March 13, 2000
Rome, March 12: Pope John Paul II asked God for forgiveness for past errors of the Roman Catholic Church during a solemn mass in St Peter’s Basilica today, setting an historic precedent for the world’s one billion Catholics.
The public penitence was one of the major events of the Vatican’s year-long celebrations marking the start of the new Christian millennium and will be long remembered as one of the most courageous acts by the 79-year-old Pontiff.
“We forgive and ask for forgiveness,” he said, while holding onto a 15th century crucifix from the church of San Marcello, used to emphasise that the confession of sins and the begging of pardon are addressed to God.
“We ask forgiveness for divisions between Christians, for the use of violence in the name of truth, and for the diffidence and hostility engaged against followers of other religions,” he said during the two-hour liturgy celebrated during the church’s “day of forgiveness”.
“This Pope will be remembered as the Pope of forgiveness”, said Vatican expert Luigi Accattoli of the Corriere Della Sera newspaper. Vatican insiders have defined today’s mea culpa as “unprecedented”.
Based on a document by the Vatican’s international theological commission called “recollection and reconciliation: The church and the mistakes of the past,” the Pope listed seven categories of sins incurred over the centuries by the church’s followers.
These included divisions within Christianity, proselytising by force, the inquisition, anti-Jewish prejudice, and sins against minorities, women and human rights.
On Sunday, five cardinals and two monsignors took turns to list the seven categories.
“Lord, God of all men and women, in certain periods of history Christians have at times given in to intolerance and have not been faithful to the great commandment of love,” replied the Pope to a representative of the Roman Curia who referred to acts of intolerance and violence against dissidents, the bloody wars of faith engaged by the crusaders, and acts of violence during the inquisition.
In asking God for forgiveness for sins against the Jewish people, the Pope said: “We are deeply saddened by the behaviour of those who in the course of history have caused these children of yours to suffer, and asking your forgiveness we wish to commit ourselves to genuine brotherhood with the people of the covenant.”
“It (the mea culpa) is a milestone in the 2000-year history of relations between Jews and Catholics,” said American Rabbi James Rudin in Tel Aviv, adding it represented a highpoint in the Pope’s 22 years at the Vatican.
Jewish communities had previously criticised the Vatican’s public acknowledgement of historical guilt as being too generic, especially in regards the church’s role in the holocaust.
Relations between the two religions have also been strained by the Pope’s decision to beatify Pope Pius XII, in office throughout the second world war. Pius XII is blamed for failing to speak out sufficiently firmly against Nazi atrocities.
The Pope will embark on his first trip to Israel in two weeks.
Gay communities have also slammed the Pope’s mea culpa. “The Vatican is asking forgiveness from everyone except homosexuals, who are among the most numerous victims of the theocratic violence of yesterday and today,” said Franco Grillini, a representative of Italy’s homosexual rights groups.
Theologians, however, pointed out the role Sunday’s mea culpa could provide in promoting dialogue and reconciling divisions within Christianity.
“This act makes us more credible in the eyes of the world and can therefore improve our reconciliation efforts,” said Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, president of the international theological commission on Tuesday.
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