AT A SOLEMN service of penance in St Peter's Basilica in Rome, Pope John Paul II made history March 12 by begging pardon of God for the sins committed by members of his church over the past 2,000 years, especially those that caused division among Christians. At the same time the pope reaffirmed the sanctity of "Mother Church." The document on which the confession is based stresses that while the church always remains holy, its members can make mistakes.
John Paul's bold attempt to confess the church's sin as it enters its third millennium has generally been welcomed. But some conservative Catholics complained that the move served to undermine the church's authority. According to reports, some members of the Roman Curia, the church's central administrative body, opposed the pope's desire to make a sweeping confession of sins. Others, including some Jewish leaders, said the pope had not gone far enough. The papal confession was made in general terms, and many wanted to hear more specific mention of the church's failures, especially regarding Catholic attitudes toward Jews during World War II.
Archbishop Piero Marini, master of pontifical liturgical celebrations, said earlier that the confessions had to be made in general terms and briefly because they were part of the liturgy. "The reference to errors and sins in a liturgy must be frank and capable of specifying guilt," Marini told a Vatican news conference March 7. "Yet, given the number of sins committed in the course of 20 centuries, it must necessarily be rather summary."
Media commentators described the "day of pardon" as a brave act in the "twilight" of this papacy. John Paul is 79 years old and in the 21st year of his reign. The year 2000 is especially important for the pope since he has declared it a Jubilee year for the church.
In a ceremony that began in St Peter's in front of the Pieta--Michelangelo's statue of the Virgin Mary holding Christ's body after his crucifixion--and continued at the papal altar, Pope John Paul "humbly" asked forgiveness of God for the errors committed by the church's members. Before scores of bishops and cardinals, he said during his homily: "We cannot not recognize the betrayal of the gospel committed by some of our brothers, especially in the second millennium. We beg forgiveness for our guilt as Christians for the sins of the present. Faced with atheism, religious apathy, secularism, relativism, violations of the right to life, indifference toward the poverty endured by many nations, we can only ask what are our responsibilities."
Seven of the Vatican's cardinals and bishops participated in a liturgy in which each read a confession of sin, to each of which John Paul responded with a prayer for forgiveness. Cardinal Bernardin Gantin of Benin, West Africa, began the ceremony with a "confession of sins in general," followed by Germany's Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who read the "confession of sins committed in the service of truth." "We recognize 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," Ratzinger said.
Cardinal Roger Etchegaray of France then pronounced the "confession of sins which have harmed the unity of the Body of Christ," to which the pope added: "Merciful father, we urgently implore your forgiveness and we beseech the gift of a repentant heart so that all Christians, reconciled with you and with one another, will be able to experience anew the joy of full communion. …