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2000-03-17 00:17
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The church's 'children' made mistakes, but the church is sacred,
says Pope
ENI-00-0088

By Luigi Sandri in Rome and Edmund Doogue in Geneva
13 March (ENI)-At a solemn service of penance in St Peter's
Basilica in Rome, Pope John Paul II made history yesterday 12
March by begging pardon of God for the sins committed by members
of his church over the past 2000 years, especially those which
caused division among Christians.

At the same time the Pope reaffirmed the sanctity of "Mother
Church". The document on which the confession is based stresses
that while the church always remains holy, its members can make
mistakes.

The Pope's bold attempt to cleanse the conscience of the church
as it enters its third millennium has generally been welcomed.
But some conservative Catholics complained that the apology
undermined the church's authority, while others, including some
Jewish leaders, said the Pope had not gone far enough. The papal
confession was made in general terms, and many wanted to hear
more specific mention of the church's failures, especially
regarding Catholic attitudes towards Jews during the Second World
War.

Media commentators described the "day of pardon" as a brave act
in the "twilight" of this papacy - John Paul is 79-years old and
in the 21st year of his reign. The year 2000 is especially
important for the Pope as he has declared it a Jubilee year for
the church.

In a ceremony that began in St Peter's in front of the Pieta -
Michelangelo's statue of the Virgin Mary holding Christ's body
after his crucifixion - and continued at the papal altar, Pope
John Paul "humbly" asked forgiveness of God for the errors
committed by the church's members. Before scores of bishops and
cardinals, he said during his homily: "We cannot not recognise
the betrayal of the Gospel committed by some of our brothers,
especially in the second millennium. We beg forgiveness for our
guilt as Christians for the sins of the present. Faced with
atheism, religious apathy, secularism, relativism, violations of
the right to life, indifference towards the poverty endured by
many nations, we can only ask what are our responsibilities."

John Paul also pointed out that Christians had been subjected to
violence at the hands of others. "As we ask forgiveness for our
sins, we also forgive the sins committed by others against us."

A key part of the service in St Peter's was the "confession of
sins and asking for forgiveness" by seven of the Vatican's
cardinals and bishops. Cardinal Bernardin Gantin, of Benin, west
Africa, began the ceremony with a "confession of sins in
general", followed by Germany's Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who
read the "confession of sins committed in the service of truth *
We recognise that even men of the church, in the name of faith
and morals, have sometimes used methods not in keeping with the
Gospel in the solemn duty of defending the truth."

Cardinal Roger Etchegaray, of France, then pronounced the
"confession of sins which have harmed the unity of the Body of
Christ", to which the Pope added: "Merciful father, we urgently
implore your forgiveness and we beseech the gift of a repentant
heart so that all Christians, reconciled with you and with one
another, will be able to experience anew the joy of full
communion."

The "confession of sins against the people of Israel" was read
by Cardinal Edward Cassidy, of Australia. "Let us pray that
Christians will acknowledge the sins committed by not a few of
their number against the people of the Covenant," he said.

Bishop Stephen Fumio Hamao, of Japan, read the "confession of
sins committed in actions against love, peace, the rights of
peoples and respect for cultures and religions". In his response,
the Pope asked God's pardon for those Christians who, "yielding
to a mentality of power, have violated the rights of ethnic
groups and peoples, and shown contempt for their cultures and
religious traditions".

Nigeria's Cardinal Francis Arinze read the "confession of sins
against the dignity of women and the unity of the human race *
Let us pray for women, who are all too often humiliated and
marginalised," he said. Pope John Paul added: "Christians have
been guilty of attitudes of rejection and exclusion, consenting
to acts of discrimination on the basis of racial and ethnic
differences."

The last confession - "of sins in relation to the fundamental
rights of the person" - was read by Bishop Francois Xavier Nguyen
Van Thuan, of Vietnam. To which Pope John Paul added: "How many
times have Christians themselves not recognised you, God, our
father, in the hungry, the thirsty and the naked, and in those
incapable of defending themselves, especially in the first stages
of life?"

The goal of examining the church's past and asking forgiveness
for its mistakes has been one of Pope John Paul's main ambitions
in recent years. Yesterday's act of confession was based on a
long document, Memory and Reconciliation, the Church and the
faults of the past, released on 7 March by the Vatican's
International Theological Commission. According to the document,
the church remains holy, but is stained by the sins of its
children.

However, Father Thomas Reeves, editor of a Jesuit magazine,
America, told the New York Times: "The document should have put
it in bold print that 'children of the church' includes popes,
cardinals and clergy, and not just people in the pews. The Pope
had a great idea that some in the Vatican are obscuring with a
fog machine.

According to the International Herald Tribune, Bishop Piero
Marini, who is in charge of papal ceremonies, explained shortly
before yesterday's ceremony that "given the number of sins
committed in the course of 20 centuries, it [the apology] must
necessarily be rather summary."

Amos Luzzatto, president of the Union of Italian Jewish
Communities, complained that there was a "contradiction between
the penitence expressed by the church for so many sins against
the Jews in the past and the beatification [of those who
committed them]." He was referring to Pope John Paul's recent
decision to "beatify" (grant the title "blessed" to) Pope Pius IX
in September this year. (Pope John XXIII will be beatified at the
same time.) According to Luzzatto, Pius IX (whose papacy began in
1846 and ended in 1878) restored restrictions on Jews in Rome,
which was then under papal control.

The planned beatification of Pius IX is also becoming a
controversial subject in Great Britain. Today's Guardian
newspaper in London includes a commentary by Catholic journalist,
Rupert Shortt, who denounces John Paul II's plans to beatify -
and eventually canonise - Pius IX.

Describing Pius IX as "notoriously anti-semitic", Shortt
describes the abduction by papal police in the Italian city of
Bologna in 1858 of a six-year-old Jewish boy, Edgardo Mortara,
who had been baptised by his maid several years earlier, when he
was gravely ill. "Edgardo was detained and subsequently adopted
by Pope Pius, who refused to give him back to his distraught
parents unless they converted to Catholicism," Shortt writes.
"Even when seen in the most sympathetic light - Pius clearly
believed he was saving Edgardo from damnation - this record is
hardly synonymous with sainthood."

In Italy, Edgardo's great-great-niece, Elena Mortar, who teaches
English literature at Rome University, has also criticised the
plan to beatify Pius IX. "My great-grandmother saw her brother
being taken away," she told the Guardian. "As a mother she had
constant nightmares that her own children would be kidnapped."