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Monday, December 22 2008 06:49
As we enter upon either the last year of the 20th century or the next-to-last (depending on how you count), a new spirit is struggling to break forth among the world’s people. Billions of us are looking for signs of hope wherever they can be found.

One such sign has been suggested to me by a friend who is a Lutheran minister. In a recent conversation he told me of the inspiration which he had drawn from a statement by Pope John Paul II. My friend found the papal document spiritually encouraging and urged me to read it. Thanks to the wonders of the world wide web, I have managed to follow his suggestion.

The Pope calls this document “Incarnationis Mysterium” (the Mystery of the Incarnation) and offers it as preparation for the year 2000. He declares 1999 a year of Jubilee or spiritual preparation for the coming millennium. This holy year of 1999 will be recognized, he says, by several distinguishing signs.

Among those signs is what he terms “the purification of memory.”

This means that Church members are called to recognize “the wrongs done by those who have borne or bear the name of Christian.” He sees Christians as implicated not only in their own sins but also as bearing “the burden of the errors and faults of those who have gone before us.”

Thus the Pope calls on Catholics to repent for both their own sins and for the sins of fellow Church members, even those who lived before our time. “The Church,” he says, “should kneel before God and implore forgiveness for the past and present sins of her sons and daughters.”

For the Catholic Church. an ancient institution which has been so sure of itself in the past, now to recognize and atone for the faults of its members represents a sea-change.

To issue this document, the Pope reportedly had to fight off critics within the Vatican and other parts of the Church. It is never easy for churchmen accustomed to showing a proud face to the world to admit wrong on their own part.

This confession marks but the latest in a series of steps John Paul has taken to admit before God and the people of the world sin and error connected with the Church. Though he takes pains to distinguish between the Church itself and its members, still he has given up the old habit of refusing to admit faults from within the Catholic fold.

Years ago Pope John Paul acknowledged the wrong in mistreating Galileo for his assertion that the earth goes around the sun. He also has admitted the Catholic Church acted badly in excoriating the leaders of the Protestant Reformation. More significantly still, he has many times condemned the horror of anti-Jewish prejudice along with persecution which Christians have inflicted on their Jewish brothers and sisters.

John Paul hopes that such actions will prepare the Church for the new millennium, for a new start as the world moves into the twenty-first century. The best possible preparation, he is convinced, is the change of heart toward which spiritual people of just about every tradition aspire.

Most secular institutions are loath ever to admit their mistakes, misdeeds, and faults. If ever you sue a large company and that company settles out of court, almost always the terms of the settlement will exempt the company from having to admit any wrongdoing. Moreover, you yourself will most likely be forbidden to say publicly how much money you received as restitution.

So for the Church to admit wrong and to call on Catholics to repent having sinned against others deserves recognition as something altogether rare and perhaps, a sign of the spirit at work.

Religious people need forgiveness all of the time. It is a mistake to think that Church communities are made up of people who are better than anyone else. Rather, members of a Christian church are called upon to acknowledge themselves as sinners who join with other people in asking God’s pardon for their sins.

The examination of conscience called for by John Paul II can serve as a sign of hope for many spiritual seekers. Serious efforts to purify one’s heart can benefit not just individuals themselves but also overflow to the benefit of the world as we move together toward the beginning of another millennium.

Richard Griffin