"To recognize the deviations of the past serves to reawaken our consciences to the compromises of the present," the pontiff had declared during a special Mass on Sunday in St. Peter's Basilica. "We pardon and we ask pardon."
The 7,000 church officials, diplomats, dignitaries and pilgrims attending the Mass listened in absolute silence as five cardinals and two archbishops, dressed like the pope in the deep purple vestments of Lent, rose one by one in a ceremony of "confession of sins and asking for forgiveness."
Each man kissed a towering 15th century, carved wooden crucifix and lit a candle in a candelabra in front of the crucifix.
The prelates spoke of "sins in general," "sins committed in the service of truth," "sins which have harmed the unity of the body of Christ," "sins against the people of Israel," "sins committed in actions against love, peace, the rights of peoples and respect for culture and religions," "sins against the dignity of women and the unity of the human race" and "sins in relation to the fundamental rights of the person."
John Paul responded to each confession with a prayer for forgiveness and ended the Mass with a pledge for a renewed commitment to the teachings of the gospel.
"Never again contradictions to charity in the service of truth, never again gestures against the communion of the church, never again offenses toward any people, never again recourse to the logic of violence, never again discrimination, exclusion, oppression, disrespect for the poor and the last," he said.
The congregation broke into long and loud applause.
But Jewish leaders expressed surprise and disappointment that there was no reference to the Holocaust, and Hans Kung, the German theologian who is often critical of the church, said the apology would have meant more if it had not been made "in a manner too generic and without drawing consequences."
"This recognition of sins is vague," Kung told the Rome newspaper La Repubblica. "Nothing comes clearly by name, not the schism with the East nor the Reformation nor the heretics and the burning of witches nor the Inquisition nor, unfortunately, the Holocaust."
Archbishop Piero Marini, master of pontifical liturgical celebrations, said earlier that the confessions had to be made in general terms and briefly because they were part of the liturgy.
"The reference to errors and sins in a liturgy must be frank and capable of specifying guilt," Marini told a Vatican news conference last week (March 7). "Yet, given the number of sins committed in the course of 20 centuries, it must necessarily be rather summary."
In a statement issued in Jerusalem, Chief Ashkenazi Rabbi Israel Meir Lau, called the pope's gesture "a turning point when compared to the behavior of his predecessors."
"I rejoice in his act of asking pardon for the persecution inflicted upon us over the course of 2,000 years," Lau said.
But the rabbi, who was interned in the Buchenwald death camp during World War II, said he was disappointed that there was no reference to the Holocaust. He said he hoped the pope would make amends for the omission when he visits the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial museum in Jerusalem on March 23 during his pilgrimage March 20-26 to the Holy Land.
The Vatican in a 1998 document on the Holocaust acknowledged that many Catholics failed to speak out in defense of Jews during the Nazi persecution, but it defended the role of the controversial wartime pope, Pius XII. A panel of Catholic and Jewish scholars is studying Vatican documents of the period and is scheduled to issue a report on the issue in the autumn.
"Let us pray that, in recalling the sufferings endured by the people of Israel throughout history, Christians will acknowledge the sins committed by not a few of their number against the people of the Covenant and the blessings, and in this way will purify their hearts," Cardinal Edward Cassidy, president of the Pontifical Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews, said in his confession.
Catholics are "deeply saddened by the behavior of those who in the course of history have caused (Jews) to suffer" and wish "to commit ourselves to genuine brotherhood," the pope responded.
Other prelates taking part in the ceremony were Cardinals Bernard Gantin, dean of the College of Cardinals; Joseph Ratzinger, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, successor to the Holy Office which carried out the Inquisition; Roger Etchegaray, president of the Commission for the Great Jubilee of the Year 2000, and Francis Arinze, president of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, and Archbishops Stephen Fumio Hamao, president of the Pontifical Council for the Pastorate to Migrants and Itinerants, and Francois Van Thuan, president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace.
The 79-year-old John Paul has made "purification of memory" a theme of this year's Holy Year celebrations marking the start of the third millennium of Christianity.
But many members of the Roman Curia, the church's central administrative body, reportedly opposed the pope's desire to make a sweeping confession of sins.
John Paul noted in his homily that his appeal had touched off "deep and profitable reflection in the ecclesiastical community. He said the document "Memory and Reconciliation: The Church and the Faults of the Past," issued by the International Theological Commission last week to clarify the terms of the apology "is very useful for a correct comprehension" of the need to seek pardon and reconciliation.
The theologians attempted to allay concern over the pope's unprecedented move by distinguishing between the church and its members. They said that despite the faults of its members, the church itself remains "holy and immaculate."