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In Phoenix, a compelling model of reconciliation

In the run-up to the millennium, Pope John Paul II has led a public examination of conscience for the worldwide church that has resulted in remarkable apologies for historic wrongdoings by the church.

Though there has been some grumbling in the ranks, the church can only enhance its credibility throughout the world to admit to wrongs such as those committed against Jews in long centuries of suspicion and contempt and by a failure in some church quarters to speak up in behalf of the Jews during the Holocaust.

If we are truly a church of compassion and forgiveness, then it is only appropriate that we seek forgiveness, at least in retrospect, of those who were victims of church zealotry in such episodes as the Crusades.

Just as important, however, is what the pope’s example can inspire locally. The pope has designated the year 1999 as one of forgiveness and reconciliation. Undoubtedly dioceses throughout the world will observe that intent in any number of ways, but one, the Phoenix archdiocese, has already provided a compelling model.

Bishop Thomas J. O’Brien, citing the pope’s wish, in mid-December gathered with thousands to acknowledge in English and Spanish the sins and failures of the church of Phoenix and to ask for healing and forgiveness between families, cultures, clergy, laity and individuals.

Those gathered responded “We ask forgiveness” to a list of failures that might apply anywhere in the United States:

  • To our Native American, Hispanic, African-American brothers and sisters, for acts of discrimination and racism;
  • For the undue exercise of authority by myself and members of the clergy;
  • To those victims of sexual abuse by clergy -- to their families and to all Catholic people affected by these scandals;
  • For our insensitivity to the poor, vulnerable and the homeless;
  • To women in the church who for so long have been left out of leadership roles;
  • To our brothers and sisters in other Christian denominations, for our lack of understanding and appreciation;
  • To our Jewish brothers and sisters, joined in faith by Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, for any acts of anti-Semitism;
  • To those who have not been allowed to receive the sacraments of the church, including the divorced and remarried, and to those who have not been shown adequate hospitality;
  • To those who have been hurt by the closing of schools and consolidation of parishes;
  • To our Catholic senior adults who for so long have supported the church, for those times when we have been insensitive to your needs;
  • For our failure to address social and economic injustices and to more forthrightly raise the social conscience of our community;
  • For our failure to respect human dignity and the right to life in all of its stages;
  • For any other failures, not mentioned, that degrade the human person and quell the human spirit.

The event in Phoenix was held on the eve of the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, which marks the day in 1531 when the Virgin Mary appeared in Mexico to the Indian peasant Juan Diego.

“There is no question that as members of the body of Christ, we have sinned,” O’Brien told the crowd. “We have made mistakes.”

The sentiment is refreshing; the call to public confession a true step in courage.

National Catholic Reporter, January 22, 1999