VATICAN CITY—International theologians have completed their document on the Church's “sins of the past.”

The fruit of three years of work by the Vatican's International Theological Commission, the approximately 50-page document was expected to be released by late this month, in time for a Lenten “day of pardon.”

Pope John Paul II is expected to preside over the March 12 ceremony on the First Sunday of Lent.

The Holy Father has called for the Church, especially during Holy Year 2000, to examine “the sinfulness of her children, recalling all those times in history when they departed from the spirit of Christ and his Gospel.”

Dominican Father Georges Cottier, secretary of the commission, said Feb. 3 that the date of publication was no coincidence.

While he did not say whether the text might influence what the Pope would say March 12, he said the commission decided to release the text a few weeks before the day of pardon on purpose.

“We hope it will help people to reflect before the ceremony,” Father Cottier said.

While the document was not due to go into detail on specific historical events, it was expected to mention themes which the Pope has said merit special focus: actions contributing to the division of Christianity; violence carried out during the Crusades and the Inquisition; anti-Jewish attitudes and the Nazi Holocaust; and inadequate attention to modern-day evils such as communism and other repressive regimes.

Before penning the final document, the theologians responsible for the project submitted the text for approval on two occasions to the 30 members of the International Theological Commission meeting in plenary session. The vote in favor of the document was substantial, reported ZENIT, the Rome-based news service.

“The text was written for purposes of consultation, and is not a papal document,” said ZENIT. “It includes a broad theological reflection on the meaning of purification of the memory.”

There is also an explanation of the doctrinal reasons that make an act of contrition for past sins possible, reviewing a trajectory that goes back to biblical origins, the great confessions of sin by the Jewish people, and continuing with the principles of the Gospel.

The document will also offer many examples of historic requests for forgiveness, such as that of Pope Adrian VI, elected in 1522, who at the time of the Reformation asked for forgiveness for the sins of the Roman Curia, or that of Paul VI, who atoned for the offenses inflicted on Eastern Christians.

But the Vatican has emphasized the distinction between the innate holiness of the Church and the sometimes sinful actions of its individual members, saying the Church as an institution cannot sin.

Appearing on a TV program aired by the Vatican Television Center, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger recently explained that “the idea is not to accuse the past. We are always sinners and we want to understand this with humility and do penance, which renews the Church and each one.”

Father Cottier said Christians need to speak about the past because “the communion of saints exists, by which the Church is one through the ages, and in the Church there is a community of charity and prayer for sins committed.”

He also cautioned that “it is not a question of judging people, as only God can judge persons, but when we recall the past of the Church we realize that there have been events that are an obstacle to evangelization. On this it is necessary to have a purification of the memory, that is, to make a real judgment that is balanced and just.”

(From combined wire services)