(RNS) Even if Jesus' followers over the centuries have heededhis advice only imperfectly, one of his central teachings on humanrelations can be boiled down to one word: forgiveness.

How many times must we forgive, Jesus was asked? Seventy timesseven, he answered, a figure meant to be virtually limitless in the daysbefore silicon chips.

Today, there is a renewed effort to put Jesus' age-old imperativeinto practice, spurred by a variety of factors but including timing:Christians this year are marking the 2,000th year of their faith'sfoundation. And the Lenten season of introspection and repentance inthis millennial year started March 8, Ash Wednesday.

Highlighting the quest for forgiveness is Pope John Paul II.

On March 12, the first Sunday of Lent, the pope, in a major meaculpa church officials say is unprecedented, will ask forgiveness forRoman Catholics for everything from the Inquisition to anti-Semitism.Meanwhile, U.S. Methodists, the nation's second-largest Protestantdenomination, will confess their "sin of racism" at their GeneralConference meeting in Cleveland in May in hopes of a reconciliation withthe three major black Methodist churches historically excluded from thewhite denomination.

Such religious initiatives aim beyond the spiritual realm, too.

In South Africa, retired Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu has ledefforts to reconcile whites and blacks in the wake of apartheid, and inRwanda and in the Balkans church groups are trying -- generally againstenormous odds -- to promote reconciliation within those war-scarredcommunities.

In America, television has put a peculiarly postmodern spin onforgiveness with the program "Forgive or Forget," in which people askforgiveness of others they have wronged.

There is also a burgeoning academic discipline of "forgivenessstudies" tracking the physical and psychological benefits of sayingyou're sorry.

"We have documented scientific evidence that forgiveness is good forthose who willingly choose it," said Robert Enright, a professor ofeducational psychology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison andfounder of the International Forgiveness Institute.

Enright said asking and granting forgiveness measurably helps boththe perpetrator and the victim by reducing anxiety, eliminating clinicaldepression, raising self-esteem and offering a sense of hope in thefuture.

"Now we use the methods of science, but not surprisingly the methodsof science show us what we should have known for thousands of years," hesaid.

Naturally, Christian leaders are focusing on the "wisdom of theages," as Enright calls it -- what they see as the transcendentimportance of reconciliation for one's spiritual rather than materialwell-being, or "getting right with God," as it is popularly known.

"I think there is certainly a personal benefit one gets, but that isonly part of the picture," said the Rev. Kevin Irwin, a theologian atthe Catholic University of America. "Forgiveness has to do with ourrelationship to God, and to Christ, and to each other. It is imaging tothe world what Christ came to tell us."

The most elaborate effort has been organized by John Paul, who in1994 declared that the church "cannot cross the threshold of the newmillennium without encouraging her children to purify themselves throughrepentance of past errors and instances of infidelity, inconsistency andslowness to act."

The pontiff began putting actions behind his intentions, and hasalready pronounced a formal mea culpa for the church's condemnation ofthe astronomer Galileo, the deaths of heretics like Savanarola andreformers like Jan Hus, the sins of racism and the oppression of women.

The March 12 statement, which John Paul hopes will spur a wave ofconfession and penitence by individual Catholics, is expected to be evenmore sweeping in its apologies.

But it is not just the Catholic Church that has taken the notion ofsoul-searching to heart.

Last July, on the 900th anniversary of the slaughter of thousands ofJews, Muslims and Orthodox Christians in the Holy Land by the Crusaders,a large group of American and European Christians wound up a"Reconciliation Walk" with a service of repentance in Jerusalem. Overthe course of three years some 2,500 mostly Protestant Christiansretraced the path of the Crusades, making stops at the sites ofmassacres along the way to formally apologize in Jesus' name.

To the larger world, public forgiveness and repentance are mostfrequently associated with politicians. The apologies of such figuresoften seem carefully crafted to skirt some of the key factors of trueforgiveness, such as a visible effort to change one's behavior, orsincerity, since the apology is so obviously in one's self-interest.

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