Pilgrim's progress

A biblical flood of ink has been spilled trying to assess the significance of John Paul II’s recent actions. During Mass on the first Sunday of Lent, the pope made an unprecedented apology for the historical sins committed by Catholics. He asked God’s forgiveness for sins against the unity of Christianity, against women, against the people of Israel, and for the use of violence in the "service of truth," by which he meant the Crusades, the Inquisition, and the conquest of the New World. The sinners implicated included those who acted in the church’s name. Nine days later, John Paul began a dramatic weeklong pilgrimage to Jordan, Israel, and the Palestinian territories. Deftly balancing the religious and political ramifications of his visit, he impressed Israelis and Palestinians with the sincerity of his good will, while giving hope and affirmation to those in the occupied territories by voicing support for a Palestinian homeland. For Catholics, the pope’s pilgrimage emphasized again the moral and religious importance John Paul places on reconciliation with Jews, whose covenant with God abides. Taking that work of reconciliation to the Holy Land and to the reconstituted nation of Israel obviously had profound meaning for John Paul. But above all, the pope went to where the story of the New Testament unfolds so that his every action could be placed in the context of his faith that "God’s interventions...culminate in the mysteries of the Incarnation, and the Passion, Death, and Resurrection of Christ."

For the most part, both the pope’s effort to direct the church’s attention to the failures of the past, and his much anticipated Jubilee Year visit to the Holy Land, were well received. Some complained that he failed explicitly to criticize Pius XII’s conduct during the Holocaust or to apologize to Muslims for the Crusades. Others found it hard to make much sense of the pope’s religious vision at all. The New York Times editorial page, for example, achieved an almost parodic effect by complaining that the papal apology should have extended to the church’s opposition to abortion, contraception, the ordination of women, and homosexuality. Divorce and shopping on Sunday were inexplicably left off this wish list.

As the trip to Israel reminded us, the nearly eighty-year-old pontiff can still enthrall an audience. In private, he continues to win over all comers with his personal sanctity and human warmth. Although hobbled by ill health, John Paul is determined to show both the church and the world what it means to live the gospel. Nothing demonstrated that fact more poignantly that the pope’s humble and obviously heartfelt expressions of grief at Yad Vashem, the stark Israeli memorial to the victims of the Holocaust. Televised live throughout Israel, the pope’s brief words of lament followed by a long meditative silence left an indelible impression on a nation that is not easily impressed. As the Israeli novelist David Grossman commented: "It is good that the pope did not ask for forgiveness. No one can ask for forgiveness for the Holocaust in the name of others, and no one is entitled to forgive in the name of the victims. But the pope’s presence at Yad Vashem, inside the deepest dimensions of Jewish suffering, and the acts that he performed, personally as a man, resonate far more strongly than could any official declaration."

John Paul’s decades of patient work for reconciliation between Catholics and Jews has advanced the church on a course that was institutionally and doctrinally unimaginable even forty years ago. A master of the symbolic gesture, the pope’s willingness to display a contrite heart and a palpable love of God may now help convince the Jewish community at large that profound changes have taken place in the church’s teachings about Judaism. Those changes, as the pope’s every gesture indicates, go to the core of what it means to be Catholic.

As for Catholics, something equally earthshaking may result from the pope’s public admission that the sons and daughters of the church, including church leaders at all levels, have sinned grievously even when acting in the church’s name. If representatives of the church have erred in the past, its current pastors can hardly be immune from error. Hoping to deflect that logical inference, the Vatican’s International Theological Commission issued a turgid and equivocating explanation of why the papal apology neither specifically condemns Catholics who sinned in the past nor threatens the church’s certainties about the unchanging nature of moral truth. In this sense, the Vatican wants to have it both ways, getting credit for admitting obvious error while not conceding any institutional flaws. But the act of apologizing itself, like John Paul’s presence at Yad Vashem, may transcend such theological lawyering and inspire a profound re-evaluation of the way the church makes its claims about the truth it possesses. Such a prospect should not alarm Catholics. The holiness of the church is a mystery, not a seal of state to be stamped on every pronouncement from Rome. The truth of the gospel does not depend on the sinlessness or inerrancy of the church. In fact, as the pope’s actions eloquently attest, the heart of the gospel compels us to admit sin, seek the forgiveness of God, and reconcile with those we have injured. Actions, as Jesus showed again and again, speak louder than words, and the pope’s actions speak volumes for those with ears to hear.

Published in the 2000-04-07 issue: 
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