VATICAN CITY — “We confess, all the more, our responsibilities as Christians for the evils of today,” preached Pope John Paul II in his homily requesting forgiveness for the sins of Catholics.

“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.”

Often missed in the commentary about the “Day of Pardon” was that this was not only about history. The request for forgiveness certainly included the objective sins of Catholics long since dead, but also included contemporary forms of Catholic counter-witness to the Gospel.

The Second Vatican Council indicated that Christians, in failing to live in accord with the Gospel, often contribute to contemporary evils, foremost amongst them atheism (cf. Gaudium et spes, 19). The Jubilee request for forgiveness embraces that same judgment, asking to what extent Catholics are responsible for the prevailing evils of our day. In the American and European context, it is a fact that Catholics have contributed mightily, if not often decisively, to the prevalence of the culture of death. For that, the Pope asked forgiveness on Sunday.

The ceremony presented a face of the Church rarely seen in previous centuries. It is not possible to gainsay the historical import of hearing the prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith — heir to the specter of the Grand Inquisitor with which Dostoevsky has haunted our literary imagination — confess 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.”

As the Church acknowledges what is sinful in her past, her voice is calling to be heard as she points out what is sinful in the present. She insists that the Catholics of today also ought to live in accord with their faith. The Jubilee “Day of Forgiveness” was not only about the previous millennia. It was about the millennium just beginning.

— Raymond J. de Souza