(RNS) Even if Jesus' followers over the centuries have heeded his advice only imperfectly, one of his central teachings on human relations can be boiled down to one word: forgiveness.
How many times must we forgive, Jesus was asked? Seventy times seven, he answered, a figure meant to be virtually limitless in the days before silicon chips.
Today, there is a renewed effort to put Jesus' age-old imperative into practice, spurred by a variety of factors but including timing: Christians this year are marking the 2,000th year of their faith's foundation. And the Lenten season of introspection and repentance in this 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 mea culpa church officials say is unprecedented, will ask forgiveness for Roman Catholics for everything from the Inquisition to anti-Semitism. Meanwhile, U.S. Methodists, the nation's second-largest Protestant denomination, will confess their "sin of racism" at their General Conference meeting in Cleveland in May in hopes of a reconciliation with the three major black Methodist churches historically excluded from the white denomination.
Such religious initiatives aim beyond the spiritual realm, too.
In South Africa, retired Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu has led efforts to reconcile whites and blacks in the wake of apartheid, and in Rwanda and in the Balkans church groups are trying -- generally against enormous odds -- to promote reconciliation within those war-scarred communities.
In America, television has put a peculiarly postmodern spin on forgiveness with the program "Forgive or Forget," in which people ask forgiveness of others they have wronged.
There is also a burgeoning academic discipline of "forgiveness studies" tracking the physical and psychological benefits of saying you're sorry.
"We have documented scientific evidence that forgiveness is good for those who willingly choose it," said Robert Enright, a professor of educational psychology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and founder of the International Forgiveness Institute.
Enright said asking and granting forgiveness measurably helps both the perpetrator and the victim by reducing anxiety, eliminating clinical depression, raising self-esteem and offering a sense of hope in the future.
"Now we use the methods of science, but not surprisingly the methods of science show us what we should have known for thousands of years," he said.
Naturally, Christian leaders are focusing on the "wisdom of the ages," as Enright calls it -- what they see as the transcendent importance of reconciliation for one's spiritual rather than material well-being, or "getting right with God," as it is popularly known.
"I think there is certainly a personal benefit one gets, but that is only part of the picture," said the Rev. Kevin Irwin, a theologian at the Catholic University of America. "Forgiveness has to do with our relationship to God, and to Christ, and to each other. It is imaging to the world what Christ came to tell us."
The pontiff began putting actions behind his intentions, and has already pronounced a formal mea culpa for the church's condemnation of the astronomer Galileo, the deaths of heretics like Savanarola and reformers like Jan Hus, the sins of racism and the oppression of women.
The March 12 statement, which John Paul hopes will spur a wave of confession and penitence by individual Catholics, is expected to be even more sweeping in its apologies.
But it is not just the Catholic Church that has taken the notion of soul-searching to heart.
Last July, on the 900th anniversary of the slaughter of thousands of Jews, 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. Over the course of three years some 2,500 mostly Protestant Christians retraced the path of the Crusades, making stops at the sites of massacres along the way to formally apologize in Jesus' name.
To the larger world, public forgiveness and repentance are most frequently associated with politicians. The apologies of such figures often seem carefully crafted to skirt some of the key factors of true forgiveness, such as a visible effort to change one's behavior, or sincerity, since the apology is so obviously in one's self-interest.
Occasionally, however, even these political expressions have a genuine impact, whatever the motive. The most obvious example was President Clinton's public apology at the National Prayer Breakfast in September 1998 following the revelations of his indiscretions with Monica Lewinsky.
"I don't think there is a fancy way to say that I have sinned," Clinton told the 125 religious leaders gathered in the East Room of the White House. "It is important to me that everybody who has been hurt know that the sorrow I feel is genuine. ... I have asked all for their forgiveness."
While many took Clinton's apology at face value, others saw it as a cynical ploy with no spiritual efficacy. Either way, people were talking forgiveness and what it meant like never before, which pleased people like Irwin.
"I see a lot more blame these days than forgiveness," Irwin said. "When something goes wrong you blame your doctor, society, your dog. Real forgiveness takes a good deal of maturity."
Pastors and experts say several general rules for aiding the process of forgiveness can be gleaned from the main religious traditions and modern psychiatric research. But they also caution it is important to recognize the differences in the various approaches.
Generally speaking, it can be said that Christian forgiveness, for example, must be sincere and accompanied by genuine efforts at compensation to the victim. But the truly repentant sinner is forgiven by God, unconditionally.
In Judaism the emphasis is on the relationship between the sinner and the one who was sinned against. It is the victim, in Jewish tradition, who grants forgiveness to the perpetrator.
Understanding this difference has been critical to reconciliation between these two communities in the wake of the horrors of the past centuries, especially the Holocaust, in which Christian prejudice toward Jews played a signal role.
"We cannot live with open wounds," said Rabbi Leon Klenicki, director of interfaith relations for the Anti-Defamation League and co-author of a February service of reconciliation for Christians and Jews, held in the Princeton University Chapel. But, Klenicki, added, "We don't forgive automatically."
Klenicki said he has an annual nightmare that recurs around Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement in the fall. In his dream, a Nazi SS officer asks him for forgiveness for having exterminated Klenicki's family at Auschwitz.
"I don't know whether first I should shoot him," said Klenicki. "He has to confess his transgressions and change his life, and live a life of sanctity, maybe going to Israel to work with old people in a nursing home."
For Arlene and Jack Locicero, born-again Christians from Hawthorne, N.J., the sin they had to forgive was also wrenching: Their 27-year-old daughter, Amy Federici, was killed in December 1993 during a shooting spree on the Long Island Rail Road.
But the Lociceros found forgiveness possible through their faith.
"If we believe that Christ came to save us and forgave even the people who put him on the cross, can we do any less? If we profess to be Christians, we have to," said Jack Locicero.