The mea culpa of Pope Francis in Romania is only the latest in a long series that has involved the most recent Popes.
The words pronounced by Pope Francis during the last engagement on his journey to Romania — asking for forgiveness from the Roma community for the discrimination suffered in the course of history — fit into a tradition now fully established in the Catholic Church over the course of the past fifty years. “History tells us that Christians too, including Catholics, are not strangers to such evil,” the Pope said, explaining his request for forgiveness.
Already in September of 1965, Pope Paul VI showed his concern for this community when he celebrated Mass at the International Romany Camp in Pomezia. On that occasion, he told them, “You are within the Church; not on the margins, but in a certain sense you are at the center, you are in its heart. You are in the heart of the Church because you are alone.” At that time, he recalled the abuses, discrimination, and persecution suffered by the Romany people, though he himself did not request forgiveness; still, he was the Pope who inaugurated an era of seeking forgiveness from other Christian confessions for some of the dark pages of the past.
It fell to Pope John Paul II to address a specific request for forgiveness, which he did during the penitential celebration for the Jubilee of the year 2000: “Let us pray that contemplating Jesus, our Lord and our Peace, Christians will be able to repent of the words and attitudes caused by pride, by hatred, by the desire to dominate others, by enmity towards members of other religions and towards the weakest groups in society, such as immigrants and itinerants”.
Benedict XVI also manifested his care and understanding for these communities when he welcomed representatives of diverse ethnic groups of Roma and other itinerant peoples: “Unfortunately through the centuries you have tasted the bitterness of inhospitality and at times, persecution… The European conscience cannot forget so much suffering! May your people never again be the object of harassment, rejection and contempt!”
Now his successor, Pope Francis, continuing along the path already traced out by previous Popes, has explicitly renewed the request for forgiveness; as he had previously asked for forgiveness from the native peoples in Chiapas in 2016; or as he did in August of 2018, in response to the scandal of the abuse of minors, writing in the Letter to the People of God, “With shame and repentance, we acknowledge as an ecclesial community that we were not where we should have been, that we did not act in a timely manner, realizing the magnitude and the gravity of the damage done to so many lives.”
The path of those who ask for forgiveness is not always easy or painless. Pope John Paul II, systematically following in the footsteps of the Council and of Paul VI, drew various criticisms from within the Church. In the course of his pontificate, the Polish Pope had made dozens of requests for pardon, and had revisited various events of the past. He spoke about the Crusades; a certain complacency on the part of Catholics in the face of 20th century dictatorships; divisions between the churches; the mistreatment of women; the trial of Galileo and the Inquisition; the persecution of Jews; the wars of religion; the behavior of Christians towards native Americans and native Africans.
For Christians, asking for forgiveness, and recognizing ourselves as sinners continually in need of purification, is normal — or should be. And even if faults are always personal, and remain so, in every era the Church seeks to understand and live out the Gospel message ever more faithfully, gradually becoming more aware of false steps and of mistakes that have been made. There is some sense to the most common objection raised against asking for forgiveness for events of the past: one cannot judge those who have gone before us in light of modern sensitivities. But even in past ages it was possible to understand — as some, often unheard, prophets have understood — that Jesus has always been on the side of the victims, and never on the side of perpetrators; of the persecuted, and never the persecutors. And when the Apostle Peter cut off the ear of the high priest’s servant in order to defend Him, Jesus ordered him to put the sword back in its sheath.