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What do papal apologies achieve?

Pope Francis meets members of the Roma community in Blaj, Romania (Getty)

During his successful but unheralded trip to Romania last weekend, Pope Francis offered an apology to the Romani people. Speaking in the central town of Blaj, the Pope told members of the community: “I ask forgiveness – in the name of the Church and of the Lord – and I ask forgiveness of you.”

According to the European Union, the Romani – commonly known as Roma or Gypsies – are Europe’s largest ethnic minority. This traditionally itinerant people, who probably originate from northern India, live mainly in central and southern Europe today, and are said to comprise up to 10 per cent of Romania’s 19.6 million population.

The Romani have suffered persecution throughout their history, notably during the Second World War, when the Nazis killed an estimated half a million of their number. This attempted genocide is known as the Porajmos, or Devouring.

Pope Francis’s apology was broad rather than specific. He asked forgiveness for “all those times in history when we have discriminated, mistreated or looked askance at you”.

Whenever popes offer an apology for a historical wrong, a familiar discussion breaks out. What, precisely, did the Church do wrong? Is it right to judge the churchmen of yesterday by the standards of today? And what does it mean for a pope to apologise for sins that he had no part in?

This debate erupted at the turn of the millennium, when St John Paul II offered what the New York Times called “the most sweeping papal apology ever”. He presided over a public act of repentance in the year 2000. Seven cardinals and bishops asked God’s forgiveness for the ill treatment of Jews, women, indigenous peoples, immigrants, the poor and the unborn.

This ceremony was heavily criticised – especially within the Vatican – but the pope insisted that it was necessary to “purify” the Church’s memory as it passed from its second millennium to its third.

During his 27-year pontificate John Paul offered many other apologies – so many, in fact, that they have their own Wikipedia page. Yet when he addressed a group of Gypsies from Alsace in 1997, he didn’t explicitly ask their forgiveness. He did note that they had suffered “unjust discrimination”. That same year, he became the first pope to beatify a Gypsy, Ceferino Giménez Malla, who was killed during the Spanish Civil War.

John Paul was not the first modern pope to reach out to the Romani. In 1965, St Paul VI visited a Gypsy camp near Pomezia, in the Lazio region of Italy. “Wherever you stop you are considered a bother and a stranger,” he told them. “Here not so … here you find someone who loves you, esteems you, appreciates you and assists you.” Pope Francis has described this as the starting point of “a journey to get to know each other”.

Francis has made overtures to the Romani consistently since his election. In 2014, he said people should stop showing “contempt” for them. He recalled “many times here in Rome when some Gypsies would get on the bus, the driver would say: ‘Watch your wallets!’ This is contempt. It might be true, but it is contempt.”

The following year, he marked the 50th anniversary of Paul VI’s historic visit with 7,000 Romani. “It’s time for change!” he said. “The time has come to put an end to age-old prejudices, preconceptions and mutual mistrust which are often the cause of discrimination, racism and xenophobia.”

His landmark apology is therefore simply an extension of his care for a despised and neglected people. We hope that it will strengthen the bond between the Catholic Church and the Romani people, at a time when many are gravitating towards Pentecostalism.

In Britain, for example, an estimated 40 per cent of Gypsies have joined the Light and Life movement (based in Nevoy, France, where it is known as Vie et Lumière). Many are former Catholics who have been persuaded that Catholicism is a “man-made” religion that deviates from the Bible, and have embraced a charismatic style of worship.

Cynics may dismiss this papal apology as an empty publicity stunt. But it is likely to help missionaries as they seek to draw the Romani people back to the Catholic fold. It should also help Romani leaders as they seek to challenge a prejudice that is still deep-rooted.