It was with an eye firmly on the next millennium that Pope John Paul II made his unprecedented apology Sunday for the sins of his church over the past 2,000 years. And as he asked forgiveness for the way Catholics have treated Jews, other Christians, native peoples, and women in the past, he faced calls from within and outside his church to learn from those mistakes in the future.
At a historic mass in St. Peter's basilica in Rome, the pope acknowledged for the first time the dark side of Roman Catholic history, from the way Crusaders massacred Muslims to the way many Christians kept silent during the Holocaust, from the Inquisition to the forced conversion of native peoples.
Dressed in the purple vestments that symbolize penitence during Lent, the 40 days leading up to Easter week, Pope John Paul II declared, "We cannot not recognize the betrayal of the Gospel committed by some of our brothers, especially in the second millennium. Recognizing the deviations of the past serves to reawaken our consciences to the compromises of the present." The public repentance underscored the pontiff's conviction that the Catholic Church cannot continue to grow in the next millennium without facing up to its past and "purifying memory," in his often-repeated words. "The remembrance of scandals of the past can become an obstacle to the church's witness today," concluded an official theological commission which released a report on "Memory and Reconciliation" earlier this month.
"In terms of credibility, what the pope did on Sunday was a good point," says Father Jan Kerkhoss, a Jesuit priest and professor emeritus at the Catholic University of Leuven in Belgium. "But they must continue, and take this further." Others had stronger opinions. "The pope has shown regret for what was done in the past, but there is no indication that he has it in mind to change his behavior in the present," says Prof. Leo Laeyendecker, a prominent Dutch Catholic thinker and Vatican critic.
Vatican officials put the pope's initiative in the context of the current jubilee year, marking 2,000 years since the birth of Jesus. Over the centuries, they point out, repentance and forgiveness have been key themes in other jubilees - Catholic celebrations of absolution and renewed faith usually held every 25 years.
The pope has given a particularly ecumenical flavor to this year's jubilee, and his homily on Sunday was clearly another effort to reconcile the Roman Catholic Church with other faiths and with other Christian denominations. Those efforts have been one of this papacy's defining themes. The Vatican has put a high priority on mending fences with the Eastern Orthodox Church, a dialogue with the Anglican Church in England has found common ground, and late last year the Catholic Church and the Lutheran World Federation signed a joint declaration on the essential issue that sparked Martin Luther's 1517 revolt - how one obtains salvation. "This is a window of opportunity for the other churches, an opportunity for further talks on ecumenical issues," says Meerten Terborg, a theologian at the University of Leiden in Holland.
The pope's reference to the church's attitude toward Jews through the centuries drew particular attention, ahead of his visit to Israel, Palestinian-ruled areas, and Jordan next week - the first by a pope to the Holy Land in 36 years. "We are deeply saddened by the behavior of those who in the course of history have caused these children of yours [Jews] to suffer, and asking your forgiveness we wish to commit ourselves to genuine brotherhood," the pope prayed. Some Jewish figures complained that John Paul made no specific reference to the Holocaust. But he is widely expected to do so in a speech in Jerusalem at Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial. "This is another step in a very serious process of repentance," says Ron Kronish, head of the Inter-religious Coordinating Council in Jerusalem.
If the pope's initiative has found favor outside his church, critics within Catholicism have voiced reservations. "This is primarily meant to raise the image of the church toward the modern world," says Professor Laeyendecker. "The pope wanted to show the world that the church will not be left behind as far as societal changes regarding human rights and tolerance are concerned. The problem is that there is a big gap between what he says about the past and what he is doing in the present. If he regrets intolerance in the past, you may ask why he is intolerant now of homosexuals, or of women in the church."
More broadly, says Rev. Ineke Bakker, general secretary of the Dutch Council of Churches, "there is support and admiration for this historic step, but at the same time some skepticism, waiting to see what this means in concrete terms."
That view was echoed in La Croix, a French Catholic daily. Repentance, argued a front-page editorial, "should properly be conceived not as an instant when you wipe the slate clean, but as a trampoline for messengers of reconciliation ... not an end, a beginning."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society