Pope John Paul's Mea Culpa Is Imitated and Admired

VATICAN CITY — Pope John Paul II's long-awaited and unprecedented apology for the sins of Christians through the ages was echoed by local churches in the United States and elsewhere and generally welcomed by non-Catholics around the world.

The March 12 event was the culmination of the Church's “examination of conscience” for the Great Jubilee year.

The Pope's own initiative, the idea of a day of atonement, met some resistance even inside the Vatican. It was designed to acknowledge shortcomings in the Church's past, in order to give Catholics a sense of reconciliation and make future evangelization more credible.

“We forgive and we ask forgiveness!” the Pope said during the historic Lenten liturgy in St. Peter's Basilica. He and seven top Vatican officials pronounced a “request for pardon” for sins against Christian unity, the use of violence in serving the truth, hostility toward Jews and other religions, the marginalization of women, and wrongs — like abortion — against society's weakest members.

The Pope said the Church has had many saints, but some of its members have shown disobedience to God and inconsistency with the faith — in the past and present.

“For the part that each of us, with his behavior, has had in these evils that have disfigured the face of the Church, we humbly ask forgiveness,” he said.

At the conclusion of the apology liturgy, the Pope embraced and kissed the crucifix and, in a final blessing, declared that “never again” should such sins be committed. Thousands of people attended the service, packing the basilica and watching on giant-screen TV in the square outside.

Commentators inside and outside the Church hailed the event as a historic step, and the Pope was described by one Italian newspaper as a “voice in the wilderness” for his willingness to publicly ask forgiveness.

Jewish leaders also praised the Pope, but some said he should have been more specific about the Holocaust. In Israel, where the Pope was to visit later in the month, Chief Rabbi Israel Meir Lau welcomed the Pope's words but said the Church needs to apologize for the actions of Pope Pius XII during World War II.

In New York, the Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith said that in failing to specifically mention the Holocaust, the Pope had “missed a historic opportunity to bring closure” to Christian responsibility for sins against Jews.

In a statement, the German Evangelical Church said the Pope offered “words worthy of the greatest respect and gratitude.”

The Rev. Manfred Kock, head of the 28 million-member Protestant church, praised the Holy Father's overture in an interview with ZENIT, the Rome-based news service:

“The Roman Catholic Church and John Paul II deserve gratitude and respect for the way in which they have addressed the faults of the past. The gesture is important because, up until now, many of us had the impression that the Catholic Church had problems recognizing its past errors.”

Rev. Kock, whose church has made a similar mea culpa for past wrongs, has said that the office of the papacy is becoming “a unitary figure symbolic of Christianity.”

In the United States, local bishops took their cue from the Bishop of Rome and conducted Lenten services with public apologies for Church actions against Jews, women, native peoples and other groups:

l Boston Cardinal Bernard Law led a prayer service March 12 asking forgiveness for the faults of local Catholics throughout history, specifically regarding slavery, racism, antiSemitism, sex abuse by priests and the treatment of women.

l Los Angeles Cardinal Roger Mahony, in a Lenten message, asked forgiveness for any of his own actions or those of the archdiocese and its Catholics that have offended or hurt others.

l Bishop John Cummins of Oakland, Calif., invited survivors of clergy sexual abuse to a March 25 service of apology and reconciliation.

l Bishop Joseph Imesch of Joliet, Ill., presided over an atonement service, apologizing for the sins of Church leaders. Those attending were asked to express their own forgiveness by writing down names or situations of sin involving the Church; the forms were then ritually burned, symbolizing atonement.

Similar services were held in Norwich, Conn., Santa Fe, N.M., and other dioceses.

In Australia, bishops asked forgiveness for their failures in dealing with such issues as Church unity, care for aborigines and clerical failures. Swiss bishops acknowledged that Catholics did too little to prevent persecution of Jews by Nazis.

Vatican officials emphasized that the Church's apology was not a political but a religious act, addressed first of all to God. On March 7, they presented a 19,000-word document titled “Memory and Reconciliation: The Church and the Faults of the Past,” which examined several difficult theological questions and tried to eliminate some misperceptions about the apology movement.

The Church's mea culpa cannot be seen as a form of “self-flagellation” performed in public for the benefit of others, said French Cardinal Roger Etchegaray, president of the Vatican's Jubilee Committee.

Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, head of the International Theological Commission, which prepared the document, said the Church was not setting itself up as a tribunal to judge the actions of past Christians. The aim was to “know ourselves and open ourselves to the purification of memories and to our true renewal,” he said.

The document said the Church was holy and cannot sin, but that its members have sinned through the ages.

Acknowledging these faults can foster renewal and reconciliation in the present, it said.

The document, however, rejected any notion of collective guilt by Christians, saying that would be as unfair as blaming all Jews for Christ's death.

“Sin is ... always personal, even though it wounds the entire Church,” it said. The Church officials also said that the Pope's unprecedented gesture of confessing past sins could set a precedent — today's Christians and Church leaders can also expect to have their actions closely judged.

“What will the men and women of tomorrow think of us?” asked Dominican Father Georges Cottier, the Pope's personal theologian.

“We are no better than the men and women of the past. It is with modesty and ‘fear and trembling’ that we must judge their acts.”

(From combined wire services)