The Compass: Official Newspaper of the Catholic Diocese of Green Bay
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February 25, 2000 Issue

Time to apologize

Seeking forgiveness for recent hurts caused by the church is the hardest

By Tony Staley
Compass Editor

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 churches.

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 grant.

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 Christian unity.

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.

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