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A Papal Apology

March 13, 2000 at 12:00 AM EDT

JIM LEHRER: There was an extraordinary event in Rome yesterday as Pope John Paul II issued an apology for errors of his church over the last 2000 years. Our coverage begins with a report from Peter Morgan of Independent Television News.

PETER MORGAN: The pope’s “Day of Pardon” mass was designed, in the Vatican’s words, to ask forgiveness for the past and present sins of the Church. Pope John Paul wants Catholics to reexamine their consciences in the new millennium. His homily did not single out specific periods or groups in history but a plea to forgive the use of violence in the service of truth was a subtle reference to the brutal excesses of the Crusades and the Inquisition. Cardinal Edward Cassidy talked of the people of Israel, asking questions to acknowledge the sins committed against Jews. There was no specific reference to the Holocaust, and when the pope replied, the effect of Parkinson’s Disease was evident in every word and gesture.

POPE JOHN PAUL II: (translated) We are deeply saddened by the behavior of those who in the course of history have caused these children of yours to suffer, and asking your forgiveness we wish to commit ourselves to genuine brotherhood with the people of the Covenant.

PETER MORGAN: The pope has made reconciliation between Catholics and Jews a key feature of his papacy. Jewish leaders hope John Paul will say more when he visits Israel later this month.

MEIR LAU, Chief Rabbi, Israel: I’m a little bit disappointed because mentioning the Inquisition, which was in Spain in 1492, speaking about a crime of 500 years ago and not a crime of 50 years ago, I wait for the second chapter on the forgiveness.

PETER MORGAN: The 79-year-old pope is physically weakening. He reportedly spends most of each day resting and is usually in bed by 6. John Paul also apologized for the mistreatment of women and the contempt shown to racial and ethnic groups, but critics worry that by showing forgiveness the pope may also be eroding the church’s supreme authority.

JIM LEHRER: And to Ray Suarez.

RAY SUAREZ: And joining us now to shed some more light on this unusual religious event is Archbishop Alexander Brunett of Seattle; he’s the former chairman of Ecumenical & Inter-Religious Affairs at the National Conference of Catholic Bishops. Rabbi Marvin Hier, the Dean and Founder of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, a Jewish human rights organization; and Father Thomas Reese, editor of America magazine, a national Catholic weekly; he’s also the author of Inside the Vatican: The Politics and Organization of the Catholic Church.

Archbishop Brunett, maybe we should begin with the most basic explanation of what we just watched happen. Who was asking for forgiveness and on whose behalf, and to be heard by whom?

MOST REV. ALEXANDER BRUNETT, Archbishop of Seattle: Well, the question I think is a very good question. I think we see here the Holy Father speaking in the name of the Church, kind of culminating several years and many, many efforts to reach this point of making a public, profession of our faith that we are called to — people are reconciled with God and with each other, and that we need to ask forgiveness for the times that we have failed — the Pope doing that in the name of the church and also asking us to become part of this process, to continue the process that began long ago. In a liturgical setting, which is a prayer setting where Catholics come together and gather to pray.

RAY SUAREZ: So on behalf of one billion Catholics worldwide, their leader was asking God for forgiveness for these events?

MOST REV. ALEXANDER BRUNETT: The prayers that he said were directed toward God but they also — in directing those prayers toward God and asking for forgiveness brought to our minds that we are as human beings — we are responsible for our actions, how we live, how we treat others, and he’s – prayers asking us also to make that part of our life and part of our understanding — that we have to seek reconciliation and peace and understand that we cannot live alienated from God or from each other.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, Father Reese, should the rest of the world looking upon this event see it as an internal process, or as a gesture to the groups that were specifically mentioned as being wrong over history?

REV. THOMAS REESE, America Magazine: Well, when Catholics ask God for forgiveness, we do that in a liturgical setting, as the Archbishop said, but it also implies that we are asking for forgiveness from all of our brothers and sisters whom we may have hurt at one time or another. So, this, as the Archbishop said, this is part of a process of reconciliation, of asking for forgiveness from God and from all of those we may have hurt.

RAY SUAREZ: And Rabbi Hier, what does the Pope act of penitence mean to you?

RABBI MARVIN HIER, Simon Wiesenthal Center: I think it was an extraordinary event, something that none of his predecessors have ever done before — in the heart of St. Peter’s Basilica to stand up and say that we take responsibility for the sins committed by Christians. It’s true that it refers mainly to events that occurred during the Crusades, for example, during the Inquisition, when people were forced against their will to adopt another religion. And I think it would have been even of greater historic validity if it would have contained a specific contemporary example like the Holocaust so that people will not think, well, the Pope is asking us to remember and to forgive the sins committed a thousand years ago, 1,500 years ago, but he’s not talking about today.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, what does that omission say to you?

RABBI MARVIN HIER: It says to me that I, for one, believe that it’s probably because mentioning the Holocaust, even though the pope has mentioned the Holocaust previously in 1998, I think at this time it could be that that would bring into centerfold the question of Pius XII. And perhaps by avoiding it, they don’t have to discuss the issue of Pius XII.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, Archbishop, is the Holocaust still too recent, the wounds still too fresh for it to have been mentioned, is this still contested to reign historically?

MOST REV. ALEXANDER BRUNETT: No, I don’t believe the Holocaust, for us, was an issue here. I think the record is very clear, both in what we’ve done in this country, and I’ve gone with Vatican officials to the Holy Lands many times to talk about this issue. The Holocaust obviously is something we want to keep in the forefront. We want to make it a very important issue in our Catholic teaching in our schools. We’ve changed our textbooks, we’ve rewritten all of our literature so that the Holocaust is seen properly in the light in which we understand it, as one of the great, great terrible events of human history.

And we want to try to discover ways, which won’t happen again. I think what you see here in this profession of the Holy Father here is the fact that he’s dealing with 2,000 years. He wanted to deal with general categories, he talks about Jewish people from many perspectives, I don’t think he wanted to hone in only the Holocaust, there’s also the teaching of contempt that led to many negative things in Catholic textbooks and things. I think he was referring to all of that.

RAY SUAREZ: Father Reese, you’ve looked inside the Vatican as a historian and a journalist. Tell us, if you know, what kind of internal process led up to this apology being written and written in the way it was.

REV. THOMAS REESE: Well, the Pope has been talking about this for six years. He’s been looking forward to the jubilee as a time to celebrate 2,000 years of Christianity — all of the good things that Christians have done in the past, but also the sins we’ve committed in the past. And he wanted to do this in a liturgical setting. I think when he mentioned the sins of Christians against the Jews, I’m quite positive he in his own mind was including the Holocaust.

I agree with the Rabbi. I wish he had mentioned the Holocaust in this context. He was including all sins of Christians against the Jews, and of other groups. I think if he had tried to mention everything, it would have gone on for hours and hours and hours. As it was, it was 20 minutes long, mentioning the various sins.

RAY SUAREZ: Do you think there was dissent behind closed doors about just how that formula would be reached, what you say, what you don’t say, the way the thing was presented?

REV. THOMAS REESE: Well, there was a lot of reluctance within the Vatican to talk about past sins at all. But this pope has a real sense of history, a sense… I mean, he’s the one who apologized for how the Church treated Galileo. He’s done it about how the Church treated the Jews. He’s mentioned the Muslims, I mean, he’s mentioned most recently in this confession: women. So this is a Pope who’s courageous in facing the sinfulness of Christians and calling on them to do better. He knows what he wants to do, and he says it.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, Rabbi Hier, there’s been some argument about whether this was the church as an institution admitting past wrongs — or wrongs being admitted on the part of individual Catholics over time. Is that a distinction that non-Catholics even make when they look at an event like this?

RABBI MARVIN HIER: Well, I don’t think so. First of all, let me say that when the pope talks about individuals that have committed these great injustices in the last 2,000 years, well, many of the individuals who committed those injustices were not just ordinary people, they were sometimes bishops, cardinals, even popes.

There was the incident in Jewish history where Jews were forced to wear the yellow badge. Now, this was not forced upon them by the local people. This came from the top. So when the pope asked for forgiveness for those misdeeds, in a way he’s signaling out for criticism all those people who instituted such policies.

RAY SUAREZ: So Archbishop, these members of the hierarchy, leaders of the church over time are included in that phrase “children of the church,” but the church itself is not included in this? Help me understand this.

MOST REV. ALEXANDER BRUNETT: I think when you talk about anybody that’s a leader of the church, it reflects back on the church itself. It’s that projection of what the church is. And I think the critical issue here is that if this has happened before in history, that we need to take… we need to take stock of this and to assure ourselves and the world that it will not happen again.

We want to be sure that the message that the church has, that is, the dignity, sacredness of every single person, that that is respected and that that’s going to be part of our ministry. And if we don’t reconcile for our past mistakes and errors, things we’ve done wrong, ways in which we have been insensitive to cultures and to people, and if we don’t correct that, it’s awful hard to move ahead. We have to be sure that people don’t see us as hypocrites, saying one thing and doing another.

RAY SUAREZ: So from that center aisle at St. Peter’s Basilica, there is a way that this goes immediately down to the rank-and-file pews all over the world?

MOST REV. ALEXANDER BRUNETT: Absolutely. As you can see – and as I was pointing out before — we have these ongoing dialogues everywhere. And these dialogues are coming down into the lives of people and our local communities. If you look across the United States, how many different dioceses have had celebrations like the one in St. Peter’s. And this is where Catholic people gather; this is where they hear the message of faith.

This is where they’re formed. That message was very strong and clear. I don’t think of anything that I could remember in the last few years was as strong as that message and as proclaimed and as pronounced as that message was.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, Rabbi Hier, you can’t tell in a day whether the message is heard and inwardly understood by everybody, but what would you want to look for over the next coming years?

RABBI MARVIN HIER: Well, first of all, I hope the pope goes much further when he visits Israel — that he specifically addresses the Holocaust, because, you know, the Crusades, the Inquisition pales in significance with the events of the Holocaust, with Auschwitz and the plan at Auschwitz and to avoid that and not directly talk to the issue about the fact that many of the instruments of Hitler’s policy were unfortunately from people who espoused the belief in Christianity.

So I think it’s appropriate for the pope to take it one step further and to talk about the Holocaust. I’m sorry he didn’t do it from St. Peter’s Basilica, but I’ll take it if he does it when he visits Jerusalem next week.

RAY SUAREZ: Should we be looking for more of this, Father Reese, in the coming years, part of a long, systematic laying out of penitence?

REV. THOMAS REESE: Well, I think that the Pope has talked about the Holocaust in the past, the failure of so many Christians to reach out to help the Jews and to protect them from the Nazis. He’s acknowledged that, he’s talked about it. I think that this… we will have a continuing ongoing dialogue between Catholics and Jews about the Holocaust. The pope has appointed an international commission of Catholic and Jewish historians to look at documents that have been published by the Vatican on the Holocaust.

They’ve already asked for more documents from the Vatican. I think this is going to be ongoing, I think this is good, I think it should be done. The Pope has put on a back burner the whole question about the canonization of Pius XII. I think these are all good moves.

Clearly this is a pope who wants to have reconciliation with the Jewish community and is asking for forgiveness of all the sins, all the sins. And there are lots that the Christian community has committed against the Jews.

RAY SUAREZ: Reverend, sirs, thank you all very much.