A Word About General Confession by Fr. Michael Westerberg
For some people the practice of general confession raises many questions, and, at least for some, confusion. There have been abuses, both by the clergy due to the way in which the general confession is explained and/or practiced, and by the laity. Sadly, some abuses continue. However, the potential for abuse does not invalidate the practice. Surely the potential for abuse is ever-present in each aspect of our lives including what is taught, believed and done in the Church. This has always been the case because the devil does not rest.
For some, the practice of general confession is an open door to sacramental abuse and personal irresponsibility. For some, general confession may be 'cheap grace.' For still others general confession has been, and is, an eye-opening and grace filled, life altering experience which deepens their commitment and understanding, and which fortifies them in their daily Christian struggle. General confession is not a right of the faithful but a pastoral tool. Each pastor bears the responsibility to decide, for his flock, the frequency of general confession and to reduce that frequency if the general confession is being abused. Most pastors do not allow general confession during Great Lent or the Nativity Fast. In each parish this is a pastor's decision, a decision which may be made in consultation with his bishop and other experienced pastors whose judgment is reliable.
General confession never, ever, takes the place of individual, private confession! If we are attending church on a regular basis, attending vespers, liturgies, weekday feasts as possible, participating in individual confession and regularly receiving the Holy Eucharist, then, as a part of our life and spiritual growth, we also may participate in general confession. However, general confession is not for the person who takes the summer off from church but wants to approach the chalice in September. General confession is not for the person who attends church four or five times a year, or who has been away from the Church for five, or ten, or twenty years. General confession in a parish other than our own may not be used to evade confession in our home parish or with our own pastor even when we may have had a falling-out with that pastor. (We must make peace at home.) General confession is not "an option to provide an 'out' for the one who does not like or approve of, or believe in private confession."
These two forms of sacramental confession, private and general, joined with an examination of conscience and confession of sins as part of our daily rule of prayer, form a sound and healthy structure for our prayer life, our liturgical life and our sacramental life specifically our receiving of the precious Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ. (We know also that there are other elements of our preparation for receiving the Eucharist, however, that is not our topic here.)
Contrary to what some people may think, general confession is not the Church's way of 'phasing out' private confession. Rather, the opposite is true. General confession is a spiritual aid, which, when properly applied, teaches us how to examine our conscience and how to make a private, personal confession.
Rather than 'phasing out,' general confession is intended to help us recognize the sins we may not otherwise see in order to deepen and strengthen our individual confessions. With proper use and application, we can give thanks to God that our Holy Synod of Bishops, moved by the Spirit, has given the blessing for the practice of general confession as a guide and aid in our effort to grow in life and faith and spiritual understanding. (Here too, we are not addressing other elements of our Christian life- reading the Scriptures, faithful participation in the life/worship of the Church, reading lives and teachings of the saints, ascetic efforts, almsgiving, etc.)
And a word to pastors: General confession is not some sort of device of convenience to get us or our parishioners home earlier. We bear the responsibility before God for those confessions and for the faithful given into our care; and must not seek out shortcuts.
We may use various aids for examining our consciences, among which two excellent ones are Father Thomas Hopko's guide based on the Beatitudes (and found in the pamphlet If We Confess Our Sins,) and Metropolitan Anthony Khrapovitsky's guide based on the Ten Commandments (and found in his book Confession.) There are other excellent guides as well.
While the confession may be general, the absolution ought not to be. Following the general confession, penitents ought to be instructed to approach individually, not in production-line style. Each person should be asked if he/she has anything to add. Thus each person is given an opportunity to make an additional, personal confession. Then the prayer of absolution is pronounced over each penitent.
As all our life, general confession includes the possibility of abuse, but, as we prepare to enter the saving days of the lenten spring, let us repent of all abuses. Let us examine and correct our lives, turning away from all abuses, all sin. In the fear of God, with faith and love, let us fall down before the precious Cross of our Savior, and let us rejoice in the radiance of his glorious resurrection.