenplay by Jeff Macguire.

And what do you, reader, see when you're in the dark and the demons come? 

We all have a personal legion of demons who come to agitate and rattle us about ways we've messed up, people we hurt, things we should or should not have done--and who remind us that the windows of opportunity to repair the damage closed long ago. Living with them is a heavy burden. It destroys our peace.

Jesus wants to exercise these demons from us, give us his peace, and restore us so we can live in the fullness of life. 1  And he has the unique capacity to do so. 

One principle means to achieve this restoration is with the sacrament of Reconciliation. 

A central problem for many, though, is that confession is SCARY!!! Who really wants to go into a tiny room and tell a priest her or his deepest and darkest? 

And if confessing sins from the last few months isn't hard enough, the notion of making a general confession, where you confess the sins of your entire lifetime, is downright terrifying. 

If this echoes some of your sentiments regarding confession, you certainly aren't alone. Many, many forgo receiving the sacrament of Penance due to its awkwardness, or else they just don't see the point of it. 

The reality, however, is that making a confession is healthy and natural. As a sacrament, it's one of the “masterworks of God.” 2 And you needn't squirm over feigned awkwardness: the priest has heard it all before. 

Let's look more closely at the benefits of regular confession and why a general confession especially makes sense at this moment in time—then go over some practical ways to prepare for one. 

A Routine Cleansing 

Over lunch last summer, my friend told me that he only makes a confession once in a while, when he's done something particularly injurious that he's truly sorry about. 

This is pretty much on base with what the Church professes: 

“After having attained the age of discretion each of the faithful is bound by an obligation faithfully to confess serious sins at least once a year.” 3 

For my own part, I had an experience that convinced me I need to make confession a regular part of my life, regardless of whether or not I think I've done something “really bad.” 

Several years ago, I'd really had it with the priests and parish communities where I lived and decided to take a long break from confession. One night, I had a dream that I was in a filthy bathroom. A layer of dirt covered every surface area. It gave me the creeps just to be standing in the midst of it; like one of those gas station bathrooms that hasn't been cleaned for months and months. Then, a friend found me and guided me downstairs into a perfectly clean, sparkling and fresh bathroom. 

The next morning, a friend called and said that she was going to confession that afternoon and wondered if I wanted to join her? 

I was so surprised at this phone call; we never had “confession dates” before, lol; and I definitely made a connection between my dream and her invitation.

In the dream the bathroom represented my soul. Everyday sins dirtied it, so much so that even over a short span of time, it became unbearably filthy. Keeping my soul clean entailed a regular cleansing; i.e. confession. 

So after that, rain or shine, happy or sad with the priest or parish, and regardless of whether or not I thought I'd done anything exceptionally horrible, I made a practice of going to confession regularly. As a rule of thumb, I try to go about as often as I clean my bathroom. 😉

The Catechism on Confessions

Do you ever put something off for days and weeks, and over that time it just festers and gets worse? Take cleaning out your refrigerator. If it's not done regularly, all sorts of filth starts to grow onto leftovers and what not. Sometimes, nipping an ugly task in the bud is the easiest way to resolve it. 

The sacrament of Penance is a lot like that. In 1 John 1:9, John tells us, “If we acknowledge our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive our sins and cleanse us from every wrongdoing. If we say, 'We have not sinned,' we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.” 

Looking at the ways we've failed is hard. However, a confession has a healthy psychological benefit: it's facing up to what we've done, which enables us to move past it. Here's how the Catechism phrases it: 

“The confession (or disclosure) of sins, even from a simply human point of view, frees us and facilitates our reconciliation with others. Through such an admission, man looks squarely at the sins he is guilty of, takes responsibility for them, and thereby opens himself again to God and to the communion of the Church in order to make a new future possible.” 4 

Essentially, confession allows for greater spiritual maturity. As the priest said in his homily at the Ash Wednesday Mass I attended: “If you go to confession regularly, you will experience spiritual growth. Guaranteed.” 

The Benefits of a General Confession

A general confession, which entails summarizing the sins of your entire lifetime, has been a tradition in the Church for some time now. St. Therese of Lisieux writes about making a general confession at her Carmel in France. 5  And the first section of St. Ignatius' Spiritual Exercises includes preparing for a general confession. 

But what is the sense in making one; of re-confessing sins you've already received absolution for in previous confessions? At first blush, it reminds me of a story a friend of mine told me of traveling to Lourdes with his family as a little boy. Although the intention of the trip was to seek healing for his ailing sister in the Lourdes water, upon arrival the volunteers at the grotto recommended he be dipped into the water as well. 

“But I'm already well,” he pointed out.

“But you will be better,” they insisted.

The notion of asking forgiveness for a sin more than once seems like a failure to trust or believe that Jesus wiped the slate clean the first time. 

--Add to it that it's just so dang hard to acknowledge an entire lifetime of sins in one sitting. 

Although a Catholic is under no obligation to make a general confession, there are in fact several good reasons for doing so—particularly at this point in time: 

  • In his Spiritual Exercises, St. Ignatius lays out some clear benefits of a general confession. For starters, he says it generates a greater contrition for all the sins of one's entire lifetime.
  • Another benefit he cites is that it increases our self-knowledge. We come to a greater understanding of our weak areas and tendency to sin, which allows us to heal. And it also shows us those areas where we've already healed and grown. 
  • And finally, he says that a general confession makes one better disposed to receive the Blessed Sacrament. And this in turn creates fortitude to no longer fall into sin. 6 
  • A final reason to make a general confession at this moment in time is to prepare ourselves for the Illumination of Conscience. As I've written several times before, the Illumination is unique in all of human history. It is a special moment in which God will reveal to every person his or her individual transgressions over an entire lifetime. Due to the Blessed Virgin's prophecies at Garabandal, there is good reason to think this Illumination will take place very soon; it's to happen, she says, when the world returns to the spirit of communism. Receiving this judgment will be a lot for any of us to palate, and making a general confession would mitigate the difficulty of this experience.

Appreciating these benefits of a general confession serves to ease the challenge of making one. And although not exactly being “men of the world,” most of the priests I've confessed to have been reasonable and easy enough to talk to. It's really expected of him, as the Catechism says: 

“The minister of the sacrament should....have a proven knowledge of Christian behavior, experience of human affairs, respect and sensibility toward the one who has fallen.” 7  

When I made a general confession, it was at a parish with an ENORMOUS line at the confessional. I honestly thought the priest would turn me away when he realized I was making a general confession, saying that he didn't have the time. But he didn't. And it was hard, but I stayed focused on what I was ACHIEVING from the confession: some sort of release and spiritual preparation for this upcoming decade. 

Now let's look at how one might prepare for a general confession—fortunately St. Ignatius has provided a coherent step-by-step guide.

St. Ignatius' Exercises to Prepare for a General Confession

As a young man in Spain around the turn of the 16th century, St. Ignatius of Loyola developed distinctive spiritual practices while praying alone in a cave for several months. After starting the Jesuit order around 15 years later, he codified these exercises, and novitiates complete them upon entering the order.

The term “spiritual exercises” encompasses a range of spiritual activities, including examination of conscience, meditation, contemplation, vocal and mental prayer. (Although the exercises, traditionally, are completed over a retreat lasting as long as thirty days, they can be adopted to any practitioner, over any time range that suits him or her.) 

Discernment is central to the exercises: identifying those desires and experiences in our lives that come from God, those that are from the devil, and those that originate from ourselves. This enables one to navigate a path toward God and the fullness of life Jesus promised us. 

The beginning of his exercises is dedicated to the contemplation of sin and preparation for a general confession. 

  • The Five Preparatory Exercises

In preparation for making a general confession, St. Ignatius suggests removing yourself from your daily life as much as possible. This way, to use his words, “The mind is not engaged in many things, but can give its whole attention to one single interest, that is, to the service of its Creator and its spiritual progress.” 8 

He lays out five separate exercises, 9 which I've simplified and summarized below. He recommends performing these exercises over the course of one day: the first exercise at midnight, the second upon rising, the third before or after Mass (before lunch), the Fourth at Vespers (early evening), and the Fifth an hour before supper. 

Since these were written in first person, I'm summarizing them here in first person as well. 

The First Exercise

I begin with a prayer asking God that this exercise might be oriented toward him. 

Next I complete two preludes:

First I meditate on “sin.” A visual Ignatius offers is a knight coming before a king and court after he's done something shamefully wrong, and after the king has given him many favors. (This visual gets at the kind of person Ignatius was.)

Second, I ask for the grace to be ashamed of occasions of sin. 

The body of this exercise entails meditating on the single sin of the angels that caused them to be cast into hell and the single sin of Adam and Eve that brought about the fallen state of the entire human race. 

Then I consider those who've led far better lives that I, who've sinned far less, yet who have incurred punishment and damnation.

Finally, I close with a Colloquy (which is basically a natural conversation with Jesus): After meditating on Him on the Cross, I answer these questions:

“What have I done for Christ?”

“What am I doing for Christ?”

“What ought I to do for Christ?”

The Second Exercise

The second exercise begins with the same preparatory prayer. 

This is followed by a prelude, this time asking for the grace of intense sorrow for sin. 

Next I record my sins, going over my life year by year, focusing on where I lived, my dealings with others and the positions I held. I look at my sins altogether, and then I look at myself compared to the almighty God. I look with awe on all of creation for having permitted me to commit these sins: the angels “through they are the sword of God's justice,” other humans, the saints, all of nature. 

Finally, I end with a Colloquy, speaking to God and thanking him for his mercy. 

The Third Exercise

The third exercise begins with the preparatory prayer. 

Next, I repeat the first and second exercises, focusing on which aspects bring consolation, and which desolation. 

I finish with three colloquies, speaking first to the Blessed Virgin, asking for her to help with self- knowledge and re-ordering my life, and to distance my life from worldly dangers. Then I make the same requests of Jesus and God the Father. 

The Fourth Exercise

The fourth exercise repeats the third, like a cow chewing on its cud, and closes with the same colloquies. 

The Fifth Exercise

The fifth exercise begins with the preparatory prayer.

Next, I meditate on hell, using all the five senses: seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, and feeling the flames. 

One helpful description here is from St. Teresa of Avila's Book of her Life, a spiritual memoir she wrote around the age of 50. 

While I was in prayer one day, I suddenly found that, without knowing how, I had seemingly been put in hell….the entrance it seems to me was similar to a very long and narrow alleyway, like an oven, low and dark and confined; the flow seemed to me to consist of dirty, muddy water emitting a foul stench and swarming with putrid vermin. At the end of the alleyway a hole that looked like a small cupboard was hollowed out in the wall; there I found I was placed in a cramped condition.

All this was delightful to see in comparison with what I felt there….What I felt, it seems to me, cannot even begin to be exaggerated, nor can it be understood. I experienced a fire in the soul that I don’t know how I could describe. The bodily pains were so unbearable that though I had suffered excruciating ones in this life and according to what doctors say, the worst that can be suffered on earth…these were all nothing in comparison with the ones I experienced there. I saw furthermore that they would go on without end and without ever ceasing.

This, however was nothing next to the soul’s agonizing: constriction, a suffocation, an affliction so keenly felt and with such a despairing and tormenting unhappiness that I don’t know how to word it strongly enough. To say the experience is as though the soul were continually being wrested from the body would be insufficient, for it would make you think somebody else is taking away the life, whereas here it is the soul itself tears itself in pieces.…..I felt myself burning and crumbling; and I repeat the worst was that interior fire and despair….

the Lord wanted me to actually feel those spiritual torments and afflictions, as though the body were suffering. 10

(St. Ignatius of course doesn't include this excerpt in his exercises, but I have found it's a pretty thorough description, and so helpful for a meditation.)

Next, I ask for a sense of pain that the lost suffer, and for a fear of hell, an appreciation of its reality as a motivation to live an upright life.

I close with a colloquy, talking with Jesus about those who are condemned, and thanking Him that he's been merciful to me. 

And that wraps up the five exercises: after completing these, anyone is pretty well prepared to make a general confession. Most priests are available to hear confessions at least once a week. 

St. Ignatius makes a few comments on penance. 11 He suggests giving up food, sleep, and practicing forms of asceticism that make you uncomfortable but that don't hurt you physically (like taking cold showers, for example). He says that identifying suitable penance is a discernment process, and recommends talking over with God what is best for you. 

A Lesson From the Three Little Pigs

My two-year-old nephew has an indefatigable obsession with the story of the three little pigs, and last summer I read it to him over and over again. And yes, at the risk of being unbearably banal, I am going to go here: I found that it offered a powerful spiritual lesson. 

Although from one vantage a general confession seems intimidating, from another it's a wise thing to do. We all choose the foundations that we build our lives upon. Prudently laying a foundation of bricks fortifies us for the spiritual battles we face in this dark hour. 

Jesus assures us that his yoke is easy and his burden is light, and when we've cast all our cares upon him, and asked for His forgiveness, our reward is a light and carefree conscience.

But enough from me. What's your take on confession? Do you receive the sacrament regularly and believe it's beneficial? 


1 cf John 14:27, John 10:10.

2 Catechism of the Catholic Church. Doubleday Publishers, April 1995: Paragraph 1116 

3 Catechism of the Catholic Church. Doubleday Publishers, April 1995: Paragraph 1457.

4 Catechism of the Catholic Church. Doubleday Publishers, April 1995: Paragraph 1455.

5 Story of a Soul: the Autobiography of St. Therese of Lisieux. Translated by John Clark O.C.D. ICS Publications, 1996: page 149.

6 The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius. Translated by Louis J. Puhl, S. J. Loyola Press, 1951: Page 24.

7 Catechism of the Catholic Church. Doubleday Publishers, April 1995: Paragraph 1466.

8 The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius. Translated by Louis J. Puhl, S. J. Loyola Press, 1951: Page 10.

9 The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius. Translated by Louis J. Puhl, S. J. Loyola Press, 1951: Pages 25-33.

10 Volume 1: The Collected Works of St. Teresa of Avila. Translated by Kieran Kavanaugh, OCD & Otilio Rodriguez, OCD. ICS Publications, 1976: Page 214.

11 The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius. Translated by Louis J. Puhl, S. J. Loyola Press, 1951: Pages 38-9.


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