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Vatican Basilica, 12 March 2000


I. The meaning of the celebration

1. On 12 March 2000, the First Sunday of Lent, the Holy Father will celebrate the Eucharist with the Cardinals and will ask forgiveness from the Lord for the sins, past and present, of the sons and daughters of the Church.

The celebration of the Day of Pardon was expressly desired by the Holy Father as a powerful sign in this Jubilee Year, which is by its very nature a moment of conversion.

"As the Successor of Peter, I ask that in this year of mercy the Church, strong in the holiness which she receives from her Lord, should kneel before God and implore forgiveness for the past and present sins of her sons and daughters. All have sinned and none can claim righteousness before God (cf. 1 Kgs 8:46)... Christians are invited to acknowledge, before God and before those offended by their actions, the faults which they have committed. Let them do so without seeking anything in return, but strengthened only by the 'love of God which has been poured finto our hearts' (Rom 5:5)" (Incarnationis Mysterium, 11; cf. Tertio Millennio Adveniente, 33).

2. Consequently, the Church, in a Eucharistic celebration at the beginning of her Lenten journey, and thus in an act of thanksgiving to the Lord, confesses, proclaims and glorifies God's work within her during the past two thousand years of Christianity. The Lord has been living and present in his Church, and through the Saints he has demonstrated that he continues to be at work in human history, in the midst of his community. Certainly, Christians, as pilgrims and wayfarers towards the Kingdom, remain sinners, frail, weak and subject to the temptations of Satan, the Prince of this world, despite their incorporation into the Body of Christ. In every generation the holiness of the Church has shone forth, witnessed by countless numbers of her sons and daughters; yet this holiness has been contradicted by the continuing presence of sin which burdens the journey of God's People. The Church can sing both the Magnificat for what God has accomplished within her and the Miserere for the sins of Christians, for which she stands in need of purification, penance and renewal (cf. Lumen Gentium, 8). 

3. "The Church cannot cross the threshold of the new millennium without encouraging her children to purify themselves through repentance of past errors and instances of infidelity, inconsistency and slowness to act" (Tertio Millennio Adveniente, 33). Consequently, a liturgy seeking pardon from God for the sins committed by Christians down the centuries is not only legitimate; it is also the most fitting means of expressing repentance and gaining purification. 

Pope John Paul II, in a primatial act, confesses the sins of Christians over the centuries down to our own time, conscious that the Church is a unique subject in history, "a single mystical person". The Church is a communion of saints, but a solidarity in sin also exists among all the members of the People of God: the bearers of the Petrine ministry, Bishops, priests, religious and lay faithful.

4. This liturgy, by recalling the sins committed, concretizes the request for forgiveness and opens the way to a commitment made not only before God but also before men; it inaugurates a journey of conversion and change vis-à-vis the past. 

Confessing our sins and the sins of those before us is a fitting act on the part of the Church, which has always felt bound to acknowledge the failures of her children and to confront the truth about sins committed. 

Like the People of God in the Old Testament, who confessed the sin of the golden calf and perpetuated its memory, and the early Church in the New Testament, which recorded and recalled Peter's denial without denying or diminishing it, so the Church today, through the Successor of Peter, names, declares and confesses the errors of Christians in every age. 

5. The reference to errors and sins in a liturgy must be frank and capable of specifying guilt; yet given the number of sins committed in the course of twenty centuries, it must necessarily be rather summary. It is also appropriate that it should take into account the admissions of sin already made both by Pope Paul VI and by Pope John Paul II himself on numerous occasions in the course of his Pontificate. 

These include: 

a) Confession of sins in general (cf. PAUL VI, 4 January 1964 at Calvary in Jerusalem). 

b) Confession of sins committed in the service of truth (cf. JOHN PAUL II, Pro Memoria for the Consistory of 13 June 1994, 7; "Tertio Millennio Adveniente", 35). 

c) Confession of sins which have harmed the unity of the body of Christ (cf. JOHN PAUL II, "Tertio Millennio Adveniente", 34; "Ut Unum Sint", 34 and 82; Paderborn, 22 June 1996). 

d) Confession of sins against the people of Israel (cf. JOHN PAUL II, Mainz, 17 November 1980; Vatican Basilica, 7 December 1991; Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews, "We Remember'', 16 March 1998, No. 4). 

e) Confession of sins committed in actions against love, peace, the rights of peoples, and respect for cultures and religions (cf. JOHN PAUL II, Assisi, 27 October 1986; Santo Domingo, 13 October 1992; General Audience, 21 October 1992). 

f ) Confession of sins against the dignity of women and the unity of the human race (cf. JOHN PAUL II, Angelus Message, 10 June 1995; Letter to Women, 29 June 1995).

g) Confession of sins in relation to the fundamental rights of the person (cf. JOHN PAUL II, Yaoundé, 13 August 1985; General Audience, 3 June 1992).

One thing must be forcibly stated: the confession of sins made by the Pope is addressed to God, who alone can forgive sins, but it is also made before men, from whom the responsibilities of Christians cannot be hidden.

6. This confession does not entail a judgment on those who have gone before us: judgment belongs to God alone and will be declared on the last day. Christians today do not believe that they are "better than their fathers" (cf. l Kg 19:4), but they do wish to state what have been, in the light of the Gospel and the Spirit of Christ, objective historical errors in ways of acting. Consequently the confession clearly points to certain historical failings, but the parties responsible are neither judged nor named. The confession takes place within the context of the solidarity of sinners: the baptized of the present are conscious of their link to the baptized of the past. Judgment is not passed on Christians of earlier times, nor are extenuating circumstances overlooked, but regret is expressed and the evil done is confessed as we take upon ourselves the failings of those who have preceded us.

7. By placing the highpoint of the confession of sins within the context of the liturgy, Pope John Paul II wishes to demonstrate that this act has its own inner meaning and aims at the purification of memory and at reconciliation between Christians and between the Church and humanity.

Confessing the historical sins of Christians is not however aimed solely at the purification of memory: it is also meant to be an occasion for a change of mentality and certain attitudes in the Church, as well as the source of a new teaching for the future, in the consciousness that the sins of the past remain as temptations in the present.

The confession of sins is a means of favouring dialogue, reconciliation and peace.

8. This liturgy is a service to truth: the Church is not afraid to confront the sins of Christians when she becomes conscious of their errors.

It is a servite to faith: the acknowledgment and confession of sins opens the way to a renewed fidelity to the Lord.

It is a service to charity: a witness of love in the humility of one who begs pardon. The Church is also a teacher when she asks the Lord for pardon and the forgiveness of sins.

II. Typical elements of the celebration

1. The presence of the Crucifix

Beside the Altar of the Confession of the Vatican Basilica stands the fifteenth-century Crucifix from the Church of San Marcello al Corso which has traditionally been venerated in Saint Peter's during the Holy Years. The presence of the Crucifix is meant to emphasize that the confession of sins and the begging of pardon are addressed to God, who alone can forgive sins.

2. The initial "statio"

At the beginning of the celebration there is a "statio" of the Holy Father with the Cardinal concelebrants before the statue of the Pietà at the entrance of the Basilica: the Church, like Mary, wishes to embrace the crucified Saviour, to take responsibility for the past of her children and to implore the Father's forgiveness.

3. The Litany of the Saints

The "statio" is followed by a penitential procession towards the altar, The Cross is accompanied by seven candles and the Gospel Book, and a litany is sung. The Saints of the Communio Sanctorum intercede for their sinful brothers and sisters still on their pilgrim way towards the heavenly Jerusalem.

4. The confession of sins and the request for pardon

Following the homily and before the profession of faith comes the Prayer of the Faithful, in which the Holy Father makes the act of confession of sins and the request for pardon.

The prayer opens with an introduction by the Pope followed by an invitatory and a prayer preceded by a brief moment of silence and the chanting of a triple Kyrie eleison.

The invitatory is recited by representatives of the Roman Curia, while the Holy Father recites the prayer.

During the chanting of the Kyrie eleison the lamps in front of the Crucifix are lit.

After the concluding prayer the Holy Father embraces and kisses the Crucifix as a sign of veneration and the imploring of pardon.

5. Commitment for a conversion of life

At the end of the celebration, following the solemn blessing, the Holy Father asks that the purification of memory and the request for forgiveness be translated finto a commitment of renewed fidelity to the Gospel on the part of the Church and of each of her members.