Why the Pope's Mea Culpa Is Important

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It was a Day of Pardon mass in St. Peter's Basilica in Rome. John Paul II wore purple vestments, the color of repentance. The Pope is 79 years old now, and frail. His hands shook with Parkinson's. Attended by five cardinals and two bishops, he leaned on a silver staff, an old man in a new millennium, sighting back across two thousand years.

Normally when a Catholic enumerates his sins in the sacrament of penance, he must be specific — about how often he committed an offense, for example, and with what premeditation. He must declare his remorse and a determination not to commit the sin again. Only then may forgiveness and absolution come.

The Pope was not explicit about the historical sins of Catholics. And he insisted on a critical distinction: John Paul did not speak of the sins of the church per se, but of the erring men and women who make up the church. The holiness and infallibility of the church as the Mystical Body of Christ remain intact: Whatever evils were done by Catholics, the Catholic Church itself remains unsullied. The sins were a deviation, a falsification of the church.

What then were the sins? It was clear that John Paul meant primarily the Crusades, the Inquisition and a terrible inaction and silence in the face of the Holocaust. Later this month, the pope will go to Israel, where he will visit the Holocaust museum at Yad Vashem. A couple of years ago, the Vatican issued a "call to penitence" expressing "deep regret for the errors and failures" of Catholics who kept silent. At Yad Vashem, he will surely have more to say on the subject.

John Paul cannot be accused of political correctness. His apology has no taint of that cheap grace that attends smug breast-beating — what might be called feel-good remorse.

Still, does the pope's apology matter? What's done is done — the ashes of heretics burned centuries ago are cold indeed. The silence surrounding Auschwitz has a terrible integrity that need not be intruded upon by moral pettifogging about why an earlier pope, Pius XII, did not speak out. John Paul said his mass of pardon was an attempt to "purify memory." Whose memory exactly is to be "purified"? The victims' memories? By what easy magic would that occur? The victims of the Crusades and Inquisition are long, long dead. Did he mean the memories of the descendants of victims? Surely he did not mean merely to purify the memories of the guilty, or the descendants of the guilty? That would be cheap grace indeed. Apology takes a fascinating variety of forms; it may have many intentions — at worst, to excuse oneself merely, or to prepare the way for a new cycle of abuse, in the way of certain contentedly inveterate sinners.

What was the point of the pope's apology?

It was to set in motion the dynamic of apology and forgiveness and transcendence, a powerful and liberating force for all concerned. (Consider the evil power of the opposite dynamic: hatred, grievance, revenge, lex talionis and the bloody shirt, the Balkan way of perpetuating rage.) Only by apology and forgiveness — acts of moral clarification and, incidentally, of strong leadership — can the dead weight of the past be lifted. It is an admirable way for an old pope to approach a new millennium.