THE POPE'S EXTRAORDINARY MEA CULPA
On the first Sunday in Lent, Pope
John Paul II made the most sweeping papal apology for the sins of the church
ever, saying, ''We humbly ask forgiveness.''
''I ask that in this year of mercy,
the church, strengthened by the holiness that she receives from the Lord,
kneels before God and begs for forgiveness for past and present sins of her
sons... We forgive and ask for forgiveness!....We cannot not recognize the
betrayal of the Gospel committed by some of our brothers, especially in the
second millennium. We ask forgiveness for the divisions between Christians,
for the use of violence that some have resorted to in the service of truth
and for the acts of dissidence and of hostility sometimes taken toward
followers of other religions,'' said the Pope at St. Peter's Basilica last
Church historians said these were
references to sins committed during the Crusades, the Inquisition, religious
wars, the burning of heretics and the forced conversion of Indians and
Africans. The Rev. Thomas Reeves, editor of the Jesuit magazine,
''America,'' said he only wished references to the ''children of the
church'' who committed these sins included ''popes, cardinals and clergy,
and not just people in the pews.''
However, John Paul is wrong to say,
''We cannot not recognize'' the church's sins. No other Pope has done so in
the church's 2,000 years. Nor has the leader of almost any other
organization uttered such a mea culpa. The Queen of England has never
apologized for slaughter of Catholics and confiscation of church property
touched off by Henry VIII and his successors. Russian leaders have
never apologized for Stalin's killing of tens of millions of its own
But this Pope, at the same time he
asked for forgiveness, generously said ''Let us forgive the sins committed
by others toward us. In the course of history, innumerable times, Christians
have suffered persecution because of their faith....The church of today and
of always feels obligated to purify the memory of those sad episodes of
every sentiment of rancor or rivalry.''
He sees the jubilee celebration of
the 2000th anniversary of the birth of Jesus as ''an opportunity for a
profound conversion to the Gospel. From the acceptance of divine forgiveness
is born the duty to forgive one's brothers and seek reciprocal
Several cardinals were more
specific in the service. Cardinal Edward Cassidy recalled ''the sufferings
endured by the people of Israel throughout history. Christians will
acknowledge the sins committed by not a few of their number against the
people of the Covenant.''
The Pope responded, ''God of our
fathers, you chose Abraham and his descendants to bring your name to the
nations. We are deeply saddened by the behavior of those who in course
of history have caused these children of yours to suffer, and asking your
forgiveness, we wish to commit ourselves to genuine brotherhood with the
people of the Covenant.''
Cardinal Francis Arinze prayed,
''Let us pray for women, who are all too often humiliated and marginalized,
and let us acknowledge the forms of acquiescence in these sins of which
Christians, too have been guilty.''
John Paul replied, ''Lord God....at
times the equality of your sons and daughters has not been acknowledged, and
Christians have been guilty of attitudes of rejection and exclusion.''
Chuck Colson, winner of the $1
million Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion, reacted: ''I am very
impressed. It shows this pope's incredibly keen commitment to bring about
unity among Christians and to eliminate stumbling blocks to people
understanding the grace of God. It shows courage on his part.
''Taking this stand is consistent
with the pattern of the pope's service. He has been reaching out to other
groups. In Hungary he put flowers on the foot of the martyrs of the
Reformation, which dazzled Hungarian Christians.'' (As a Baptist, Colson
played a role several years ago, in persuading Southern Baptists to publicly
repent of their historic support of slavery and opposition to black civil
rights - the only gesture comparable to the pope's that I can recall.)\
George Weigel, the Catholic author
of ''Witness to Hope: the Biography of John Paul II,'' said the pope's
statement ''is to prepare for a better future. It is similar to anyone's
personal growth. To grow as a human being, you need to come to grip with
your failures. He presents the church as an institution which understands
its failures, and one characterized by deep honesty.''
Luder Whitlock, president of the
Reformed Theological Seminary, believes the pope ''has set a good example
for Christians. Forgiveness, love and gratitude are at the essence of the
Copyright 2000 Michael J. McManus.