It was the first time in the history of the Catholic Church that one of its leaders has sought such a sweeping pardon.
The celebration was designated by Pope John Paul II as the "Day of Pardon," reports CBS News Correspondent Allen Pizzey. It mustered all the pomp, ritual and color of the church's 2,000 years.
The actual confessions and requests for forgiveness were read by cardinals -- some of whom are listed among the leading contenders to succeed John Paul II on the throne of St. Peter.
They mentioned "violence in the service of truth" -- Vatican-speak for the treatment of heretics during the Crusades, the Inquisition and the forced conversion of native peoples.
"For 1,500 years we've been pushing people around in the name of God and Church and Jesus, and the pope figured the first Sunday in Lent was the time to say, already, all right, enough. We're not going to do it anymore. We're sorry we did it, and there's no room for religious bigotry or oppression in the world today," Father Andrew Greeley told CBS News Early Show Anchor Bryant Gumbel.
"I think it's a turning point in Catholic history," added Greeley, a syndicated columnist and professor of religion. "It may be the most important thing the pope has done.
The confessions, John Paul II said, did not entail judgements. That, he said, was up to God alone.
There was no reference to homosexuals, who had asked to be included in the list of those asked for forgiveness.
There was no specific reference to the Holocaust, in which the Nazis killed some six million Jews.
The Vatican's intention to beatify Pope Pius IX later this year tempered favorable reaction to the mea culpa.
Pius IX is accused of herding Rome's Jews into a ghetto in the 19th century, and of having kidnapped a Jewish child to raise as a Catholic.
Failure to deal directly with what many see as Vatican acquiescence with the Holocaust under Pope Pius XII has also left the Jewish community less than completely satisfied.
Professor Giacobo Saban of the Italian National Jewish Union says, "I think that a reference for instance to what happened during the Second World War would not have been amiss."
The historic apology from the Pope reverberated in Catholic churches across this country.
For Catholics attending mass during this, the first week of Lent, the Pope's plea for forgiveness is both sobering and rejuvenating, reports CBS News Correpsondent Jeffrey Kofman.
Catholic worshipper Lorraine Egan of New York City says, "I think it was too long in coming, but it gives the church more credibility."
Kristen McCowan, a worshipper from Santa Monica says, b>"It makes me pretty proud to be a Catholic. Finally the pope stepped up and said something kind of like, 'We all make mistakes,' and that's not what Catholics are about today."
For Catholics around the world, including the 61 million Catholics in this country, the pope's sweeping apology is clearly intended to set a tone for the new millennium.
Religious historian Robert Royal says, "What he doing spiritually is trying to get the church and its history in line and say this is something you don't want to do."
For many American Jews the Pope's apology is welcome, but it doesn't go far enough.
What Jewish leaders are asking for is a repudiation of the Catholic church's actions -- or lack of action during the Holocaust. There is still hope that John Paul II is saving those words for his historic visit to Israel and the Holocaust memorial next week.
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