At a solemn service of penance in St Peter's Basilica in Rome, Pope John Paul II made history March 12 by begging pardon of God for the sins committed by members of his church over the past 2,000 years, especially those which caused division among Christians.At the same time the Pope reaffirmed the sanctity of "Mother Church." The document on which the confession is based stresses that while the church always remains holy, its members can make mistakes.The Pope's bold attempt to cleanse the conscience of the church as it enters its third millennium has generally been welcomed. But some conservative Catholics complained that the apology undermined the church's authority, while others, including some Jewish leaders, said the Pope had not gone far enough. The papal confession was made in general terms, and many wanted to hear more specific mention of the church's failures, especially regarding Catholic attitudes towards Jews during the Second World War.Media commentators described the "day of pardon" as a brave act in the "twilight" of this papacy—John Paul is 79 years old and in the twenty-first year of his reign. The year 2000 is especially important for the Pope as he has declared it a Jubilee year for the church. In a ceremony that began in St Peter's in front of the Pieta—Michelangelo's statue of the Virgin Mary holding Christ's body after his crucifixion—and continued at the papal altar, Pope John Paul "humbly" asked forgiveness of God for the errors committed by the church's members. Before scores of bishops and cardinals, he said during his homily: "We cannot not recognize the betrayal of the Gospel committed by some of our brothers, especially in the second millennium. We beg forgiveness for our guilt as Christians for the sins of the present. Faced with atheism, religious apathy, secularism, relativism, violations of the right to life, indifference towards the poverty endured by many nations, we can only ask what are our responsibilities."John Paul also pointed out that Christians had been subjected to violence at the hands of others. "As we ask forgiveness for our sins, we also forgive the sins committed by others against us."A key part of the service in St Peter's was the "confession of sins and asking for forgiveness" by seven of the Vatican's cardinals and bishops. Cardinal Bernardin Gantin, of Benin, west Africa, began the ceremony with a "confession of sins in general," followed by Germany's Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who read the "confession of sins committed in the service of truth … We recognize that even men of the church, in the name of faith and morals, have sometimes used methods not in keeping with the Gospel in the solemn duty of defending the truth."Cardinal Roger Etchegaray, of France, then pronounced the "confession of sins which have harmed the unity of the Body of Christ," to which the Pope added: "Merciful father, we urgently implore your forgiveness and we beseech the gift of a repentant heart so that all Christians, reconciled with you and with one another, will be able to experience anew the joy of full communion."The "confession of sins against the people of Israel" was read by Cardinal Edward Cassidy, of Australia. "Let us pray that Christians will acknowledge the sins committed by not a few of their number against the people of the Covenant," he said.Bishop Stephen Fumio Hamao, of Japan, read the "confession of sins committed in actions against love, peace, the rights of peoples and respect for cultures and religions." In his response, the Pope asked God's pardon for those Christians who, "yielding to a mentality of power, have violated the rights of ethnic groups and peoples, and shown contempt for their cultures and religious traditions."Nigeria's Cardinal Francis Arinze read the "confession of sins against the dignity of women and the unity of the human race … Let us pray for women, who are all too often humiliated and marginalized," he said. Pope John Paul added: "Christians have been guilty of attitudes of rejection and exclusion, consenting to acts of discrimination on the basis of racial and ethnic differences."The last confession—"of sins in relation to the fundamental rights of the person"—was read by Bishop Francois Xavier Nguyen Van Thuan, of Vietnam. To which Pope John Paul added: "How many times have Christians themselves not recognized you, God, our father, in the hungry, the thirsty and the naked, and in those incapable of defending themselves, especially in the first stages of life?"The goal of examining the church's past and asking forgiveness for its mistakes has been one of Pope John Paul's main ambitions in recent years. Yesterday's act of confession was based on a long document, Memory and Reconciliation, the Church and the faults of the past, released March 7 by the Vatican's International Theological Commission. According to the document, the church remains holy, but is stained by the sins of its children.However, Father Thomas Reeves, editor of a Jesuit magazine, America, told The New York Times: "The document should have put it in bold print that 'children of the church' includes popes, cardinals and clergy, and not just people in the pews. The Pope had a great idea that some in the Vatican are obscuring with a fog machine. According to the International Herald Tribune, Bishop Piero Marini, who is in charge of papal ceremonies, explained shortly before yesterday's ceremony that "given the number of sins committed in the course of 20 centuries, it [the apology] must necessarily be rather summary."Amos Luzzatto, president of the Union of Italian Jewish Communities, complained that there was a "contradiction between the penitence expressed by the church for so many sins against the Jews in the past and the beatification [of those who committed them]." He was referring to Pope John Paul's recent decision to "beatify" (grant the title "blessed" to) Pope Pius IX in September this year. (Pope John XXIII will be beatified at the same time.) According to Luzzatto, Pius IX (whose papacy began in 1846 and ended in 1878) restored restrictions on Jews in Rome, which was then under papal control.The planned beatification of Pius IX is also becoming a controversial subject in Great Britain. Today's Guardian newspaper in London includes a commentary by Catholic journalist, Rupert Shortt, who denounces John Paul II's plans to beatify—and eventually canonise—Pius IX.Describing Pius IX as "notoriously anti-semitic," Shortt describes the abduction by papal police in the Italian city of Bologna in 1858 of a six-year-old Jewish boy, Edgardo Mortara, who had been baptised by his maid several years earlier, when he was gravely ill. "Edgardo was detained and subsequently adopted by Pope Pius, who refused to give him back to his distraught parents unless they converted to Catholicism," Shortt writes. "Even when seen in the most sympathetic light—Pius clearly believed he was saving Edgardo from damnation—this record is hardly synonymous with sainthood."In Italy, Edgardo's great-great-niece, Elena Mortar, who teaches English literature at Rome University, has also criticised the plan to beatify Pius IX. "My great-grandmother saw her brother being taken away," she told the Guardian. "As a mother she had constant nightmares that her own children would be kidnapped."Copyright © 2000 Ecumenical News International. Used with permission.
Almost every major newspaper covered Pope John Paul II's apology, including
The New York Times,
The International Herald Tribune,
The Los Angeles Times,
The Washington Post,
The Chicago Tribune, and
The Houston Chronicle.The official Vatican Web site includes a page on
The Day of Pardon. It includes the text of the Universal Prayer in which the church confessed sins and asked for forgiveness. Sadly, the homily is only published in Italian (a partial English translation is available at
The New York Times.)
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