ROME— It might be a cliché, but actions generally speak louder than words, and rarely is that more evident than when a pope apologizes.
On his way back from Armenia in late June, Pope Francis suggested that Christians probably should ask forgiveness from gays who have been offended by the Church, from the poor, from women who have been mistreated, from children exploited for labor, and for having blessed so many weapons – basically, from anyone whom the Church could have defended and failed to do so.
Last Friday, when Francis visited a Rome center for women rescued from prostitution rackets, he delivered an apology for one of these issues through both deeds and words, asking forgiveness from the women there, in the name of Christianity, for the suffering they’ve endured.
Although the Vatican didn’t give much information regarding the visit – it usually never does, when these encounters are considered private – Italian Father Aldo Bonaiuto, spiritual director of the Pope John XXIII Community Francis visited, spoke to Vatican Radio about it.
“[Francis] used very beautiful, yet very strong words: he asked for forgiveness in the name of all Christians for the violence and all the wrong-doings these girls had to suffer through,” Bonaiuto quotes the pope saying.
In the last three years, the Argentine pontiff has been one of the most outspoken global leaders on the matter of human trafficking, an illegal industry which affects more than 40 million people who are forced to work in slave-like conditions.
Francis has repeatedly called it “a crime against humanity.”
Putting his money where his mouth is, Francis gathered religious leaders from all major faiths in the Vatican to sign a joint declaration to fight trafficking. He also summoned mayors from some of the world’s most important cities, including New York, Paris, Rome and Madrid, to do the same, and earlier in the year he hosted a workshop with over 100 judges from all over the world to shine the spotlight on the scourge of human trafficking.
Australian Cardinal George Pell, appointed by the pope as the Vatican’s secretary for the economy, even vowed to slavery-proof its own supply chains during a Rome-held summit that brought together the leaders of some of the world’s largest supermarket companies to address the issue.
Francis is far from being the first pope, of course, to apologize over the Church’s wrong-doings.
Without going too far back in time, St. Pope John Paul II by 1998 had issued at least 94 apologies, catalogued by Italian journalist Luigi Accattoli in the book When a Pope Asks Forgiveness. The motives for the mea culpas were varied, from the silence and inaction of individual Catholics during the Holocaust to the Church’s trial against Catholic scientist Galileo Galilei.
Two years later, in a “Day of Pardon” during the Great Jubilee year of 2000, St. John Paul II apologized in the name of the Church for the sins of its sons and daughters against Jews, heretics, women, Gypsies and native peoples.
Then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who would later become Pope Benedict XVI, helped provided a theological framework for the apology through a document called “Memory and Reconciliation: The Church and the Faults of the Past.” One of the main takeaways was the affirmation that although issued in the name of the Church, the apology actually was for the wrongdoings of individual Christians, because the Church itself is always holy.
(On the plane back from Armenia in June, Francis made the same distinction.)
John Paul’s gesture remains as the most comprehensive apology in modern times ever made by any global leader.
Although a supporter of John Paul’s proclivity to ask for forgiveness, Benedict XVI was more guarded when apologizing – but like Francis, he also backed most of the ones he delivered with actions.
To give one example, in 2010 Benedict delivered what was deemed an unprecedented apology in the form of an 8-page letter to the victims of clerical sexual abuse in Ireland. In it, he expressed his “shame and remorse” for “sinful and criminal acts.”
He admitted that years of crimes committed by clergy and lay Catholics in schools and orphanages had shattered faith in the Church, and was highly critical of the way that the Irish Church had handled the cases of abuse.
Addressing the victims and their families directly, Benedict said: “I know that nothing can undo the wrong you have endured. Your trust has been betrayed and your dignity violated.”
During Benedict’s papacy, the Vatican laicized over 800 priests for sexual abuses and more than 2,500 received other punishments, such as a life of penance and prayer or a ban on public ministries.
Pope Francis has apologized for the crime of sexual abuse by clergy as well, and backed his statements with actions- though, as is usually the case when the scope of the apology is so big, many have deemed those actions insufficient.
For instance, last September, when meeting a group of survivors of sexual abuse in Philadelphia, Francis expressed “deep regret” over the betrayal the victims suffered, the times when the Church ignored survivors or their families speaking out and some bishops’ failure in their responsibility to protect children.
“I pledge to you that we will follow the path of truth wherever it may lead. Clergy and bishops will be held accountable when they abuse or fail to protect children,” he said.
In 2013 Francis launched a pontifical commission for the protection of minors, set to review and assist with the implementation of guidelines aimed at preventing clerical sexual abuse. He’s also set up a yet-to-be staffed tribunal to oversee bishops’ accountability, and in an attempt to raise awareness over this issue, continues to speak periodically about it during his weekly Sunday Angelus address.
Another issue Francis has apologized about several times are “scandals that have rocked the Vatican,” either of a sexual or an economic nature. He delivered such an apology, for example, one week after a Vatican official made headlines for coming out as gay and denouncing the Church’s treatment of the LGBT community.
In an attempt to clean things up, Francis has created a commission of nine cardinal advisors who are helping him reform the Roman curia, and has launched several initiatives to guarantee the Holy See’s financial transparency.
It remains to be seen if the pope will explicitly ask forgiveness from the LGBT community, as he suggested in June – and, if so, what actions he might be prepared to take to back it up. One thing, however, seems clear: For Francis, just like his two predecessors, being pope no longer means never having to say you’re sorry.