Have you noticed the number of apologies and near-apologies that have made headlines recently? Such behaviour seems to challenge John Wayne’s memorable line in the 1949 western She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, which has always been the prevailing ethic for toughening out public controversies:
“Never apologize – it’s a sign of weakness.”
However, admitting one’s mistake, asking for forgiveness and vowing to correct one’s sins has become the rule in today’s world community because now more than ever before, a premium is placed on cooperation and harmony, on responsibility and trust.
At the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa, Bishop Desmond Tutu, the Commission’s Chairperson, tried to bring about a reconciliation between Winnie Madikizela-Mandela and those accusing her of complicity in crimes of kidnapping, torture, and murder. He noted that pressures that may have pushed her over the edge. “She was a tremendous stalwart of our struggle, an icon of liberation who was banned, harassed, under surveillance, banished, her husband away serving a life sentence, she had to bring up two young girls.” But Tutu said South Africa was struggling to “establish a new, a different dispensation, characterized by a new morality.” Swallowing back tears, he urged her to “stand up and say there were things that went wrong and I don’t know why they went wrong... and to say, “’I’m sorry.’ You are a great person and you don’t know how your greatness would be enhanced if you would say, ‘Sorry.’” Then Tutu’s voice dropped to a whisper as he said repeatedly, “I beg you.”
In reply, Madikizela-Mandela expressed her regrets to two families but laid the blame on the apartheid government. “For that part of those painful years when things went horribly wrong and we were aware that there factors that led to that,” she said, “for that I am deeply sorry.” Hardly a ringing apology, but perhaps a significant first step towards one.
A much larger step was recently taken by the Pope John Paul II in Memory and Reconciliation: the Church and the Faults of the Past. Convinced that the celebration of the Great Jubilee should be grounded in an examination of conscience and a commitment to conversion, interior renewal and growth in grace and holiness, he said: “As the successor of Peter, I ask that in this year of mercy the Church...should kneel before God and implore forgiveness for the past and present sins of her sons and daughters.... Let them do so without seeking anything in return, but strengthened by the love of God which has been poured into our hearts.”
Not only did he renew expressions of regret for the sorrowful memories that mark the history of division among Christians but he also extended a request for forgiveness to a multitude of historical events in which the Church, or individual groups of Christians were implicated in different respects. Although the responsibility of Christians for the evils of out time is likewise noted, the accent was principally placed on the solidarity of the Church of today with past faults. Some of these are explicitly mentioned, like the separation of Christians or the methods of violence and intolerance used in the past to evangelize.
The relationship between Christians and Jews is one of the areas requiring a special examination of conscience. The history of the relations between Jews and Christians is a tormented one. In effect, the balance of these relations over two thousand years has been quite negative. The hostility or diffidence of numerous Christians toward Jews in the course of time is a sad historical fact and is the cause of profound remorse for Christians aware of the fact that Jesus was a descendent of David; that the Virgin Mary and the Apostles belonged to the Jewish people.
The Shoah was certainly the result of the pagan Nazi ideology, animated by a merciless anti-Semitism that not only despised the faith of the Jewish people, but also denied their very human dignity. Nevertheless, it may be asked whether the Nazi persecution of the Jews was not made easier by the anti-Jewish prejudices embedded in some Christian minds and hearts? Did Christians give every possible assistance to those being persecuted, and in particular, to the persecuted Jews?
There is no doubt that there were many Christians who risked their lives to save and to help their Jewish neighbours. It seems, however also true that alongside such courageous men and women, the spiritual resistance and concrete action of other Christians was not that which might have been expected from Christ’s followers. This fact constitutes a call to the consciences of all Christians today to keep a moral and religious memory of the injury inflicted on the Jews.
Reflecting on the Pope’s words and their application to the Canadian historical reality, I believe that there are areas in which the imperative for apology and reconciliation must be responded to. Among the most important areas, in my judgment, in the midst of feelings of anger, shame, hurt and disillusionment, is the need to reach out to those who have been in any way hurt by ministers of the church, especially by its ordained leaders. I cannot help but think of those who have been sexually abused.
Deeply we grieve with those who have been victimized. We humbly ask for forgiveness. We regret and apologize for the harm that has been done to children and young people and which remains with them in adulthood. For those who wish to accept it, we offer our pastoral care and concern; and for the sake of their peace of mind and that of all Catholics, we pledge our continuing and constant vigilance in preventing such abuse in the future.
The teaching of Christ is that the sincere seeking of forgiveness and the act of forgiving can transform broken relationships into communities of love and trust, tear down walls of alienation and build bridges of acceptance and tolerance, move beyond crippling dysfunction to growth and hope. Our God is never satisfied with division and estrangement; God who searches for the lost and who welcomes back the prodigal, calls us beyond the self-righteousness of the older son and, instead, calls us to be dedicated to the hard, hard work of forgiveness and reconciliation.
☩ Frederick Henry