At the end of February, I wrote a column for this newsletter, lamenting the fact that so many people have difficulty saying they were sorry. My comments were triggered by Pope Emeritus Benedict’s failure to acknowledge any personal wrongdoing regarding four specific cases of clergy sexual abuse that occurred while he was Archbishop of Munich. I suspect that his advisors told him that for legal reasons, or more likely because he was the retired pope, he should not acknowledge any wrongdoing and ask for forgiveness. I lamented his failure to apologize because I thought an apology would have sent a powerful message to Catholics, and to people everywhere, that sin and failure are a part of each of our lives, and that we all need to seek forgiveness and healing when we have hurt others by our words and actions (or inactions.)
Given the above, you can imagine my surprise when a couple of weeks ago Pope Francis issued a historic apology. Speaking to a delegation of Indigenous people from Canada, he said he was asking for God's forgiveness for the Catholic Church's role in running a system of Canadian boarding schools where Native children were, in many cases, taken from their homes and abused. Specifically, the Pope said: “All these things are contrary to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.” For the deplorable conduct of these members of the Catholic Church, I ask for God’s forgiveness, and I want to say to you with all my heart: I am very sorry. And I join my brothers, the Canadian bishops, in asking your pardon.” WOW!!! For a Pope to issue such an apology is nothing short of stunning. More importantly, going forward it hopefully will serve as a model for all the priests and bishops of our Church.
Far too often when the leaders of our church have responded to the issue of abuse they have done so with denials, reluctance, half-heartedly, or with qualifying statements of regret or sadness. Seldom, though, have there by clear cut, unqualified apologies. The sad fact is that until Pope Francis I cannot remember anyone in leadership in our church uttering the simple words. I am sorry. I ask pardon.
In issuing an apology Pope Francis has clearly indicated that the Church and its leaders can no longer pretend that they didn’t/do not make mistakes, and that there is never a need for them to apologize. The fact is, we all make mistakes; the leaders of our church are no exception to this. And because we all make mistakes, we all need to learn to say and mean the words: I am sorry. I ask pardon.
I am very mindful that Jesus, who was like us, in all things but sin, has modeled for us that reconciliation and peace are to be the hallmarks of our lives as Christians. In order to be reconciled and at peace with others, however, we sometimes (and even often) need to say I am sorry; I was wrong. These words might not spring immediately from our lips; and we may not say them well or often, but that does not change the fact that seeking and offering forgiveness are part and parcel of our lives as followers of Jesus. Inspired by the recent example of Pope Francis, and empowered by God’s grace, may we never tire of or be afraid to say: I am sorry. I was wrong.