ROME, March 7 (JTA) Pope John Paul II will act this month on two prominent themes that have colored his papacy: seeking forgiveness for past Catholic errors, including the treatment of Jews, and his intense personal dream of making a pilgrimage to the Holy Land
But his actions on these issues are coming amid questions, controversy and strained relations between the Vatican and Israel.
On March 12, which the Vatican has declared a “day of request for forgiveness” for Catholics, the pope will lead Mass at the Vatican dedicated to pardon and repentance.
Little more than a week later, coinciding with the holiday of Purim, he flies to the Holy Land, where he will retrace the footsteps of Jesus in Israel, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority.
At the March 12 Mass, the pope is expected to deliver a sweeping church apology for past sins.
On Tuesday, however, senior church officials said the plea for forgiveness should not be seen as self-flagellation, but as an attempt to heal historic wounds.
Although the church’s request for forgiveness is public, said Cardinal Roger Etchegaray, it “cannot assume the form of a spectacular self-flagellation or even less so be seen as a stage for sick curiosity.”
Etchegaray spoke at a news conference to formally present a new document explaining the theological framework for what he called the “purification of memory.”
The document, “Memory and Reconciliation: The Church and the Mistakes of the Past,” lists several major areas where the church had failed, including the Inquisition, forced conversion and treatment of Jews.
But it reiterated the church’s position that individuals were responsible for such sins, not the church itself.
Etchegaray and other Vatican officials presenting the document, which was unofficially released last week in Paris, said the pope will not seek a pardon for specific persons nor will his prayers for forgiveness imply a judgment on the Christians of the past.
“Today’s church cannot be a tribunal on the past,” said Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the Vatican’s senior theologian.
Regarding relations with the Jews, the document says, “The hostility and wariness of numerous Christians toward Jews over the course of time is a painful historic fact and is the cause of profound remorse.”
But primarily it reiterates assertions made in earlier documents and statements, including a landmark 1998 Vatican document on the Holocaust that disappointed many Jews for having defended the wartime behavior of Pope Pius XII.
As in the 1998 statement, the new document says that while the Roman Catholic Church accepts responsibility for the sins of its followers, the sins themselves were committed by individuals, not the church.
It contains no specific apology for the attitude of the church or the inaction of church leaders like Pius XII during the Holocaust. Critics charge Pius with having aided in the killing of Jews by not speaking out against the Holocaust.
The document says that while some Christians had helped Jews during the Holocaust, others had not done enough.
“This constitutes an appeal to all Christians of today; it requires an act of repentance and becomes a spur to redouble efforts,” the document says, adding that such efforts should be made so that the “moral and religious memory of the wounds inflicted to the Jews are maintained.”
Debate over these latest pronouncements and continuing controversy over the role of Pius XII already have colored the run-up to the pope’s March 20-March 26 pilgrimage to the Holy Land.
In an interview late last month, Archbishop Pietro Sambi, the papal representative in the Holy Land, strongly defended Pius XII, repeating the Vatican’s stance that Pius saved Jews by remaining silent.
“I am convinced that a great strong condemnation would have increased the persecution of Hitler against the Jews,” Sambi said.
John Paul’s trip will be the first papal visit to the Holy Land since Pope Paul VI visited Jerusalem in 1964 before Israel took control of the entire city as a result of the 1967 Six-Day War.
It is meant to be a voyage of intense spirituality and symbolism that will enable the frail, 79-year-old pope to have direct contact with the actual sites where Christianity was born.
During his trip, the pope will meet with local leaders and visit sites sacred to Christians, Jews and Muslims. His crowded itinerary includes visits to the Western Wall and the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial.
Debate over Pius XII is just one element of controversy that has surfaced in the run-up to the trip.
Last month, leading rabbis in Israel requested that the pope postpone a Mass scheduled to be held in Nazareth on Saturday, March 25, saying it would force Israeli security officials to desecrate the Sabbath.
They also voiced concern about Christian evangelical activities targeting Jews.
Anti-pope graffiti has been found scrawled on the walls of Israel’s Chief Rabbinate and elsewhere.
Last week, members of the outlawed Jewish extremist group Kach demonstrated outside the offices of Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau, carrying signs reading, “The Pope, Cursed Be He.”
Volatile relations among Jews, Christians and Muslims and continuing tensions between Israel and the Palestinians over the peace process and particularly over the contested status of Jerusalem have also helped raise the heat prior to the papal visit.
In Nazareth, where Jesus grew up, Israel late last year granted permission to Muslims to build a mosque next to a major Christian basilica.
This angered the Vatican, which issued strongly worded protests against the move and accused Israel of fomenting religious divisions.
The latest incident was an agreement signed last month between the Vatican and Palestinian leaders. In a clear message to Israel, the agreement said unilateral decisions on Jerusalem were “morally and legally unacceptable.”
The accord, signed at the Vatican during a visit by Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat, drew sharp criticism from Israel.
The Palestinian Cabinet, meanwhile, hailed the agreement, issuing a statement calling it “a historic turning point in the benefit of peace” and “a guarantor of Palestinian national rights.”
Christian sites in Jerusalem that the pope will visit lie in eastern Jerusalem, which the Palestinians claim as the capital of a future Palestinian state. These include the Church of the Holy Sepulcher and the Mount of Olives.
The pope is also planning to visit the Dheisheh Palestinian refugee camp, which came under Palestinian rule in 1995. Palestinians expect him to support their return to the Israeli villages they left during the 1948 War for Independence.