The Pope's Recent Apologies

By Monsignor Thomas Wells (Archdiocese of Washington D. C.)

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Few moments in the service of Pope John Paul have evoked more comment than his recent prayers for forgiveness for the sins of believers over the last one thousand years. First at a ceremony at St. Peter's in Rome and then at the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem, the Holy Father begged God for forgiveness for the sins Catholics have committed, especially those committed in the name of religion. Offenses committed against Protestants, against Jews, against women and against other groups over the last one thousand years were all given to God in a plea for reconciliation.

As with any gesture so public and so unprecedented, the prayer of the Pope has not been heard by humans with complete understanding. Some have said that he should have said more, that this or that incident should have been mentioned by name; while others have seen a prayer about sins long past as an unnecessary digging up of memories better forgotten. Others are shaken that the Pope seems to be seeking forgiveness for a Church that is the Body of Christ, which we believe to be free from sin because of the presence of the Holy Spirit within her.

Should we consider the Church to be sinless? Since we have seen so much evidence of people - even leaders - in the Church who seem far from sinless, can we with straight faces say that the Church is the, "sinless bride of Christ?"

The "Yes," that answers these questions forces us to make a very important distinction; one that reminds us that the presence of the Holy Spirit within the Church guarantees that she will teach without error and that, when the Church celebrates the sacraments, it is truly the holiness of God that is working, both through the minister of the sacrament and in the lives of those who receive the sacraments. The Church is holy; but she is holy despite the sinfulness of her members.

The Holy Father's prayer reminds us that the sins of the members of the Church - our sins - have made it hard, sometimes very hard, to see the face of Christ in the Church that is His Body. Remember also one other very important distinction. We might say that it is foolish to repent of past sins, perhaps committed during the Reformation. The people who persecuted Protestants are long dead (in fact, many of us can say we are innocent because our ancestors would have been the persecuted Protestants!), so forget it. But the Church is not just the family of all who confess Christ today; we are equally one with all who have gone before us, right back to those who first received the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. The Church in confessing the sinfulness of her members, seeks to face the third millennium renewed and purified for our work of proclaiming Christ crucified and Risen.

Finally, this strikes me. Whether he intended to or not, the Holy Father was showing us the first step to reconciliation. Whether in the Holy Land, the North of Ireland or in our own lives, for that matter, we have got to stop counting grievances. We have all sinned and been sinned against. If I really want reconciliation with an enemy, the Holy Father is reminding me that I had better concentrate on how I have hurt my enemy than on what has been done to me.

After all, the only person over whom I have any control at all is myself. Imagine, for example, that the parties of the Middle East conflicts, taking a cue from Pope John Paul, would ask forgiveness for the sins they have committed against their enemies - often in the name of God. Surely, even after forgiveness is given and received, huge problems would remain; but dealing with someone with whom I am reconciled and at peace is a heck of a lot easier than with someone with whom I can see only grudges and previous hurts.

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