On the eve of Pope John Paul II’s historic trip to Israel, scheduled for March 20-26, the Vatican is offering the world several apologies for sins committed by Christians over the past 2,000 years, including its treatment of Jews.
The “apologies” stem from a campaign by John Paul for a collective examination of conscience as the Church begins its third millennium.
The Pope has made repentance and reconciliation a theme of this Holy Year observance.
The first apology, released this week, is a 90-page report titled “Memory and Reconciliation: The Church and the Faults of the Past.”
It is the result of a years-long study by a special Vatican commission headed by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, prefect of the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
Prepared by the Vatican’s International Theological Commission, the document says the Church should ask forgiveness for the past sins of its members and institutions for such events as the Inquisition during the Middle Ages and the Holocaust.
But it also stresses that the Church itself cannot be at fault, explaining that as the “spouse of Christ” it is a holy institution that cannot sin.
“The fault is always personal, although it wounds the entire church,” the document said of past sins.
The Ratzinger report comes just a week before the Pope is due to issue his own personal “mea culpa” statement on March 12, which he declared a jubilee Day of Forgiveness.
And the next week, the ailing 80-year-old pontiff heads for Jerusalem, where he is expected to speak during his visit to Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust museum.
The Ratzinger report says “the hostility or mistrust shown by numerous Christians toward Jews over the course of time is a painful historical fact.” But it stops short of issuing an apology for the Church’s actions — as an institution — during the Holocaust, which means a continuation of the Vatican’s position stated in a 1998 Holocaust report called “We Remember: Reflections on the Shoah.”
“A lot of Christians risked their life to save and lend assistance to the Jews they knew,” the new document says. But quoting from the 1998 document, it adds that “the spiritual resistance and the concrete action of other Christians weren’t what one could have expected from disciples of Christ.”
This fact, Cardinal Ratzinger’s report says, requires an act of repentance.
“This constitutes an appeal to all Christians of today; it requires an act of repentance and becomes a spur to redouble efforts … [so] that the moral and religious memory of the wounds inflicted to the Jews are maintained.”
By issuing the document in advance of the Pope’s statement next week, the Vatican is seeking to dispel what the document calls “reservations” by some Catholics who fear the apology will provide ammunition to “those who are hostile” to the Church.
In fact, the document warns that care must be taken so the admission of sins is not be used for Christian bashing, especially where Christians are a minority.
The Pope’s expected “sweeping apology” marks the first Sunday of Lent, the 40-day Catholic season of fasting and prayer in preparation for Easter. But Church theologians say that while the Pope will accept responsibility for the actions of the “sons and daughters” of the Church, he will make no apology for the Church itself.
Israel’s Ashkenazic Chief Rabbi Israel Lau last week criticized the Catholic Church for not doing enough to confront its actions during the Holocaust, saying the World War II-era pope, Pius XII, must be condemned for not speaking out against the Nazi genocide.
And tensions rose last week as anti-Pope graffiti was found scrawled on the walls of Israel’s chief rabbinate and members of the extremist Kach group demonstrated outside Rabbi Lau’s office, carrying signs reading, “The Pope, Cursed Be He.”
But Rabbi Lau praised the Polish-born Pope for preaching against anti-Semitism, and said he was certain that John Paul’s speech at Yad Vashem on March 23 will take an important step toward seeking forgiveness from Jews.
The chief rabbi also announced that the March 24 meeting between the Pope and Prime Minister Ehud Barak has been moved forward in the day so that Barak and his assistants will not be forced to violate the Sabbath. The Pope also agreed to spend the Saturday of his visit in Nazareth and will not fly to Jerusalem, as originally planned, to prevent army and police officers from desecrating Shabbat.
Rabbi Lau said that Israel is proud of the fact that since the unification of Jerusalem, members of all religions have free access to the holy places.
“How can we justify our sovereignty over Jerusalem if we refuse the Pope’s request to come and pray at the holy sites as a pilgrim?” he asked.
A refusal, he said, could trigger reprisals against Jews living in Catholic countries.
Still unclear however are plans for a historic religious summit in Jerusalem with the Pope, the chief rabbis and the Islamic mufti of the holy city, Ekrima Sabri.
“The chief rabbis of Israel have agreed to the meeting and accepted the invitation of the Pope, but the mufti so far didn’t agree,” Rabbi Lau said last week.
The meeting has been scheduled tentatively for March 23 in Jerusalem’s Notre Dame Hotel, a Catholic hospice and conference center.
If the meeting does take place, it would mark the first time the top Jewish and Muslim religious representatives in the Holy Land have met in any sort of dialogue.