VATICAN CITY — The most controversial ceremony of the Jubilee Year took place in rather understated fashion at St. Peter' s Basilica on Sunday, March 12.
The papal mea culpa, as it was widely referred to, or the “Day of Pardon” as it was officially called, was celebrated during the Mass for the First Sunday of Lent and included the Holy Father and senior cardinals asking forgiveness for the sins of Catholics in seven broad categories.
In contrast to the noisy commentary that had preceded the event, with many groups clamoring for specific apologies from the Church, and with not a few Catholics raising questions as to the pastoral wisdom of the initiative, the actual ceremony evoked the solemn General Intercessions of the Good Friday liturgy.
The Mass began with a moment of prayer in front of the Pietà, to emphasize the Church's embrace, like Mary, of the crucified Christ, who died for sin. The Holy Door of St. Peter' s took on special significance for the ceremony too, adorned as it is with panels that depict biblical scenes of forgiveness.
The panels highlighted by the ceremony included the denials of Peter, the prodigal son, Jesus’ instruction to forgive ‘seventy times seven,’ the good thief, and the woman whose many sins were forgiven after she anointed Jesus with ointment, washing his feet with her tears.
“They seem a paradox and, in fact, they are,” said the Holy Father in his homily, commenting on the words of the second reading: “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21).
Said John Paul, “How could God, who is holiness himself, ‘make to be sin' his only-begotten Son, sent into the world? We are in front of a mystery: a bewildering mystery at first glance, but written clearly by divine revelation.
“Christ, the Holy One, being absolutely without sin, accepted to take upon himself our sins,” he continued. In the mystery of the Incarnation, it is possible for God, who is all-holy, to take upon himself sin. Likewise, the Church, who as Christ's body, is always holy on account of him, can also do penance and ask forgiveness for the sins of her members — all her members, including both the lay faithful and the hierarchy.
After the homily, the request for forgiveness took place in seven parts, corresponding to the sevenfold categorization of sins chosen. Each part was briefly introduced by an official of the Roman Curia, and then followed by a short prayer requesting forgiveness by the Holy Father. The request for forgiveness was always addressed to God.
The first category, for all sins in general, was introduced by Cardinal Bernardin Gantin, dean of the College of Cardinals. The second category was for sins committed in service of the truth, introduced by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Subsequent categories included sins against Christian unity, those committed against the Jewish people, those against peace and the rights of cultures and nations, sins against the dignity of women and the unity of the human race, including racism and ethnic discrimination, and sins against the fundamental rights of the human person, specifically including the right to life.
The confession of sins and request for forgiveness did not include references to any specific historical acts. Earlier in the week, Vatican experts drew a distinction, echoed in the Holy Father' s homily, that this request for forgiveness touched upon the objective evils that Catholics have done throughout history. It was not a judgment upon the subjective moral culpability of any particular person, as it is impossible to know the conscience of another person, especially a person long dead.
At the conclusion of the Mass, the Holy Father indicated that the request for forgiveness was also to have the effect of changing current attitudes and behavior, saying that the “purification of memory” involves a “duty to be faithful to the perennial message of the Gospel.
“Never again actions contrary to charity in the service of the truth,” he prayed at the end of Mass. “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 con-