When a pope asks forgiveness for past wrongs


Representatives of Canada’s Indigenous communities were in Rome last week for a series of meetings with Pope Francis.

The purpose of their visit was to urge Francis to publicly apologize for the abuse that their ancestors – and even some of them – suffered at residential schools run by the Catholic Church.

But can a pope really ask for forgiveness when it’s been the Vatican’s practice to leave the appropriateness of such apologies up to local bishops? And in what cases have popes issued their own apologies in the past?

Paul VI was the first Roman Pontiff to ask forgiveness of past wrongs. He did so in 1965 during a visit to Jerusalem when he and Patriarch Athenagoras I of Constantinople made an important “gesture of justice and mutual pardon” through a joint Catholic-Orthodox declaration.

The two Church leaders expressed “regret” for the “offensive words” and “reprehensible gestures” that marked a “sad period” culminating in their predecessors’ reciprocal excommunications in 1054.

“The words are not the same as today, we do not speak of apologies, but we must take into account that it was 60 years ago,” explained Father Bernard Ardura, president of the Pontifical Committee for Historical Sciences.

“This declaration was indeed a request for mutual forgiveness,” he pointed out.
Slave trade

Two decades later, John Paul II made another type of apology during a visit to Cameroon.

During a meeting in 1985 with intellectuals and Catholic students in Yaoundé, the Polish pope addressed the painful history of slavery.

“Throughout history, people belonging to Christian nations have unfortunately not always behaved well, and we ask for forgiveness from our African brothers who have suffered so much, for example, from the slave trade,” he said.

It repeated those sentiments during a 1992 visit to Senegal, but this time his words were addressed to God.

“From this African sanctuary of black pain, we implore heaven’s forgiveness,” John Paul II said on the island of Gorée, a historic site of the French slave trade in the 17th and 18th centuries.

“These men, women and children were victims of a shameful trade, in which people who were baptized, but not living their faith, took part,” he continued.

“How can we forget the enormous suffering inflicted, in disregard of the most basic human rights, on the populations deported from the African continent? How can we forget the human lives destroyed by slavery,” the late pope said.
The turning point of the year 2000

John Paul II continued this work of critical examination of the past. In particular, he gave his personal backing to a 1998 symposium on the Inquisition.

That same year he also embraced, as his own, a statement on anti-Semitism that was issued by the International Catholic-Jewish Liaison Committee.

The Great Jubilee of the Year 2000 marked a very important step in this process.

At a Mass in Rome on the March 12 “Day of Forgiveness”, the pope implored “divine forgiveness for the sins of all believers”.

“Let us forgive and ask forgiveness,” John Paul II said.

In particular, he implored forgiveness for “the divisions which have occurred among Christians”.

“The recognition of past wrongs serves to reawaken our consciences to the compromises of the present, opening the way to conversion for everyone,” he said on that occasion.

“We must ask ourselves what our responsibilities are regarding atheism, religious indifference, secularism, ethical relativism, the violations of the right to life, disregard for the poor in many countries,” he insisted.

This request also went hand in hand with the Church’s “forgiveness” of those who had persecuted Christians throughout history.

“At the same time, as we confess our sins, let us forgive the sins committed by others against us,” John Paul said.
“Distinguishing between error and those who commit it”

Other apologies would follow, including in the current pontificate.

For example, Pope Francis asked forgiveness of Italian Protestants in 2015 and specifically begged “forgiveness for the sin committed by those who have gone before us” during a 2017 symposium on Luther that was held at the Vatican.

Father Ardura said this move towards asking for pardon was all made possible by John XXIII.

“In his encyclical Pacem in terris, published in 1963, he clearly states that a distinction must always be made between error and those who commit it, ‘even in the case of those who err regarding the truth or are led astray as a result of their inadequate knowledge, in matters either of religion or of the highest ethical standards’,” the historian explained.

By restating this ancient distinction in a major papal document, the late Italian pope opened the possibility for the Church to ask for forgiveness.

“It is therefore possible to condemn the Church’s error without condemning the Church itself,” Father Ardura noted.

But he said this should be something that is done only rarely, otherwise it will lose its value.

“The pope cannot ask for forgiveness for everything, otherwise it would considerably dilute the significance of these requests,” he said.

“That’s how we became capable of distancing ourselves 70 years ago. But the request for forgiveness is only one step,” the Vatican historian continued.

“After forgiveness comes reconciliation. And that can still take years.”


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