The two most important features of the papal “mea culpa” have been lost in the smoke of critics’ fire.

Some say Pope John Paul II went too far in apologizing for sins of Catholics’ past. Others say his March 12 Day of Pardon plea didn't go far enough. But what hasn't been noticed is that the Pope didn't confine his criticisms to Catholics in the past.

He also sought pardon for what Catholics of our generation have done. “We confess, all the more, our responsibilities as Christians for the evils of today,” he said on the first Sunday of Lent 2000. “In the face of atheism, religious indifferentism, secularism, ethical relativism, violations of the right to life, and a lack of interest in the poverty of many nations, we cannot avoid asking ourselves about our own responsibilities. For the part that each one of us has had in these evils, contributing thereby to sullying the face of the Church, we humbly ask forgiveness.”

What is there to confess? A 1999 poll of American Catholics of the National Opinion Research Center in Chicago listed some arresting statistics:

• Only 29% of the Catholics in America regularly attend Sunday Mass. This is a recipe for religious indifferentism and its consequences, including a practical atheism.

• 51% of Catholics believe in abortion under “some circumstances” and 31% supported the “right” to abortion for any reason, while only 18% opposed abortion for any reason. The death count of the Crusades and the Inquisition, it should be noted, pales compared to the more than a million American lives lost each year to abortion.

The second important thing critics have missed about the mea culpa is that the Holy Father has no intention of playing a blame game. Nor was his confession an example of “Catholic guilt” writ large.

Like a sacramental confession, the Pope's was not directed toward lamenting an unchangeable past: It was meant to begin anew on a path toward holiness. In this regard, the plea for pardon is the whole reason for the Jubilee Year.

“Never again actions contrary to charity in the service of the truth,” the Pope prayed. “Never again acts contrary to the communion of the Church, never again offenses toward any people, never again recourse to the logic of violence, never again discrimination, exclusion, oppression or contempt for the poor and weak.”

Never again. This is the Church's plea, voiced by its chief shepherd. Now it's up to individual Catholics today to stop thwarting the Gospel — and start advancing it among their neighbors, both Catholic and non-Catholic.

We don't want a future Pope to have the painful experience of having to apologize for us.

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A Landscape of Heroes

The timing was extraordinary. The day Pope John Paul II pronounced his confession for Catholics’ sins, attention turned sharply to the Church's greater legacy: its heroes.

First, there was the death of Cardinal Ignatius Kung Pin-mei, the exiled Chinese Church leader, on March 12. He was diagnosed with painful stomach cancer in late February, died in Stamford, Conn., at 98.

The Church's oldest cardinal showed “heroic fidelity to Christ amid persecution and imprisonment,” Pope John Paul II said. Considered by the Vatican to be the legitimate bishop of Shanghai until his death, he had spent more than 30 years in prison in China for his refusal to renounce his ties with the Vatican and with the Pope.

Then, on March 13, the Holy Father began his annual Lenten retreat — this year, led by Archbishop Francois Xavier Nguyen Thuan, the head of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace.

Archbishop Thuan also suffered persecution and became a witness to Christ's power during 13 years imprisonment in his native Vietnam.

These two men are examples of what the Church offers our time and all times: The holiness of so many of its sons and daughters against great odds. As Fulton Sheen said, speaking about persecuted prelate Cardinal Joseph Mindszenty, “The West had its Mindszenty, but the East has its Kung. God is glorified in his saints.”