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March 18, 2000
Column #968


     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 Sunday.

     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 citizens.

     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 reconciliation.''

     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 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 Christian message.''

Copyright 2000 Michael J. McManus.

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