The papal message was addressed to the international congress on Father Matteo Ricci (1551-1610), which began Wednesday in Rome. In 1601, that Italian Jesuit missionary became "Chinese with the Chinese," to proclaim the Gospel and transmit Western learning to the Oriental empire.
In particular, the Holy Father mentions the theological disputes over the inculturation of Christianity in China, as well as the support given to the Catholic Church by European powers who were hostile to Beijing.
For example, during the Boxer Rebellion, between 1898 and 1900, many Christians defended the foreign presence in the country. Then, in 1934, the Vatican was one of the first to recognize the state of Manchukuo, controlled by the Japanese.
"For all of this, I ask the forgiveness and understanding of those who may have felt hurt in some way by such actions on the part of Christians," the Pope says.
"History reminds us of the unfortunate fact that the work of members of the Church in China was not always without error, the bitter fruit of their personal limitations and of the limits of their action," he explains. "Moreover, their action was often conditioned by difficult situations connected with complex historical events and conflicting political interests.
"Nor were theological disputes lacking, which caused bad feelings and created serious difficulties in preaching the Gospel."
Father Ricci himself, whose process of beatification is under way, was an object of these disputes. His missionary methods sparked much controversy. He dressed like a Chinese and adopted Chinese customs that won him the approval of Chinese intellectuals but the criticism of Church leaders.
"In certain periods of modern history, a kind of ´protection´ on the part of European political powers not infrequently resulted in limitations on the Church´s very freedom of action and had negative repercussions for the Church in China," the Pope acknowledges. "This combination of various situations and events placed obstacles in the Church´s path and prevented her from fully carrying out -- for the benefit of the Chinese people -- the mission entrusted to her by her Founder, Jesus Christ."
"I feel deep sadness for these errors and limits of the past, and I regret that in many people these failings may have given the impression of a lack of respect and esteem for the Chinese people on the part of the Catholic Church, making them feel that the Church was motivated by feelings of hostility toward China," the Bishop of Rome continues.
After expressing the "mea culpa," the Holy Father refers to the possibility of a new future for Catholicism in China.
"Today the Catholic Church seeks no privilege from China and its leaders, but solely the resumption of dialogue in order to build a relationship based upon mutual respect and deeper understanding," he says.
"Let it be known to China: The Catholic Church has a keen desire to offer, once more, her humble and selfless service for the good of Chinese Catholics and of all the people of the country," the Pope adds.
In his message, John Paul II pays tribute to "the outstanding evangelizing commitment shown by a long line of generous missionaries -- men and women -- as well as the works of human development, which they accomplished down the centuries. They undertook many important social initiatives, particularly in the areas of health care and education, which were widely and gratefully welcomed by the Chinese people."
Peter´s Successor ends his message by referring to the international situation caused by the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States.
"The present moment of profound disquiet in the international community calls for a fervent commitment on the part of everyone to create and develop ties of understanding, friendship and solidarity among peoples," he says.
"In this context, the normalization of relations between the People´s Republic of China and the Holy See would undoubtedly have positive repercussions for humanity´s progress," the Holy Father concludes.
There are about 11 million to 12 million Catholics in China, fewer than half of whom are members of the Chinese Patriotic Association, a state-controlled "church." Catholics faithful to Rome do not enjoy full religious liberty and at times are the object of severe persecutions.