Remorse That Ends Sin
Pope John Paul II has used the advent of the third millennium to seek a divine pardon for the collective sins of Roman Catholics over 20 centuries.
The Vatican's historic apology for past errors and its effort to "purify memory" will no doubt be picked and probed for its sincerity and tactics.
But this pope has spent years preparing an official plea for forgiveness on behalf of the church's faithful - even if few of them can really feel remorse for, say, the brutality of the Crusades or the persecution under the Inquisition.
And the pope's visit to Israel next week will allow him to be more specific on a difficult issue for Jewish-Catholic relations: the Vatican's public indifference during World War II to the Nazi attempt at exterminating Jews in Europe.
In recent years, the world has seen many public acts of contrition, from movie stars to whole nations to presidents.
Some of them are sincere and come out of a genuine change of heart and a commitment to right behavior.
Some merely deflate a public relations problem, and diminish the act itself.
But perhaps at the end of the 20th century, when totalitarian regimes such as the Soviet Union have fallen and new ideas flood the world with the click of a computer mouse, people everywhere are seeking new forms of spirituality - both in their own lives and collectively - by dealing with old sins.
Churches would be expected to lead the way in offering the kind of apologies and remorse that admit past mistakes as a way to ensure they won't be repeated.
The Southern Baptists, for instance, apologized for their past support of slavery and segregation. Government leaders, too, try to encourage the prevention of new errors by admitting past ones. British Prime Minister Tony Blair apologized for the Irish potato famine; President Clinton for the US government's use of blacks in the Tuskegee syphilis study.
Such apologies often serve more to repair relations than to evoke genuine remorse among the descendants of those who committed the acts. It's difficult to feel, at the collective level, responsible for sins committed by people long gone.
True remorse, however, is possible if people understand the nature of past sins and how they occurred because of a lack of love and respect between people.
To restore that love and respect often requires actions more than words. Each individual or group must decide if an act of repentance must also come with an act of making others whole again. Forgiveness is possible when a sin and its effects are truly eliminated.
Confessions are just a first step down a path toward a moral understanding that brings a sense of wholeness without sin.
Renewal often requires institutions and people to see the errors of their ways.
And how that is done can make all the difference.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society