Renew 2000 Column
|Bishop Robert J. Banks
A Jubilee Year centerpiece
Forgiveness is possible because we are all one family in Christ
By Bishop Robert Banks
Forgiveness has been for our Holy Father, Pope John Paul II, a major theme of this Jubilee Year. He has managed to present it in varied ways so that almost everyone in the
Church can find some aspect of the forgiveness theme that appeals.
For those concerned with social justice, the Pope's insistent call for the forgiveness of the
international debt that oppresses the poorest nations of the world has won their
enthusiastic support. The Pope, more than any other individual, has called the world's
attention to this incredibly unjust situation and has pointed to the Jubilee Year for action
by the richest nations of the world. The United States tends to be stingy in the aid that we
give to the poorest nations of the world, but fortunately Pres. Clinton and the Congress
have taken some positive steps in addressing this particular problem. More needs to be
Another form of forgiveness that has been emphasized by the Pope during this Jubilee
Year has been the indulgence. An indulgence is not, in the strict sense, forgiveness and
certainly not the forgiveness of sin. But, once sin has been forgiven, an indulgence is the
"remission of the temporal punishment due to sins whose guilt has already been forgiven"
(Catechism of the Catholic Church, n.1471).
The indulgence was more easily understood or at least accepted and valued in the Church
when I was growing up. With the general disappearance of sin from modern culture and a
greater emphasis on the compassionate love of God, our people have been less concerned
with the effects of sin or punishment for sin. For many Catholics, purgatory, for instance,
has just about disappeared from the radar map and, with it, indulgences.
When a teacher or preacher begins to explain indulgences with the vocabulary of
"temporal punishment," "the treasury of the Church," and "the communion of saints," the
eyes of Generations Y, X and Z immediately begin to glaze over.
The Holy Father had enough experience with young people when he was a priest and
bishop to know how the doctrine of indulgences is received in the Church today. He also
has had enough experience with the horrible effects of sinful tyrannies and the more
subtle destruction of today's "sinless" culture to know that we desperately need to call on
the salvation won for us by Jesus. Indulgences do that.
The Pope apparently was not satisfied with shaking up people with his revival of
indulgences; he had some even more shocking acts of forgiveness in his Jubilee plans.
On the first Sunday of Lent, he went to St. Peter's Basilica and led a service of Confession of Sins and Asking for Forgiveness which served as a "purification of memory and a commitment to the path of true conversion." Going back over the past millennium, he prayed for forgiveness, listing sins committed by members of the Church against the truth, against the unity of the Church, against the people of Israel, against the rights of people, against the dignity of women, and against the rights of the individual.
This confession and plea for forgiveness was a first for any Pope in the history of the
Church. It is no wonder that the International Theological Commission had to issue an
explanation of how someone could ask for forgiveness for actions of members of the
Church without implying that the one, holy, Catholic and apostolic Church itself had
Despite the opposition of many counselors, the Holy Father insisted that this purification
of memories had to take place so that we could make a new start as we head into the third
millennium. Only someone who was utterly confident that the Church of Jesus does have
the message of saving truth could make such a public and wide-ranging confession of the
sins and errors of the past.
Common to all these actions of forgiveness is the overwhelming awareness of the unity of
the human race and the unity of the Church.
It is because the Holy Father sees all humanity as brothers and sisters, sons and daughters
of our one heavenly Father, that he speaks out against the international debt that has the
rich nations of the world driving the poor of the world into deeper poverty.
It is because the Holy Father sees the Church as family bound together and to Christ by
the power and love of the Holy Spirit that he speaks of indulgences. As brothers and
sisters in the Lord, we can call upon Jesus' love to heal the wounds of sin in one another.
We do not work out our salvation as individuals, but as members of the Church, the body
of Christ, the family of the Lord. Our unity embraces not only those in this world, but all
the members of Christ, living and dead, saints above and saints in the making, here and in
It is because the Holy Father is so conscious of the unity of the whole Church that he can
embrace the past glories of the Church and also ask pardon for the shameful actions of
those who have gone before us. He is also well aware, as can be told from the text of the
prayers said that Sunday in St. Peter's, that we who live and lead in the Church today need God's patience and forgiveness.
I think it is because of the Holy Father's desire to see all Christians united and to see all peoples living in peaceful solidarity that he has made forgiveness a centerpiece of this Jubilee Year. Of course, forgiveness is also at the center of Jesus' life and of the Eucharist.