I was told when I was learning to drive that if I ever got into an accident I should never say sorry, never admit responsibility, never apologise. Just let the insurance companies work it all out. Fine by me!
And do you remember that icon of the seventies, “Love Story”? “Love means never having to say you are sorry.” Great!
Well, a few hours ago the Pope did an unprecedented thing. And by these standards a stupid and loveless thing. He apologised for all the past sins of members of the Catholic Church. Implored God’s pardon for all that Catholic Christians have done through the ages in the name of God to hurt and wound and kill.
A good way, in this Jubilee year, to start Lent you’d think. But not an uncontroversial one. And for we, more humble, Christians that are daily implicated in our own web of complicity and denial the controversy is an instructive one.
First of all the Pope has been criticised by many of his own cardinals: don’t be embarrassing, one argument goes, don’t give ammunition to those who would persecute and abuse Catholics today. Admission of guilt is admission of weakness. And why rake over the past anyway … let it be dead and buried. Another voice from the same direction sounds shocked. How can the One, Holy, True, Apostolic, Catholic, Church be sinful! The Church must be pure, spotless, and holy—above worldly judgement and condemnation. And the wording of the Pope’s plea is indeed careful. Carefully unspecific for one thing. Asking pardon for all those sins yet not quite saying what they might be. Carefully specific, though, in another sense. It’s not the Church asking pardon for itself, God forbid, but for it’s members. The Catholic Church isn’t sinful only Catholics are.
Those are the insider reservations shall we say. The voices of outsiders have been critical for other reasons, berating the Pope for not getting down to cases: Do you apologise for the Crusades? Do you apologise for what your predecessors did or didn’t do when Hitler was annihilating Jews by the trainload? And what good is the Church’s repentance anyway—does it put things right, does it undo damage, does it make any difference at all? And what about present sins—not just the sins of dead people but the sins of the living—Do you ask pardon for them too? Would you risk naming them? Are you ready to change?
“Repent and believe in the gospel,” says Jesus today in a voice still hoarse with desert dust. Repent! He makes it sound easy! But if the Pope struggles with repentance then I guess we shouldn’t be surprised to find it hard either.
By the world’s logic repentance runs the range from risky to stupid. What does it change? The past is past. The dead are dead. So why make yourself vulnerable now? Get over it and get on with life … Live for the future.
But the past isn’t past and the dead aren’t dead and the future shouldn’t be more of the same. The Holy are not the ones who have never sinned but the ones who have sinned a lot but been forgiven more. Heck! Even God needs to remember the mistakes he’s made. Was creation a bad idea? Send a flood. Did the flood fix things up once and for all? Of course not! Put that rainbow in the sky to keep in mind the pact she made with all living things never to destroy them again. Life and death, past and future are what Lent is all about. The flood and the desert. Wild beasts and angels.
What is Lent about? It is about dying. Dying. Our newly signed-up Elect are heading for the waters of baptism at Easter. But the water isn’t to wash them clean, to remove the dirt of sin: the water is to drown them! It’s the only way to follow Jesus—to be put to death in the flesh and brought to life in the spirit. Isn’t there a better way? Nobody in their right mind wants that. Life is too precious. Even Jesus resists it. Has to be driven into the desert by the spirit. No wonder we resist Lent. No wonder the Church resists asking pardon. No wonder the world resists giving it.
John-Paul began the liturgy of repentance today by kneeling before the statue of Mary holding the dead body of Jesus. All the metaphors line up. We always ask pardon of the past. The sins we confess are always doubly dead. Dead because they are out of our reach—we can’t take back the angry word, undo the damage, un-stab the bleeding back. Dead too because we carry them like dead weight across aching shoulders till we can’t stand upright but must stoop and crawl.
Triply tangled with death because stopping to say sorry means turning around to face what is dead inside, and pay the price of life, all of which seems like dying.
So why bother? Why apologise to 2000 years of dead people? Why ask pardon for our own mistakes? Why own up to our complicity in global injustice? Why do Lent at all? Why not just hop on over to Easter morning?
I wish I had a better answer than this. You can stay put and keep your cool but go alone into the desert and you come back companioned by animals and angels. You can keep your feet dry but drown in baptism and you erupt from the waters new born. You can avoid the risk of repentance but just try love and you’ll have to say you’re sorry.
3 comments March 12th, 2000