The Church Seeks Pardon


What do you think of this pardon that our Holy Father made, asking forgiveness for the sins of the Church? So many people have asked me questions about it, or have made comments like, "It's about time the Catholic Church apologized." What's our take on this?

This Mass of Pardon was a historical landmark and an unprecedented moment, for this was the first time any such Mass had been offered. Here the Holy Father asked forgiveness from the Lord for the sins, past and present, of the sons and daughters of the Church. This action is a powerful sign of the Holy Year, which is a time of repentance, conversion, reconciliation and renewal. In his apostolic letter, "Tertio Millennio Adveniente" ("Apostolic Letter for the Jubilee of the Year 2000,") the Holy Father pleaded for each member of the Church and the Church as a whole to make a thorough examination of conscience and seek forgiveness.

The reason for this Mass and the seeking of pardon is rooted in our understanding of the Church. Christ founded the Catholic Church. The Church is a divine institution and His holy instrument of grace which teaches His truth, sanctified through the sacraments, leads the faithful to salvation, and calls non-believers to belief. Yet, the Church is made of human beings, poor fragile victims of original sin, who are subject to temptation and who fail and sin. As the Holy Father said, quoting Sacred Scripture, none of us can claim righteousness before God. Just as each of us as individuals seeks forgiveness, so must the Church.

In offering the Mass and seeking God's pardon, the Holy Father did something that no other leader could do — because only a pope, as successor of St. Peter and the Vicar of Christ, can speak for the Church, past and present. As the high priest, his sacramental character allows him to act in the person of Christ, Christ who took all of the burden of sin, past, present and future onto Himself, and offered the perfect sacrifice on the cross to His Father for our forgiveness. Therefore, for the whole Church — for reach of us who have contributed to the stain of the Church — he begged forgiveness: forgiveness for sins in general, for sins committed in the service of truth, for sin which has harmed the unity of the body of Christ, for sin against the people of Israel, for sins committed against the rights of people of other cultures and religions, for sins against the dignity of women and for sins against the unity of the human race.

While he did not specify events or individuals, the pope's words were all encompassing: "Most merciful Father, your son, Jesus Christ, the judge of the living and the dead, in the humility of His first coming redeemed humanity from sin and in His glorious return He will demand an account of every sin. Grant that our forebears, our brothers and sisters, and we, your servants, who by the grace of the Holy Spirit turn back to you with whole-hearted repentance, may experience your mercy and receive the forgiveness of our sins." Then the Holy Father approached the life-sized crucifix near the high altar, embraced it, and symbolically kissed the feet of Jesus. Here our Holy Father was relying on God's infinite mercy and trusted in his grace that would wipe the slate clean of old hurts; strengthen the Church to teach, sanctify and lead; and to safeguard the Church against committing these same sins.

This was not simply an apology. This was not a political ploy where leaders apologize with some kind of qualification, but with no real sign of repentance. He made no excuses of times or circumstances. He did not mean to make the Church of today look better than the Church of yesterday. He did not try to balance the act by singing the many benefits the Church has provided through the centuries especially in terms of education and social welfare. He sought nothing in return. The Holy Father on behalf of all sought forgiveness from God Himself, the source of all truth, justice and goodness, and the one who alone forgives.

We should rejoice, for this Mass of Pardon was a graced moment for our Church. We are not a Church where a person boasts, "I am perfect. I am saved. I have no sin." We are not a Church where a person points to others and says, "You must apologize, but no apology is good enough. I will not forgive, and I will not forget who you have done to me." Instead, we are a Church of sinners, that relies on the mercy and forgiveness of God, and in turn strives to show that mercy and forgiveness to others.

My brothers and sisters, here too is a lesson for us this Lent during this Holy Year. We must turn to the Lord with contrite hearts and beg for forgiveness. We must not give some simple apology or conjure all kinds of excuses and mitigating circumstances. Instead, we must fall on our knees in the sacrament of confession and pour forth our hearts; here our Lord offers His forgiveness, purifies our souls, and sets us on a new path of life. Moreover, we need as best we can to reconcile with those we have offended. This Lent is a time to ask for pardon.

We look to celebrate soon Easter and the resurrection. Never forget, before the resurrection came Calvary, the place of repentance, conversion and reconciliation. At the Mass of Pardon, the Holy Father stood at Calvary. We too look for the glory of Easter, but we too must stand on Calvary and seek forgiveness.




Saunders, Rev. William. "The Church Seeks Pardon." Arlington Catholic Herald.

This article is reprinted with permission from Arlington Catholic Herald.


Father William Saunders is dean of the Notre Dame Graduate School of Christendom College and pastor of Our Lady of Hope Parish in Sterling, Virginia. The above article is a "Straight Answers" column he wrote for the Arlington Catholic Herald. Father Saunders is also the author of Straight Answers, a book based on 100 of his columns and published by Cathedral Press in Baltimore.

Copyright © 2003 Arlington Catholic Herald

Subscribe to CERC's Weekly E-Letter



Not all articles published on CERC are the objects of official Church teaching, but these are supplied to provide supplementary information.