Here’s the question: The acknowledgement of the sins of his ancestors and asking for forgiveness for those sins constitute a large portion of Nehemiah’s prayer in Neh 1:4-11. During the 2000 Jubilee Year celebrations, Pope John Paul II asked God’s forgiveness for sins committed by Catholics over the last two millennia. In your opinion, is it ever possible for a later generation to ask forgiveness for the sins committed by earlier generations? In what ways can that be redemptive and healing?
My answer: I would imagine that if Pope John Paul II saw that asking God’s mercy and forgiveness for sins of the past was a worthwhile endeavor, I wouldn’t have any reason to think that this might not be efficacious. For individuals who have passed, we can merit indulgences and perhaps ease their way through Purgatory. I think we are probably more connected than we think — as the body of Christ — and if the sin of one can affect all, perhaps the repentance of one can also be universally applicable. Even in my own body, if it is my hand which sins, it is still my tongue which confesses. This can be redemptive in ways we do not fully understand. But if Jesus took upon Himself all of our sins, and if we are to conform ourselves to Him, perhaps there is not only something known as redemptive suffering, but also redemptive repentance. I think it can be healing precisely in the fact that it underlines our unity in Christ and encourages us in our love of neighbor. Our neighbors are not just those who are temporally proximal to us, but all people in all times.