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Two papal apologies two decades apart

Pope John Paul II, two decades ago, began to create future memories which have come to pass in Greece this week with Pope Francis.

Pope Francis talks with Orthodox Archbishop Ieronymos II of Athens and all Greece during a meeting with their delegations in the Throne Room of the archbishopric in Athens, Greece, Dec. 4, 2021. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

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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About Dr. Adam A. J. DeVille 110 Articles
Dr. Adam A. J. DeVille is associate professor at the University of Saint Francis in Ft. Wayne, IN., where he also maintains a part-time private practice in psychotherapy. He is the author and editor of several books, including Orthodoxy and the Roman Papacy (University of Notre Dame, 2011).


  1. Letter CWR memory 12-05-21

    There is much of the past that really is best forgotten. The fifteenth-century St. Francis of Paola often foretold future historical events, like the fall of Constantinople to Islam in 1453. He was a vegan many centuries before this taste claimed a bit part in “modern” health-conscious society. Here’s what Francis of Paola had to say in A.D. 1486 about resentful memories of evil:

    “Memory of an injury is itself wrong. It adds to our anger, nurtures our sin and hates what is good. It is a rusty arrow and poison for the soul. It puts all virtue to flight. It is like a worm in the mind: it confuses our speech and tears to shreds our petitions to God. It is foreign to charity: it remains planted in the soul like a nail. It is indeed a daily death.”

    (Letter by Saint Francis of Paolo, in Liturgy of the Hours, Vol. II; New York: Catholic Book Publishing Co., 1976, p. 1758.)

    • A reflexion Peter on healing of memories notwithstand Saint Francis of Paola. Sometimes in life severe injuries cannot be dismissed from memory. What I finally learned after years of suffering all the detriment of anger, desire for revenge, fantasies of retribution it wasn’t until I read in the Dialogues of Saint Catherine of Siena Our Divine Majesty’s counsel, that emotively it may be virtually impossible to pacify an injury, so He told Catherine what suffices is a willful desire for the good of that person. Later it became evident that the terrible memories may be employed precisely as Christ did, who suffered infinitely worse because of his infinite goodness, to offer oneself for the offenders, with the assistance of grace seek a good that transcends the logical and in the mystery of His love love the offenders by offering our suffering for them in imitation on the Divine Master of love. If engaged, a truest of healing and gratification.

      • Dementia may indeed be a mixed blessing.

        St. John of the Cross identifies purification of memory as a component of the spiritual dark night. It sounds as if the will to forgive painful memory qualifies as such cleansing.

        I prayed continually, in front of a crucifix, to love an absent and rejecting father. After many years and hours of that plea, a contemplated image of two faces meshed into one on the cross. But still I wonder at the injury, the pain, the memory. Christ carried his wounds back into his resurrection. They are never non-existent.

  2. The way things are going with this Catholic Church under Francis, he need not concern himself with reconciliation with the Orthodox Church. Catholics are now leaving the Catholic Church for Orthodoxy since, as we all now know, their Sacramental system is fully valid. So why stick around in a Catholic Church whose hierarchy is so corrupted, that punishes its priests for speaking out boldly against a culture of lies and death, and which has substituted committee meetings and “programs” for its real mission to convert the culture? When the Catholic Church becomes agents for the E.U. or the Democrat Party, where else to go?

    • Deacon Peitler,
      Emotionally speaking, I completely feel for what you said. Intellectually, though, I have to take issue.

      I have much affection and appreciation for Orthodoxy, but Christ’s sacrament in the world is the Catholic Church. Regardless of how much truth and goodness resides in Orthodoxy, Catholicism is where all Christians need to be.

      Christ has placed us here in 2021 to reform His Church – not to break from it.

    • Jesus says in the Gospels tha He will be with us until the consumation of the world. I agree we have made mistakes. However: the OrthodoxChburch has also made mistakes. I have yet to see an apolgoy by them to the Catholic Church/

  3. I predict that this meeting will accomplish what all previous meetings have accomplished, which is absolutely nothing. Instead of chasing after rainbows, how about we start addressing some real problems instead?

  4. De Ville’s article is very well assessed, documented and has changed my view of seeming excessive appeals for foregiveness by the West. If it initiates reconciliation it’s justified. Although, there are also reciprocal reasons for mutual forgiveness.
    “The Roman Catholics of Constantinople at that time [1182] dominated the city’s maritime trade and financial sector. Although precise numbers are unavailable, the bulk of the Latin community, estimated at 60,000 at the time by Eustathius of Thessalonica, was wiped out or forced to flee. The Genoese and Pisan communities especially were decimated, and some 4,000 survivors were sold as slaves to the [Turkish] Sultanate of Rum” (Wikip). 1204 was a repeat of the massacre of a large Italian merchant presence in Constantinople who mwere again massacred while the French, Venetian crusader force was disembarked on the beaches of the city. A previous treaty for Greek financial and military support with the emperor was abrogated, the emperor deposed and murdered. The Venetian commander ordered an assault on the city only after cries of slaughter could be heard from within Constantinople.
    A true reconciliation must be a just reconciliation with acknowledgment of all of our sins. Anything other is false coin bound to fail. Christ would demand the same from Greek and Latin.

    “Solidarity” is mentioned in this article, in a quote from Pope John Paul II.

    The line quoted is:

    “by virtue of human solidarity which is as mysterious and intangible as it is real and concrete,…”

    The term “solidarity” appears all over the documents of Catholic Social Teaching, including the documents and speeches of John Paul II.

    There is even a minor, hardly-even-mentioned political party in the USA called the American Solidarity Party.

    The hard truth is that human beings have a really hard time practicing solidarity in real life.

    Our natural instinct is to form and exist in tribes, factions, and teams, and to fight, struggle, or compete against rival tribes, factions, and teams.

    Just look at how much people love to watch and talk about sports games on TV. We humans love to fight and compete. And that’s all the opposite of solidarity.

    Who would want to watch NFL QBs Tom Brady and Patrick Mahomes work cooperatively together to teach math or English to a group of high school students?

    But pit Tom Brady and Patrick Mahomes against each other in the symbolic combat/warfare of NFL football, and millions will watch.

    “Homo homini lupus” is an ancient Roman saying meaning “Man is wolf to man.”

    Jesus called us to be sheep. But that is hard.

    Being a wolf (towards people outside our small circle of family and close friends) is natural, normal, easy.

    This “wolf nature” of man appears regardless of what religion or political philosophy is believed in.

    We can see this “wolf nature” in all of these:

    –Ancient Roman legions destroying Jerusalem and all the Jewish cities of Judea.
    –Attila the Hun
    –Western Crusaders attacking fellow Christians in the East.
    –Communists murdering Czar Nicholas and his whole family (including young children)
    –U.S. slave traders and slaveholders
    –U.S. Army soldiers when, on occasion, in retaliation for some past attack, they would massacre every man, woman, and child in a Native American settlement.
    –Soviet Union secretly installing nuclear missiles in Communist Cuba in 1962, nearly precipitating all-out nuclear war.
    –Rioters in today’s USA, vandalizing buildings and attacking police officers under the pretext of righteous political protest (carried out by left-wing Black Lives Matter people in many cities, and by right-wing people in the January 6, 2021 attack on the U.S. Capitol).

    We like to think that unjust aggression (by violence or by lying or cheating) is ONLY carried out by the “other side.” But that view itself is due to our lack of solidarity.

    The “wolf nature” plagues us all.

    Yet, Christ calls us to accentuate our “sheep nature” with the help of the grace of God.

    • “ Our natural instinct is to form and exist in tribes, factions, and teams, ”

      Actually, that is solidarity. What you want is civic nationalism that is subservient to statism.

  6. I don’t really see the benefit of apologizing for things a thousand years ago. Should the Normans apologize to the Saxons? Should Rome (Italy) apologize to Greece? And on and on.

  7. In truth, the sacramental system is the lifeblood of the Church. Since the Catholic Church acknowledges all Sacraments of the Orthodox Church, aren’t we already One?

    • ‘One’ means an ultimate culmination in the authority of the one true Bishop of Rome, in succession from Peter – an authority granted by Jesus Christ himself. Jesus Christ established One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church through which his Holy Spirit would guard from error and lead unto all truth in issues of faith and morals. That having been said, there have emerged sad divisions for which “both sides are to blame” and caused a grievous schism because of human frailty, weakness and error operating outside of the Love and Unity of the Holy Spirit. Personally, I feel that what we do need is an acknowledgment of the sad human frailties and weaknesses on both sides that have divided what was once One. Otherwise, what is there to seek forgiveness for? Sin divides. The Holy Spirit is One and unites – for to say otherwise would be a contradiction. Jesus established His Church for teaching (Prophet), governance (King) and sanctification (Priest) So ‘One’ necessarily entails a single authority established by Jesus Christ (under very limited conditions and circumstances of Papal infallibility, of course) to speak infallibly and guide unto all truth. Even in the midst of severe sufferings and persecutions many Eastern Churches continued to acknowledge the ‘Oneness’ under the Bishop of Rome and remain in union with him to this day. Others did not. That having been said, my thought is that any small differences in terms of worship and Sacraments would be ironed out in the blink of an eye once the ‘Oneness’ of the clergy is established by a reunion under the authority of the Bishop of Rome granted by Jesus Christ himself. Holy Spirit, we beseech you to heal our divisions and unite us in a perfect unity in your Love 💙🙏🏻♥️ Through the Immaculate Heart of Our Holy Mother, Mary.

      So – my understanding is that this is key.

  8. St. Pope John Paul II’s visit to Orthodox Greece was the first visit by a Catholic pontiff in A THOUSAND YEARS. Francis’ footsteps will leave no trace other than the echo of a heckler.

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