“Say you’re sorry,” we tell a child who has pinched another or swiped a favorite toy. Apology is a form of human behavior akin to the crossing of the fingers, the kissing hello on both cheeks. Apology is what you do when you bump into a stranger on the street and knock their grocery bag to the ground. Apology is intended as a peace offering, something we are supposed to be satisfied with. It carries the message, “Let’s be friends: No matter what happened, I now want you to like me, accept me, let bygones be bygones.” Apology is a civilized act, like eating with a fork and standing up in the subway for little old ladies. Apology is a way of warding off further hostilities, and not a bad way at that.
But there are some acts that are either so enormous or so distant or so terrible that no apology will do. You can’t say to a Rwandan Tutsi, “I’m sorry your arms were chopped off and your child was beheaded. I do apologize.” You can’t say to a man whose great-grandfather was brought to America chained to a wooden beam in a slave ship, “I’m so sorry for his pain.” Because the man who was wronged is not here, and his heir is heir to his burden but cannot forgive in the name of the dead. For some terrible deeds, there may be atonement, there may be forgiveness by God, but there can be no forgiveness or forgetting on earth. Those deeds are ones that were done to someone else, by someone else, neither the transgressor nor his hapless victim are here to forgive or be forgiven. Those deeds are ones that caused such harm that “sorry” cannot deflect the anger or provide balm for the grief. The very word appears ridiculous, dwarfed and perhaps rude when juxtaposed to the enormity of the event it is aimed at.
You can feel guilty for sins of your very own, stealing, lying, murder, corruptions of the heart, even nasty wishes as well as actual betrayals of trust. But you can’t really, not with profound sincerity, feel guilty for the evildoings of your group when you weren’t even born, in which you didn’t participate, or which may have occurred in a geographical place your own foot has never touched. “Say you’re sorry,” is a political arm-twisting that only serves to make a mockery of genuine human reconciliation.
So the Pope has done just the right thing. He has expressed his sadness: “… deeply saddened by the hatred, acts of persecution and displays of anti-Semitism directed against the Jews by Christians at any time and in any place.” This gentle, fragile, amazing Pope has been brave and accurate, compassionate and dazzlingly political all at once. He said these words at the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial. He did not cross any boundaries that would diminish the dignity of the living or the dead. He said he had come to pay homage to the persecuted in the genocide. That he did, and he did it brilliantly. By paying homage he stands with the victims and makes his moral statement. This was wrong, he said. That is far better than “I am sorry.” Do not kill the innocent or hate the different; respect the humanity of all religions is the message. Not very startling, not very new, not such a moral high ground that most decent people wouldn’t climb up there with the Pope, but nevertheless since he represents the power of the church I feel as if he has thrown his protective cloak over my life and the life of mine.
There are things he didn’t say. He didn’t indict by name the other Pope who said nothing as the Jews were carried off. And if he had, would I have felt better? Would there be one less death on our minds? He didn’t say, “We’re not infallible, us pontiffs and our Vatican state.” How could he? He didn’t point out that the Christians who invented the auto-da-fé were not so Christian as all that. He didn’t complain about the crusaders. He didn’t name a single specific one of those galloping swordsmen who burned down the Jewish synagogues with Jews in them on their way to the Holy Land. But he didn’t have to. He did exactly what was right and appropriate, and when I read his words I felt an easing of a tension, a fluttering of hope, a wave of possibility.
This has nothing to do with forgiving or forgetting or getting over it. None of those things are possible. There are too many horrible images in the head, in the heads of the generations to come, for anything like forgetting, getting over it, to take place. On the other hand, reconciliation can take place, a new kindness can grow, one group to the other, respect for difference can take root.
In the real world it is important that every Catholic child not be taught that the Jews were punished for not accepting Christ. It is important that they do not look on Jews as the foe of the holy, as God-murderers. It is important that Israel become a state among other states that the Vatican can accept just as it does others whose primary God is named something other than Jesus. It is important that the Pope himself has dealt the Holocaust deniers a mortal blow. It is not important that my personal anger at the silent Pope of World War II will never die. It doesn’t matter what exactly is concealed in the Vatican historical papers. Or at least it doesn’t matter as much as it did before this Pope went to Yad Vashem. The only thing that matters now is that the giving of guilt, the use of guilt as a political tool, guilt that because it requires an impossible atonement results in rejection, reaction, hostility-that this guilt come to a gradual end. Now we can offer our respect to this pontiff who is truly (I don’t have to accept all his views) a holy man.
We can stop counting up who saved someone and who betrayed someone and weighing the numbers on an invisible but ever-present scale. That scale tells us very bad news. We were clearly more betrayed than saved. But enough now. I used to shiver when I walked into the great cathedrals. I used to admire the art but felt like a trespasser, a fugitive. I wanted to pull up people on their knees, people who were lighting candles, and stare them in the face, break the worshipful hush in the stone halls and say, “Did you know….” But now I think that I, too, will believe that God can be present anywhere on this globe, even in a church.