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Pope Apologizes for Catholic Sins Past and Present

March 13, 2000|RICHARD BOUDREAUX | TIMES STAFF WRITER

VATICAN CITY — In a landmark public confession, Pope John Paul II begged God's forgiveness Sunday for sins committed or condoned by Roman Catholics over the last 2,000 years, including sexism, racism, hatred of Jews and violence in defense of the Catholic faith.

The pope listed or alluded to a wide range of victims of Catholic hostility, prejudice and indifference as he asked his church to enter its third millennium with a purified conscience. These victims included heretics, Protestants, Jews and other non-Christians, immigrants, ethnic minorities, women, abused children and the unborn.

"We forgive and ask forgiveness," John Paul said several times during his solemn Day of Pardon Mass in St. Peter's Basilica, a crowning moment of a 21-year-old papacy that has made repentance a central theme. It was the first call by any pope for such a sweeping pardon for past and present wrongs.

The initiative was welcomed inside and outside the billion-member church as a bold, exemplary appeal for soul-searching and reconciliation. Some critics said it didn't go far enough; Jewish leaders voiced regret that it didn't condemn the Vatican's silence on the Holocaust during World War II.

John Paul faulted no Catholic leader, past or present. He mentioned no sinner by name, explaining that only God can judge individual responsibility.

A key passage of his homily defended the church as "a wonderful wealth of holiness, of missionary ardor, of total dedication to Christ and to our neighbor," but acknowledged that "some of our brothers have been unfaithful to the Gospel."

Their failings, he said, were especially glaring "in the second millennium"--a period covering the holy wars of the Crusades, the executions of heretics and other non-Catholics by courts of the Inquisition, and the forced conversions of native peoples in Africa and the Americas.

Without specifying those bloody chapters, John Paul added: "We ask forgiveness for the divisions among Christians, for the use of violence that some Christians have committed in the service of the truth and for the attitudes of mistrust and hostility sometimes assumed toward followers of other religions."

Turning to contemporary sins, he asked Catholics to reflect on their responsibility for secularism, ethical relativism, violations of the right to life, indifference to poverty and "other evils that disfigure the face of the church."

The 79-year-old pontiff was dressed in heavy purple robes, the color symbolizing penitence. He was conveyed through the packed basilica on a wheeled platform and read his homily with trembling hands, a symptom of Parkinson's disease, while leaning heavily on his silver staff.

Five cardinals and two bishops took turns lighting a candelabrum as they alternated with him in confessing seven broad categories of sins. With all seven candles burning on the altar, John Paul embraced a 15th century crucifix in a sign of reverence and penitence.

The Mass, on the first Sunday of Lent, came eight days before John Paul's scheduled departure for a week's visit to Jerusalem and the Holy Land--another highlight of his Holy Year ritual of passage to the new millennium.

Jewish leaders watched the Mass closely, some expecting implicit criticism of the wartime pope, Pius XII, whose failure to publicly denounce the Nazi slaughter of Jews remains a contested issue between them and the Vatican.

But the Holocaust was not mentioned. Instead, Cardinal Edward Cassidy recalled the "sufferings of the people of Israel" and asked divine pardon for "the sins committed by not a few [Catholics] against the people of the Covenant."

After a moment of silent prayer, the pope responded, "We are deeply saddened by the behavior 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."

"It is deeply disappointing that the subject of the Holocaust was not dealt with in the papal homily, all the more so since John Paul witnessed it directly," said Yisrael Meir Lau, a Holocaust survivor who is chief rabbi of Ashkenazi Jews in Israel. Lau, like the pope, is from Poland.

Other Jewish leaders welcomed Cassidy's words as a challenge to previous Vatican suggestions that relatively few Catholics sinned against the Jews during the Nazi era. An aide to Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak said John Paul's general apology will improve the climate for next week's papal visit and make Jewish leaders more receptive to interfaith dialogue.

"This statement is powerful, historical; it talks about a new world order, about understanding," said Rabbi Steven B. Jacobs of the Kol Tikvah Temple in Woodland Hills. "Some may feel that the pope didn't go far enough, but there are internal [Vatican] politics that we should have nothing to say about."

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