Cardinal Cottier on Pope John Paul's Request for Forgiveness

90-Year-Old Prelate Remembers Vatican II and the Polish Pontiff

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By Jose Antonio Varela Vidal

VATICAN CITY, JULY 11, 2012 (Zenit.org).- When one speaks with Cardinal Georges Cottier, one is before not only a theologian and witness of many important events of the 20th and 21st centuries but, above all, a humble Dominican friar, who never ceases to be amazed by all that God and the Church have enabled him to live. 

In this interview with ZENIT, held in his residence in the Vatican, he spoke with nostalgia of his “boss,” Pope John Paul II, recognizing that many of his acts as Pontiff were a legacy of the spirit of Vatican II, while others were marked by an intuition, which later opened paths to humanity in its search for peace and understanding.

ZENIT: Pope John Paul II, with whom you worked so closely, is now Blessed. In your opinion, what were his main contributions to the world and to the Church?

Cardinal Cottier: There were many. I think he was a man of hope. When he said: “Do not be afraid,” he certainly said it for the countries occupied by Communism, but he also said it because he saw that there was a certain decadence in the West. I would say he awakened the Church everywhere. Then, his love of life, this was fantastic and he witnessed this love of life in a life profoundly marked by illness, and young people understood him.

ZENIT: As papal theologian during part of that long period, what was your most important intervention?

Cardinal Cottier: I had to revise all the texts spoken or signed by the Pope, given that -- with so many employed -- unity of thought, legitimacy and also clarity had to be seen, and this was practically my daily work. I identify my great joys with the Pope’s great acts. For example, two years after my arrival, I had to read the Catechism of the Catholic Church and I read it, I remember, with great joy and I was able to make my observations calmly. And then there are the encyclicals, which were very interesting for me, as some of them were entrusted to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. There, as consultor, I had the opportunity to take part in working groups, and I was able to see and discover the genius of Cardinal Ratzinger, present Pope, who had a gift to lead the working groups, to stress the line, to listen, so everything was wonderful. Another experience which really impressed me was the preparation of the Holy Year.

ZENIT: Of the year 2000? We still remember that “purification of the memory,” desired by the Pope.

Cardinal Cottier: Yes, I was president of the Historical Theological Commission and at that time the Apostolic Letter Tertio Millennio Adveniente was being issued. And the Pope had the idea to ask forgiveness for the sins of Christians in the past, something good but which left some perplexed. I learned that in the first meeting he addressed the cardinals and many were perplexed, but he had a great intuition. And we had to prepare some scientific congresses on this issue -- not without difficulty -- because the subject was new and this perplexity was manifested also in some theologians. So we decided which questions might be useful and we thought of three: the first subject was slavery in Africa, the deportation, especially to North and South America. The second topic was the problem of the Inquisition and then, in the third place, the responsibility of Christians in regard to anti-Semitism, although we distinguished between anti-Semitism and anti-Judaism.

ZENIT: The Pope insisted on a public act, no?

Cardinal Cottier: It’s another great memory -- more personal. Although the Pope was already very tired, he carried out the whole program of the Holy Year with extraordinary courage. I remember especially March 12, when he designed a beautiful liturgy of petition for forgiveness, and I was able to see the Pope, leaning on the cross, while those in charge read a prayer. It was a beautiful liturgy to which we contributed.

ZENIT: Do you think that, after this petition for forgiveness, Catholics have seen the Church in another way?

Cardinal Cottier: I think that those who wish to, do so. When we spoke of the program, there was a Dominican historian Father who taught Church History and who said: "ask forgiveness for true events, not for myths.” All this, I think, has been well studied and the result is that afterwards many have continued working in this direction. So I think that with this we have done a service. And then for me, for Christians, for Catholics, this new way of seeing has been very liberating.

ZENIT: Has the world recognized this forgiveness?

Cardinal Cottier: The world … perhaps, not sufficiently. The problem that interests me personally at present is that at the political level this can be similar and resolve some tragic problems, including hostility, hatred between peoples, in which there is no way out without forgiveness. Because if mutual hatred persists, the spirit of war is maintained, so that peace is not possible without forgiveness. This is what we uphold in the Social Doctrine of the Church.

ZENIT: Does this work, perhaps, for present wars, some of which are of religion?

Cardinal Cottier: It works in all. Let’s take the dramatic situation of the Middle East, for example, in some Muslim countries such as Iraq now, Syria tomorrow, among others, where there are minorities that are being killed, and where Christians are the real victims of this. First forgiveness is asked of God and then forgiveness is asked of the rest. That is why what was an idea of John Paul II, and which the present Pope has followed, is the great meeting of Assisi, because if there is a genuine religious background in man, the relationship with God does not lead to war but to peace.

ZENIT: Although some did not understand at the time the Pope’s vision of Assisi …

Cardinal Cottier: This has been very criticized, but he made a distinction that I like very much and which says: Ecumenism is with Christians; we pray together, because we have the Bible in common and we can say together the prayer of the Our Father and all Christian prayers. At that time, he said it thus: “Let us pray together with Christians; with others we are together to pray.” It is a distinction that clarifies well and does not let us fall into confusion; in this way we see the force of the sense of God and of the religious attitude, which should be an element of peace in humanity itself. These are the fruits that we owe to John Paul II and, I would say, to the Holy Year.

ZENIT: Did you see a difference between Assisi of 1986 and last year’s ceremony?

Cardinal Cottier: I think so, that is, the first time of Assisi was an extraordinary event but, as always happens the second time, these things are no longer an event in today’s world, but it has kept the invitation to dialogue on the part of the Catholic Church. It’s very important because, you see, Muslim fundamentalism, for example, is not about persons who converse but who kill. And, where does this end? And the novelty of this year’s Assisi is that non-believers were also invited, as said in the language of Pope John Paul II, “men of good will.” Hence, I believe this is a great idea that also comes from Vatican Council II.

[Translation by ZENIT]