O Vos Omnes

THE POPE, say the newspapers, has ‘apologised for the crusades’. If it is true – and I have not seen the text of the rite in St Peter’s of which this reputed event was a part – then it was a most singular action.

Confession and contrition, an old confessor of mine was fond of remarking, require precision. You need to know (in no uncertain terms) what it is that you are sorry about; anything else is little more than sentimentality. But how to be contrite about one of the cataclysmic movements of history?

The great sweep of events of which the crusades are merely a part (extending from the triumphal entry of the Caliph Omar into Jerusalem in February 638 until the defeat of the Turkish fleet off Lepanto in October 1571) has all the grandeur and complexity of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. It might, perhaps, at the hands of some great historical synthesist like Gibbon, be epitomised in an epigram: ‘the triumph of barbarism and religion’ (though this time on both sides!); but surely it can never, as a process, be fully understood.

Were the motives of the chevaliers of Roncevalles and Aeneas Sylvius Picolomini (a distinguished humanist and the last Pope to preach the crusade) comparable, or even compatible? And even supposing there to have been some common element, how is that shared by the contemporary Church? How was it shared, for example, by the late Cardinal Ignatius Kung, during his long imprisonment at the hands of the communist regime in Beijing?

I was moved (who could not be?) by the image of an aged and failing Pope clinging to the foot of a venerable crucifix, in contrition for his own sins and for sins not his own. If any man can fulfil that function on behalf of the whole Christian community, it is he. But I admit, at the same time, to a considerable unease. I am uneasy about the way in which the awareness of corporate sin – ‘institutional racism’; ‘sectarian intolerance’ – is begetting in our society a sort of corporate self-righteousness.

There are two distinct categories of the institutionally self-righteous. First there are those who make a profession of indignation on behalf of others. Then there are those who seek to make personal or political capital out of their own real or alleged victimisation.

The first category one might call the ‘mote and beam brigade’. They are a loose federation of superannuated campus protesters, with a pedigree stretching back to the infamous Jean-Jacques himself. They denounce the sins of capitalism from the reading rooms of public libraries, and go home shamefully to mistreat their own servants. They attack the evils of patriarchalism (and set up communes where it will finally be overcome) whilst sanctimoniously sodomising their own daughters. They are that breed of utopianists who suppose themselves (and they alone) to be on the cusp of progress. They have never stared long enough into the looking-glass to discern the face of Caliban staring back.

Sweeping apologies for offences long past feed the self-esteem of such people. Of course it is true that history (no less fickle and fallible than any other area of human knowledge) may one day convict us all of offences of which we are now blissfully ignorant. Countless generations of slave owners in every culture under the sun faithfully honoured their ancestral pieties and raised their children to fear the law and the gods, before Wilberforce denounced the lot of them. But it is no crime not to have foreseen the morality of generations as yet unborn. Nor is it a virtue to seek to atone, centuries later, for offences unacknowledged by those who committed them.

The second class of the institutionally self-righteous may well be worse than the first. It is composed of those who have been wronged (or suppose that they have been), and who pursue a policy not of forgiveness, but of political retribution. They are the ones who replace the Ancien Regime with the Terror; the Okrana with the KGB; the aristocracy with the nomenclatura. They are the ones who want back ancestral territories tilled by others for immemorial generations. They want participative quotas and positive discrimination. Their whole relationship with others, even in the moment of their triumph, is coloured and distorted by their self-perception as victims; and by their anger. To these people it is axiomatic that they themselves need no forgiveness.

That Palestine should be simultaneously occupied by two such self-righteous victim groups is one of the sublime ironies of history. That the Christian West should be the current focus of both their antagonisms is a double misfortune. That no amount of apologising on our part will ensure even the most modest apology of one party to the other seems, humanly speaking, pretty predictable.

So what was the Pope doing in St Peter’s on the first Sunday in Lent – if not merely fuelling the fires of corporate self-righteousness?

One thing is certain: he was performing an act different in kind from that of the Presidents and Prime Ministers, who solemnly regret the Irish potato famine, or heartily deplore the treatment of Native Americans. He was, I believe, on behalf of the whole Church and through his own very genuine contrition, singing the praises of wounded and powerless love. It is the Gospel of the Church’s Lord that forgiveness has to begin from the oppressed; that penitence is the precious gift of the poor. Days before his pilgrimage to the Holy Land, clinging to the naked image of the one whose feet made that land holy, John Paul reiterated the Saviour’s plea to every generation: be reconciled through the power of the Cross.

Apologies are fraught with danger. They have themselves become part of the rhetoric of power. But repeated, in situ, by a frail old man who has nothing to win or loose by spending himself in its service, that basic gospel message may still be heard (even in this most secular of generations) by all the Peoples of the Book.

And if it is not heard, the saying was nevertheless not empty.

Geoffrey Kirk is Vicar of St Stephen’s Lewisham in the diocese of Southwark