ROME -- Saying "we humbly ask forgiveness," Pope John Paul II delivered yesterday the most sweeping papal apology ever, repenting of the errors of his church over the past 2,000 years.
"We cannot not recognize the betrayal of the Gospel committed by some of our brothers, especially in the second millennium," the pope, dressed in purple robes for Lent, said in his homily. "Recognizing the deviations of the past serves to reawaken our consciences to the compromises of the present."
The public act of repentance, solemnly woven into the liturgy of Sunday Mass inside St. Peter's Basilica, was an unprecedented moment in the history of the Roman Catholic Church, one that the ailing 79-year-old pope pushed forward over the doubts of even many cardinals and bishops. He has said repeatedly that the new evangelization he is calling for in the third millennium can take place only after what he has described as a church-wide "purification of memory."
To underline the religious significance of the apology, seven cardinals and bishops stood before the pope and singled out some of the key Catholic lapses, past and present, including religious intolerance and injustice toward Jews, women, indigenous peoples, immigrants, the poor and the unborn.
The pope also mentioned the persecution of Catholics by other faiths. "As we ask forgiveness for our sins, we also forgive the sins committed by others against us."
At the beginning of his pontificate, John Paul's boldest gestures were political, confronting communism in the Soviet Union, Eastern Europe and Latin America, and challenging human rights violations and the economic injustices of capitalism. But the apology, issued in the twilight of his papacy, is theologically more daring.
The pope, broadening a process of reconciliation that began in the 1960s during the Second Vatican Council, has issued apologies before, notably in a 1998 document regretting the failure of many Catholics to help Jews during the Holocaust. That document, "We Remember: A Reflection on the Shoah," disappointed many leading Jewish groups, which complained that the pope did not go far enough in apologizing for the silence of church leaders, including the wartime pope, Pius XII.
Yesterday, in the prayer dedicated to "confession of sins against the people of Israel," John Paul did not mention the church's behavior during the Holocaust, just as he did not specify other sins of the church. He said, "We are deeply saddened by the behavior of those who in the course of history have caused these children of yours to suffer, and asking your forgiveness, we commit ourselves to genuine brotherhood with the people of the Covenant."
Rabbi Marvin Hier, dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, called yesterday's apology a "bold and important step forward," but added that he was disappointed that the pope had not mentioned the Holocaust explicitly.
"The church still wants to steer clear of dealing with the role of the Vatican during World War II," he said.
Israel's chief rabbi said yesterday he was "deeply frustrated" by Pope John Paul II's failure to mention the Holocaust in his appeal for forgiveness for the sins of Roman Catholics.
Rabbi Israel Meir Lau joined other Israelis in expressing hope that the pope omitted the Holocaust from yesterday's service only because he is planning a specific apology during his pilgrimage to the Holy Land next week.
The pope also acknowledged that church followers had "violated the rights of ethnic groups and peoples and shown contempt for their cultures and religious traditions."
He deplored divisions between Catholicism and other branches of Christianity, and also discrimination against women.
"Given the number of sins committed in the course of 20 centuries," Bishop Piero Marini, who is in charge of papal ceremonies, said before the Mass, "it must necessarily be rather summary."
The pope stated, "Christians have at times given in to intolerance and have not been faithful to the great commandment of love, sullying in their way the face of the church."
But he did not note specifically episodes in the church's history, such as the Crusades or the Inquisition, which in parts of Europe lasted for centuries.
The pope's act of repentance was so momentous that many Catholics predict it will take time for the full importance of the act to sink in.
"This is an entirely new thing," said the Vatican spokesman, Joaquin Navarro-Valls. "I think it will take years for the church to absorb it."