OLOMOUC, Czech Republic -- In a message aimed at healing a centuries-old legacy of religious wars and hatreds, Pope John Paul II yesterday asked forgiveness for the wrongs committed by the Roman Catholic Church against Protestants and people of other faiths.
Speaking during a rain-soaked open-air Mass in a largely Catholic region of Moravia, the 75-year-old pope used the occasion of the canonization of a local Catholic priest tortured to death by Protestants in 1620 to press ahead with his increasingly insistent theme of ecumenical forgiveness.
"Today, I, the pope of the Church of Rome, in the name of all Catholics, ask forgiveness for the wrongs inflicted on non-Catholics during the turbulent history of these peoples," he said before a crowd of less than 100,000 that had gathered for a Mass at an old Soviet airfield. "At the same time, I pledge the Catholic Church's forgiveness for whatever harm her sons and daughters suffered."
The solemn language, and its special formulation, made this the strongest of several recent papal statements examining the role and responsibility of the church for crimes committed, and permitted, in its name over the centuries.
In a message dedicated to the 50th anniversary of the end of World War II, Pope John Paul said Europe's Christians should seek forgiveness for the horrors of a war that took place on a continent steeped in Christian civilization.
In another letter issued this month, the pope made new overtures to the Eastern Orthodox churches, emphasizing the beliefs that bind the Eastern and Western churches despite their historic split.
But by elevating the Rev. Jan Sarkander to sainthood, Pope John Paul has actually fanned the embers of old rivalries that for several centuries made this part of Europe a battlefield between Christianity's competing creeds.
A leader of a major Protestant church in the Czech Republic stayed away from Saturday's meeting with the pope to protest the Vatican's canonization of a figure regarded by Protestants as a traitor.