I have never forgotten listening to EWTN radio in 2001 when the late Pope John Paul II went to Greece. For days in advance there were protests in the streets and papal imagery was burned in effigy as fellow Christians denounced this “Great Crusader” from the West.
Within minutes of disembarking from his plane the pope completely took the wind out of the sails of these protests. He begged forgiveness for such Catholic actions of the past as the Fourth Crusade. Listening to this over the radio while thousands of miles away in Canada, I could feel the hostility in Greece collapse as those words were uttered.
Fast forward two decades. Pope Francis has just visited Greece, receiving a very warm and gracious reception. In 2001, matters were so fraught that it was an open question as to whether the pope would even be able to pray the Lord’s Prayer in private with the primate of the Greek Orthodox Church. In 2021, the primate praised the pope in fulsome terms and Greek Orthodox commentators also extolled Catholic efforts of the last two decades towards rapprochement.
Between these two decades and visits, then, we can see some fruits of the “healing of memories” that the late pope pursued so zealously, as I noted previously on CWR. Today we are more familiar with and accepting of such efforts at healing and reconciliation.
But certain questions still linger.
In one sense, the pope is not apologizing on his own behalf, but on behalf of the entire Catholic Church. Some have objected to this, especially in the late 1990s, when doing so was virtually unprecedented. How can a man—even a pope—in 2001 apologize for something done in, say, 1204? Worse, how can he apologize for that event in my name, too, as a Catholic, when neither of us was alive?
To carefully consider and respond to those objections, the late pope provided us with two under-appreciated but brilliant documents we still have much to learn from. The first of these is a 1984 exhortation Reconcilatio et Paenitentia, containing this crucial paragraph:
… by virtue of human solidarity which is as mysterious and intangible as it is real and concrete, each individual’s sin in some way affects others… . Consequently one can speak of a communion of sin, whereby a soul that lowers itself through sin drags down with itself the church and, in some way, the whole world. In other words, there is no sin, not even the most intimate and secret one, the most strictly individual one, that exclusively concerns the person committing it. With greater or lesser violence, with greater or lesser harm, every sin has repercussions on the entire ecclesial body and the whole human family, (no.16; my emphasis)
In this sense, then, sins of Catholics in 1204 in another part of the world do affect me, just as Uncle Bob’s secret sin in his basement in Boston in 2021 also effects Catholics in Australia or France (cf. the ongoing sexual abuse crisis if you doubt this).
In another sense, however, the Church reminds us that “subjective responsibility ceases with the death of the one who has performed the act; it is not transmitted through generations; the descendants do not inherit (subjective) responsibility for the acts of their ancestors.” This is a passage from a document published by the International Theological Commission in December 1999, Memory and Reconciliation: the Church and the Faults of the Past, one of the most important and unique documents the ITC has published in its half-century of doing so.
Unlike other treatments of historical memory and reconciliation, the ITC text rightly reminds us that “every act of ‘purification of memory’ undertaken by believers … is [for] the glorification of God.”
For the ITC, healing and purification of past memories is a twofold process. First, it “means eliminating from personal and collective conscience all forms of resentment or violence left by the inheritance of the past.” The fact there were almost no protests at the 2021 papal visit suggests that the Spirit’s work of healing resentment and violence has been quietly proceeding.
Second, the “memory of division and opposition is purified and substituted by a reconciled memory to which everyone…is invited to be open and to become educated” (s.5.1). It is on this point that the Church’s approach challenges our common assumption that memory only works passively. Memory is not simply a record of something that happened to us in the past: we can also actively create “future” memories.
The Lord at the Last Supper did exactly this. It is captured in the term anamnesis (see Lk 22:19, 1 Cor 11:24-25): here we recall the events of the past precisely in order to enter into them both now and as a gateway towards a promised future of total and final reconciliation from which all pain, sorrow, and mourning have fled (cf. Rev. 21). This is reflected in passages in the Roman canon as well as the Basil and Chrysostom anaphoras used in the Byzantine rite.
Those ancient liturgical texts anticipated something that modern traumatology only came to at the turn of this century: memories of pain and hurt need explicit narration in the present in order to be integrated into our life as we move into a future where the possibility of flourishing anew awaits us. This threefold pattern has become commonly recognized in the clinical literature from at least the pioneering work of Judith Hermann onward.
Thus—as I never tire of reminding Catholics—do we see that the best practices of modern psychotherapy have almost always been anticipated by past practices of the Church. Thus do we now see that John Paul II, two decades ago, began to create future memories which have come to pass in Greece this week with Pope Francis. Let us thank God for these gifts and press on to full reconciliation around the Lord’s table.
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