Time to apologize
Seeking forgiveness for recent hurts caused by the church is the hardest
By Tony Staley
Throughout this Jubilee Year 2000, we will hear about the need to
apologize, to seek and grant forgiveness and to reconcile
ourselves with others.
Last month in Rome, for example, Pope John Paul opened the Week
of Prayer for Christian Unity by apologizing for the lack of
unity among Christians. His remarks came during a service at the
Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls. Representatives of 22
Christian churches attended the service, at which the pope was
assisted by representatives of the Anglican and Orthodox
The mere presence of representatives of 22 Christian churches
gives some hint as to the amount of divisions among Christians.
Sadder yet was the refusal of some fundamentalist Christian
churches to take part in the service because of its linkage to
indulgences, which these churches say the Catholic Church can not
In addition to making this apology, Pope John Paul will issue an
even bigger request for forgiveness later this year when he asks
non-Catholics to forgive any persecutions or injustices Catholics
have inflicted on them. Last year, for example, Pope John Paul
apologized for the church's burning at the stake, in 1415, of
John Hus, a Bohemian priest and theologian, who had sought reform
in the church.
As gratifying and important as many of these apologies are, the
worst hurts these injustices caused are, in most cases, long
past. And while we all continue to suffer, to some extent, for
these often centuries-old actions, apologizing for a still-fresh
wound is harder yet.
That's why an apology made last month in South Africa is so
noteworthy. At a Mass to begin the Durban Archdiocese's jubilee
celebrations, Abp. Wilfrid Napier asked pardon for harm and pain
caused by the church's failings in our own times.
At a Mass concelebrated by all the priests of the archdiocese,
Abp. Napier said the church asked for pardon from fellow South
Africans for its failure to take an uncompromising stand against
apartheid and for not vigorously resisting the country's strict
racial segregation laws, which were enforced from 1948 until the
first all-race election in 1994.
The Durban archbishop also asked forgiveness for what the church
had done to disrupt and even destroy African cultures. Nor did he
stop there. He went on to seek forgiveness for the church's
failure to support people with AIDS, for its failure to promote
the rights and dignity of women and for its role in the lack of
Abp. Napier, who serves as president of the Southern African
Catholic Bishops Conference, said the church also asked pardon
for its weakness of faith, for putting self-interest above its
teachings, and for alienating people through insensitivity.
The Mass was celebrated in a Durban cricket stadium as the
archdiocese's response to Pope John Paul's call for the church to
"become more fully conscious of the sinfulness of her children,"
Abp. Napier said.
Sr. Suzan Rakoczy, a theologian at St. Joseph's Theological
Institute in Cedara, South Africa, said the pardon sought from
women was limited, but "important because 100 years ago it would
have been unthinkable. The church thinking then was that women
were not human in the same way men were human. Women could not
even study theology then at postgraduate level - that only
happened 50 years ago, she pointed out.
Sr. Rakoczy, a Sister Servant of the Immaculate Heart of Marwhoy,
has a doctorate in theology. "In a way," she said, "the pardon is
a step forward, but given that the text has been approved by the
archbishop, it is as far as it can go because this is current
church policy. But there is an acknowledgment of the wrongs
committed against women, and it shows where the church is now."
Sr. Rakoczy, writing in The Southern Cross, a South African
Catholic newspaper, said "The church in the past has been more
inclined to ignore the terrible things it had done. The fact that
there is an acknowledgment now is groundbreaking."
But, as Abp. Napier said in a comment with which Sr. Rakoczy and
most people would agree - it's not enough to ask pardon for the
sins of the past - we also need to look to the future. That is,
we must both seek forgiveness and make a firm resolve to sin no
more, both individually and collectively in all communities in
which we claim membership.
Reconciliation is the theme for Renew 2000 this year. It's never
too early - or too late - to start.