Corporate Contrition: Repenting for the sins of two millenia

by Mary Healy

As we rapidly draw near to the day marking three years before the turn of the millennium, and more imminently, to an inauspicious national election, it is a good time to pause and reflect on where we as Catholics are headed and what our focus should be.

In his remarkably little-known apostolic letter Tertio Millennio Adveniente, Pope John Paul II laid down guidelines for the Church’s preparations for the Great Jubilee of the year 2000. The Holy Father specifically called for a five-year program of preparation for this momentous anniversary. The first two years, 1995-96, were to be dedicated to conversion and repentance; the last three to prayer and reflection on the mystery of the Trinity. We are thus entering into the final two months of a universal examination of conscience called for by the Church’s supreme pastor—yet this call is virtually unknown to the vast majority of the faithful.

In order to not miss our last chance to participate in this moment of grace, it may be helpful to examine one of the possible reasons why the Pope’s summons to repentance has gone largely unheeded.

The Pope has taken the unheard-of step of calling for not merely personal repentance, but corporate repentance on the part of the entire Church, particularly for the ugly moments in her history. He is asking each of us to take responsibility before God and humanity for sins committed by Catholics both past and present. In particular, he refers to sins against unity which caused and perpetuate the appalling divisions that plague the Body of Christ; sins of intolerance and violence against those of other faiths in purported service to the truth; and our participation in the evils of our own modern culture.

A perfectly natural reaction, of course, is to object that I cannot possibly repent for something that I personally had no part in committing and for which I bear no guilt. How can I ask forgiveness for the sack of Constantinople, or the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre of 1572, events which I had absolutely nothing to do with and which I would never for a moment have condoned? How can I accept blame for the godless American culture or the anti-religious policies of the Clinton administration, especially if I have labored for years to oppose them? Even if I did “repent,” what difference would it make since those who commit a sin must pay its penalty?

To think deeply about these questions is to come to a more profound awareness of the Church’s nature as a body and of the solidarity of all human beings. Such an awareness is, of course, not a novelty but is rooted in Scripture. The Jews had a clear sense that God dealt with them as a nation, not as a collection of individuals. If some were unfaithful, the whole people were punished (which is to say nothing of how God deals with individual souls after death); conversely if some, or even one, asked pardon on behalf of all, the whole nation would be spared. Paul wrote of the Church that “If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together.” As we can vicariously boast in the holiness of the Church’s members, so we can vicariously sorrow in their sins of her members. Jesus himself entered into this solidarity with sinners by submitting to John’s baptism, a “baptism for the forgiveness of sins”—thus taking on an attitude exactly opposite to that of the Pharisees’, which was to stand in supercilious contempt above the “sinners” who did not live up to their standards.

How, then, can we actually achieve this kind of repentance? A first step, I think, is examining what deeply-rooted dispositions we have allowed into our own hearts which in some way, however seemingly minor, echo the evils we deplore. In the case of the divisions within Christianity, for instance, do we take on a subtle attitude of arrogance or superiority toward non-Catholic Christians, assuming they should “just get with it” or that because the fullness of truth is in the Catholic Church, I myself possess that fullness? Regarding other races or the opposite sex, do we express in private (or even merely in our own thoughts) attitudes of contempt or of resentment (the former being perhaps a more common temptation for men, the latter for women)? Do we contribute to the secularism and ethical relativism of our culture by our own indifference and the mediocrity of our witness to the gospel? Do we subtly embrace the materialistic and self-centered values we see promoted all around us, even while condemning them?

These mentalities can lie so deeply embedded in us that they can be extremely difficult to recognize. But once we do see and regret them, we can come before God with a truly humble heart, begging pardon not for “their sins” but “our sins.” Chesterton put it well in his famous contribution to an essay contest on the topic “What is wrong with the world?” His brief but potent answer was, “I am.”

Having taken on such a sense of solidarity, we are able to pray a truly penitential prayer on behalf of the whole Church, as did Nehemiah for the people of Israel: “Hear the prayer of your servant which I now pray… for the people of Israel your servants, confessing the sins of Israel, which we have sinned against you. Yes, I and my Father’s house have sinned” (Nehemiah 1:6; see also the prayer in Daniel 9). This kind of prayer is not concerned with maintaining a clear line of demarcation between myself and those in whose behalf I am praying, but simply acknowledges and asks pardon for the corporate guilt. As we ourselves experience repentance (literally metanoia, or a change of mind), the whole Church shares in that grace. We can pray too in reparation for the scandal of bigotry, lukewarmness and hypocrisy among Catholics which have been such stumbling blocks to some who may otherwise have been drawn to Christ.

Finally, we can also take concrete steps to meliorate the effects of some age-old sins. For instance, what about expressing to a Protestant or Orthodox friend your sincere regret for those historical crimes committed by Catholics which in many cases are still a source of pain and estrangement? What about asking a Jew for forgiveness on behalf of those who committed atrocities and with whom we (sadly) share the name of Christ? Such overtures, of course, have to be done in the appropriate circumstances and with great tact and sensitivity. The Pope himself is an outstanding model in this regard. He has publicly apologized to Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople for Catholic offenses against the Orthodox. He is also reported to have personally told the chief rabbi of Rome that he would spend the rest of his life making reparation for the sins of Christians against Jews.

To do this does not mean that we are denying that other groups often shared the blame for these tragic occurrences. Nor does it mean that we can facilely judge what our forebears may have sometimes done in good faith based on their cultural conditioning. Least of all does it mean that we are identifying those who committed barbarities as true Christians. But it does mean that we have to get past a defensive and partisan spirit which too easily sees our party in the right and the other in the wrong, and is unwilling to make a move toward bridging the gap. As the Pope put it, “The consideration of mitigating factors does not exonerate the Church from the obligation to express profound regret for the weaknesses of so many of her sons and daughters who sullied her face, preventing her from fully mirroring the image of her crucified Lord.”

Moved by this contrite spirit, we can help bring the Church toward that conversion which is an essential condition for receiving the outpouring of graces which, as the Pope hints, God is ready to pour out at the Great Jubilee.

Mary Healy is Associate Editor of the Concourse. She graduated from the MA Theology program in 1988, and is currently studying toward a Licentiate degree at the ITI in Gaming