December 1999

1.3. John Paul II's Requests for Forgiveness

Not only did John Paul II renew expressions of regret for the “sorrowful memories” that mark the history of the divisions among Christians, as Paul VI and the Second Vatican Council had done,(18) but he also extended a request for forgiveness to a multitude of historical events in which the Church, or individual groups of Christians, were implicated in different respects.(19) In the Apostolic Letter Tertio millennio adveniente,(20) the Pope expresses the hope that the Jubilee of 2000 might be the occasion for a purification of the memory of the Church from all forms of “counter-witness and scandal” which have occurred in the course of the past millennium.(21) The Church is invited to “become more fully conscious of the sinfulness of her children.” She “acknowledges as her own her sinful sons and daughters” and encourages them “to purify themselves, through repentance, of past errors and instances of infidelity, inconsistency and slowness to act.”(22) The responsibility of Christians for the evils of our time is likewise noted,(23) although the accent falls particularly on the solidarity of the Church of today with past faults. Some of these are explicitly mentioned, like the separation of Christians,(24) or the “methods of violence and intolerance” used in the past to evangelize.(25) John Paul II also promoted the deeper theological exploration of the idea of taking responsibility for the wrongs of the past and of possibly asking forgiveness from one’s contemporaries,(26) when in the Exhortation Reconciliatio et paenitentia, he states that in the sacrament of Penance “the sinner stands alone before God with his sin, repentance, and trust. No one can repent in his place or ask forgiveness in his name.” Sin is therefore always personal, even though it wounds the entire Church, which, represented by the priest as minister of Penance, is the sacramental mediatrix of the grace which reconciles with God.(27) Also the situations of “social sin” - which are evident in the human community when justice, freedom, and peace are damaged – are always “the result of the accumulation and concentration of many personal sins.” While moral responsibility may become diluted in anonymous causes, one can only speak of social sin by way of analogy.(28) It emerges from this that the imputability of a fault cannot properly be extended beyond the group of persons who had consented to it voluntarily, by means of acts or omissions, or through negligence.

5.4. Christians and Jews

The relationship between Christians and Jews is one of the areas requiring a special examination of conscience.(81) “The Church’s relationship to the Jewish people is unlike the one she shares with any other religion.”(82) Nevertheless, “the history of the relations between Jews and Christians is a tormented one... In effect, the balance of these relations over two thousand years has been quite negative.”(83) The hostility or diffidence of numerous Christians toward Jews in the course of time is a sad historical fact and is the cause of profound remorse for Christians aware of the fact that “Jesus was a descendent of David; that the Virgin Mary and the Apostles belonged to the Jewish people; that the Church draws sustenance from the root of that good olive tree onto which have been grafted the wild olive branches of the Gentiles (cf. Rom 11:17-24); that the Jews are our dearly beloved brothers, indeed in a certain sense they are ‘our elder brothers.’”(84) The Shoah was certainly the result of the pagan ideology that was Nazism, animated by a merciless anti-Semitism that not only despised the faith of the Jewish people, but also denied their very human dignity. Nevertheless, “it may be asked whether the Nazi persecution of the Jews was not made easier by the anti-Jewish prejudices imbedded in some Christian minds and hearts... Did Christians give every possible assistance to those being persecuted, and in particular to the persecuted Jews?”(85) There is no doubt that there were many Christians who risked their lives to save and to help their Jewish neighbors. It seems, however, also true that “alongside such courageous men and women, the spiritual resistance and concrete action of other Christians was not that which might have been expected from Christ’s followers.”(86) This fact constitutes a call to the consciences of all Christians today, so as to require “an act of repentance (teshuva),”(87) and to be a stimulus to increase efforts to be “transformed by renewal of your mind” (Rom 12:2), as well as to keep a “moral and religious memory” of the injury inflicted on the Jews. In this area, much has already been done, but this should be confirmed and deepened.