Volume 12 Number 1
When the Pope Says Sorry
01 February 1999

Italian journalist Luigi Accatolli has documented 94 occasions when the Pope has apologized publicly for different aspects of his Church's history. Laurie Vogel takes his message to heart.

As I left church one Sunday, I was handed a leaflet with a huge question-mark on violent yellow paper: 'What are YOU going to do about the Millennium?' Inside, the choices suggested related only to our area and to the internal affairs of a small community.

It seemed so remote from the real world we were living in: a missile war stand-off with Iraq, 11,000 dead in disasters in Central America, and every new step forward in Northern Ireland menaced by memories of past wrongs.

One leader who has faced up to the real challenge of the Millennium is Pope John Paul II. He has called on all Christians (not just Roman Catholics) to make a 'collective examination of conscience' about acts committed in the first two millennia, before entering the next.

According to this stimulating book* by Luigi Accatolli, the Vatican correspondent of Corriere della Sera, the Pope has apologized publicly 94 times as head of the Catholic Church. These apologies cover events far back in history, such as the split with Eastern Christians, the Crusades and the Catholic Church's condemnation of Martin Luther, and more recent ones, such as Catholics' involvement in the Rwandan genocide. John Paul II had no personal part in these events, but as representative of his Church, he feels a duty to offer an apology for these times when her children strayed far from God's path.

Accatolli describes these different apologies in detail. Of the Inquisition, for instance, the Pope wrote in his encyclical on the advent of the third Millennium, 'The sons and daughters of the Church must return with a spirit of repentance... [to] acquiescence given... to intolerance and even to violence in the service of truth.' In his Memorandum to Cardinals in 1994, he reflected on the 'violence perpetrated in the name of faith: religious wars, the courts of Inquisition and other forms of violation of the rights of individuals. From these kind of coercive measures came the crimes of Hitler's Nazism and Marxist Stalinism.'

The Pope has encountered fierce resistance to his call for a 'collective examination of conscience' from those who fear that, once guilt is admitted, litigation for financial compensation will follow. Like Pope John XXIII, when he launched aggiorniamento (updating) as the main business of the Vatican II Council, John Paul II has met opposition within the College of Cardinals.

His apologies have faced the Church with a dilemma. The Church is seen as Christ's body on earth and therefore without sin - yet her sons and daughters (even the highest prelates) are ordinary men and women and always liable to error. And doesn't any admission of error involve saying that past Popes were wrong? John Paul II has had a difficult road to tread.

I feel personally challenged by the Pope's courage. I find it less hard to put right the things I have done wrong than to overcome the fear that an apology may be misinterpreted. And when it comes to past history, all of us ask ourselves, 'Why should I accept guilt for something others have done?'

An Australian has helped me to resolve the second point. Referring to last year's National Sorry Day when Australians made moving apologies to the Aboriginal people, he said, 'I take pride in the great achievements of my nation, though I was personally involved in very few of them. Why shouldn't I associate myself, equally, with what has been wrong?'

John Paul II challenged me further with his plea for a collective examination of conscience by Christians. For working in a collective is essential if we want to affect more than the private sphere. That is one reason why people get involved in community or church associations, political parties or activist groups. The danger then becomes: do I just follow the party line, or am I still an independent individual?

As I write, Tony Blair is facing this dilemma within his own government and party. To get things done, people have to be drawn into line. Yet loyal dissidence and conflicting perspectives are needed for the right line to be drawn.

All of us know the old fable of the tailor who convinced his king that he'd made him an invisible suit of clothes. The loyal subjects crowded round to applaud the miraculous suit, while the little boy said, 'The king's got no clothes on'.

I have to face the fact that, in the interests of getting things done in groups I've belonged to, I have often, like the loyal subjects, kept quiet. And sometimes the whole collective has gone wrong. How to put that right when, in most of the collectives we participate in, there is no Pope to speak for us?

I can, and have, asked forgiveness from individuals who have been deeply affected and hurt when my 'don't rock the boat' ways have left them prejudiced by the group. But who is to do that for the many I know nothing about?

Just as collective action is more effective than individual action in changing the world around us, so a collective examination of conscience, as we enter the new Millennium, is likely to be more fruitful in healing past wounds than individual repentance by itself. This is why the Pope's apologies are so important.

*'Quando il Papa chiede perdono' by Luigi Accatolli, Arnaldo Mondadori Editore, Milan, 1997; 'When a Pope asks forgiveness: Pauline Books and Media, Boston, 1998, $16.95
Laurie Vogel