Forgive and Remember

By Elesha Coffman, assistant editor of CHRISTIAN HISTORY

As countless news stories on last Sunday's event proclaimed, John Paul II's act of repentance was unprecedented in church history. The International Theological Commission, whose study "Memory and Reconciliation: The Church and the Faults of the Past" laid the groundwork for the landmark prayer, presents a fuller picture. While "in the entire history of the Church there are no precedents for requests for forgiveness by the Magisterium for past wrongs," there have been rare occasions on which "ecclesiastical authorities—Pope, Bishops, or Councils—have openly acknowledged the faults of abuses which they themselves were guilty of."

Notably, in a message to the Diet of Nuremberg on November 25, 1522, the reforming Pope Adrian (or Hadrian) VI acknowledged "the abominations, the abuses … and the lies" of which the "Roman court" of his time was guilty—a "sickness" extending "from the top to the members." Of course, this wasn't exactly news. Adrian's predecessor, Leo X (whom Martin Luther called "Antichrist," among other things), was notorious for his excesses, and several members of the college of cardinals had tried to poison him. Interestingly, Adrian, like John Paul II, was not Italian (he was Dutch), which might have accorded him some critical distance from the Roman see.

The only other apology cited is much more recent. Pope Paul VI, in his opening address at the second session of Vatican II, asked "pardon of God … and of the separated brethren [John XXIII's term for Orthodox believers]" who felt offended by the Catholic Church. Paul then declared himself ready for an apology from the eastern church. ...

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