Leaders of Christian denominations in Canada praised Pope John Paul’s recent sweeping apology for sins committed by Roman Catholics, suggesting his message should prompt further action toward communication and understanding of other religions and reconciliation with persons harmed by churches.
“(The apology) can be nothing but a good step,” Archbishop Michael Peers said. “He used the beginning of Lent and what is, by his reckoning, the last year of the century. He was using it to look back quite a number of centuries.”
In early March, the pontiff, at a special Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican, asked God’s forgiveness for the murderous excesses of the Crusades and the Inquisition, discrimination against Jews, forced conversions, “divisions among Christians” and treatment of women “who are all too often humiliated and marginalized.”
The Pope’s words were hailed by some as a historic motion of atonement and criticized in other quarters as being too little, too late. Some Jewish leaders were dismayed he did not specifically mention the Holocaust.
Telmor Sartison, leading bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada, called the Pope’s statements “legitimate gestures,” adding “it’s about time we made them.” He said he hopes the apology will lead to a “greater sensitivity to relations between churches and other faiths – a gradual opening-up to people of other faiths.”
Rev. Peter Wyatt, general secretary of theology, faith and ecumenism for the United Church of Canada, said he “appreciated the humility and straightforwardness” of the Pope’s words. He also noted the United Church in 1986 offered an apology to aboriginals for “yoking the gospel to European culture and asking them to give up aboriginal culture to receive the Gospel.”
Indeed, the Pope’s words followed statements of repentance from U.S. Southern Baptists for supporting slavery and racial segregation, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in the U.S. for Martin Luther’s anti-Semitic writings and United Methodists for a Civil-War-era Indian massacre in Colorado.
The Pope, as leader of the largest Christian denomination on earth, “opens a door,” Archbishop Peers said. “It becomes a kind of mandate.” Recent wars in Kosovo and Rwanda have amply demonstrated the human capacity for vengeance and keeping alive ancient hatreds. The Pope’s statement, however, moves history forward, he said.
“Speaking as one who has gone the apology route, I see his action as a reaction to the spirit of the times, which is unforgiving and litigious. But the things the Pope is saying are not the subject of litigation. The Pope is saying there is another way,” Archbishop Peers said. (In 1993, the Anglican Church apologized for abuses against Natives, especially in connection with the residential school system.)
The leaders also addressed what happens now the Pope has apologized. “What are we apologizing for and what does it really mean?” asked Bishop Sartison. “We need to share our observations and our prejudices. It means listening over and over again as the dialogue goes on. We need to know what the Jewish people want – a very delicate question when it comes to Israel.”
“In a sense, words are not enough,” Mr. Wyatt said. The United Church has established a fund (as have the Anglicans), currently at $1.5 million, to support healing projects submitted by aboriginal people, and has established a task group to improve United Church-aboriginal relations.
In the area of Christian-Jewish relations, the United Church is considering a statement saying the church has not replaced Judaism in God’s “covenant love,” and that Christians should not target Jews for conversion. “We need to situate the New Testament in its Jewish context and not consider the Jews the bad guys and the Christians the good guys,” Mr. Wyatt said.
Archbishop Peers sees the Pope’s initiative filtering down to the community level. “If people accept the permission which the Pope is giving them, I can see the possibility of the Roman Catholic church in a lot of local situations become a place from which people can expect that kind of leadership. It is an immensely appealing picture,” he said.