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Why the Pope Asks Forgiveness

  What's the Problem?

  Conversion Starts at Home

  Heart of the Gospel

The first Sunday of Lent, March 12, marks a papally declared day of “Request for Pardon” throughout the Church. It’s a theme that Pope John Paul II has struck repeatedly in the years leading to this great Jubilee 2000.

The most visible sign of the Holy Father’s efforts will be his own pilgrimage later this month (March 20-26) to the Holy Land, where he will pray publicly for the forgiveness and reconciliation of all humanity.

On behalf of all Catholics, present and past, he will seek to build bridges with Orthodox Christians, Jews and Muslims. One can expect apologies for some of the misdeeds of Church members in the past.

Why should Lent be so central to the Jubilee? “Lent,” the pope said in late January, is the “culminating point of the journey of conversion and reconciliation which the Jubilee, the year of the Lord’s favor, offers to all the faithful.”

In fact, the pope will be in the holy city of Nazareth to celebrate the Feast of the Annunciation, when Mary first learned that she would be a vessel of reconciliation, the outpouring of God’s love in Jesus.

What's the Problem?

In the preparatory document for the Jubilee, Pope John Paul declared that “the joy of every Jubilee is above all a joy based upon the forgiveness of sins, the joy of conversion” (#32). This conversion, truly turning away from sinful ways, is a precondition for reconciliation, he wrote.

Then the pope laid out areas where the Church needs to ask forgiveness. The Church should become more fully conscious of the sinfulness of her children, he wrote, “recalling all those times in history when they departed from the spirit of Christ and his gospel and, instead of offering to the world the witness of a life inspired by the values of faith, indulged in ways of thinking and acting which were truly forms of counter-witness and scandal.”

Need we repeat the pope’s laundry list? Sins against Christian unity are at the top. “Intolerance and even the use of violence in the service of truth” is next in this papal examination of the Church’s conscience. Whether Catholics of the time understood it or not, objective wrong was committed when other Christians and non-Christians were maltreated throughout history. Notable transgressions include the Crusades, the Inquisition, anti-Semitism and violence toward indigenous peoples. By acknowledging wrongs, we pave the way for healing.

But the pope asks forgiveness not only for the sins of the past. The Church, though holy, is always in need of repentance (see Lumen Gentium, #16). How well do we serve the poor? How earnestly do we hold to our faith? How sincerely have we accepted the teachings of Vatican II, that “great gift of the Spirit to the Church at the end of the second millennium”? asks the pope.

Conversion Starts at Home

What we see the Holy Father playing out this year on the world stage, we are challenged to bring into our own homes and communities. This is why the pope asks forgiveness: Just as our priests at the altar utter our prayers to God and in turn represent Christ to us, so too our Holy Father, frail and on pilgrimage, represents all humanity turning more fully toward God.

He prays on our behalf, but he also is showing us the way toward true Lenten reconciliation. He’s showing us the way to the joy of a Jubilee Year celebrated in the wake of forgiveness. It’s the feast of the father’s household after the prodigal son returned (see Luke 15:11-32), the rejoicing of the woman who found her lost coin (Luke 15:8-9).

The path to reconciliation, our Lord taught us, is through love of neighbor. On this worldwide day of Request for Pardon, we would begin well by requesting pardon from those closest to us.

Heart of the Gospel

How can we understand the biblical concept of jubilee—the forgiveness of past debts—if we carry around with us all the hurts, large and small, from along life’s way?

Just as the pope is helping the Church to examine its conscience for Church members’ many shortcomings, we each are challenged to seek pardon for our own shortcomings. That means frankly admitting what we’ve done wrong in the past—whether we meant to do wrong or not—and seeking deeper unity with those around us.

We at St. Anthony Messenger Press are offering a concrete way for people to consider acts of reconciliation. During the Jubilee Year we are encouraging people to visit our “1,000 Years of Peace” Web page elsewhere on this site and pledge some hours for everyday acts of reconciliation.

Pledges to date—well over 100,000 hours’ worth—have ranged from promises to “be nicer to my sister,” to praying for the unborn, to helping build homes for Habitat for Humanity. Those who are not using the Internet can send us a time pledge by postal mail (1615 Republic Street, Cincinnati, OH 45210).

Yet we mustn’t stop in our homes and neighborhoods. In John Paul II’s words, “How can we ask for the grace of the Jubilee if we are insensitive to the needs of the poor, if we do not work to ensure that all have what is necessary to lead a decent life?” The call for Lenten reconciliation that the pope sounds so clearly extends from our homes to our world. We are challenged to support programs and policies that will reconcile the peoples of the world. —J.B.F.




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