On the first Sunday in Lent, March 12, Pope John Paul II enacted the Our Father in a startling new way. In the name of Christian believers of today and yesterday, he prayed: “Forgive us the wrong we have done.” The papal theologian, Father Georges Cottier, a Swiss Dominican, announced that the Pope had opened a new page for theological reflection. Like all beginning exercises, it will take time to get the lessons right.

The crucial distinction in the Pope's petition for forgiveness turns on that between the Church and her members. And the distinction, as St. Paul bequeathed it to us, is not hidden, but plain: Christ is the Head; we are the members. If we ponder this truth, we realize that the Gospel proclaims a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. This is really counterintuitive. And that is why many people seem to have missed the point of what people are calling “the Pope's apology.”

When we say that the Church is holy and cannot sin, we mean that the Church enjoys Christ's own holiness, the substantial holiness of his human nature. Christ possesses this holiness because he is God, not because we are his members. On the contrary, the great gift of baptismal grace makes us sharers in a life and holiness that always exceeds whatever the members of the Church, including the Blessed Virgin herself, can provide. That's why we're called “Christians,” those who “belong to Christ.”

Unfortunately, human experience does-n't help us understand what the Pope has done. The Church is not a community in the modern sense of community. Most of us only know of communities where individuals are joined by contractual arrangements such as constitutions. In the present state of things, where individualism reigns, the community actually becomes less than the sum of its parts, for individual citizens or subjects tend to hold back as much as they can.

Indeed, the Western political experience makes reading Lumen Gentium (Vatican II's Dogmatic Constitution on the Church) very difficult. Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger likes to remind his listeners that the People of God compose not a citizenry, but a race. The Church, he says, is not a democracy. The reason for this assertion is not opinion, but revealed truth: The gift of divine and everlasting life comes only from God, not from a body politic. To grasp this, we have to pray to learn the full implication of what it means to address God as Father. “The servant dares to call his Lord Father,” as St. Peter Chrysologus says.

Because here below each member can still refuse the grace that makes a servant holy, the Church on earth is at once spotless bride and dusty pilgrim. But only because the Church is the mystical Body of Christ can the Pope ask forgiveness in the name of all Christians. We can think of the papal gesture as the flip side of granting an indulgence. Because of the work of Christ and of the saints who have done the will of God throughout the ages, those in full communion with the bishop of Rome, and on his conditions, can avail themselves of the superabundant satisfaction that belongs to the treasury of the Church. We are united with them in the communion of saints.

Only because the Church is the mystical Body of Christ can the Pope ask forgiveness in the name of all Christians.

In the same way, we can ask pardon for the sins of our sisters and brothers in the faith because the Church establishes us in solidarity with them. But we must be careful about the comparison; it is a delicate one. Sin divides; it never unites.

What makes it possible for the Pope to ask pardon for the sins of past Catholic believers is not our solidarity in guilt. In doing so, he is not inviting us to look back and live with regret. The holy act in which he engages the Church is not a Christian version of a diplomatic apology. On the contrary, it is the sacramentality of forgiveness.

What grounds the Pope's heroically courageous action is nothing other than the all-important truth that Jesus teaches us in the Gospel (Matthew 6:7-13): “Forgive us the wrong we have done as we forgive those who wrong us.”

John Paul's appeal for forgiveness for past sins will bear fruit only to the extent that each one of us now prays the Our Father with renewed faith and earnestness.

March 12's papal confession, like the sacrament of confession, is designed to free us to become saints. Past sins — our own and others’ — are over. The Church now offers us holiness for today.

Register senior writer Father Romanus Cessario writes from Brighton, Massachusetts.