The powerfully worded letter from Cardinal John O'Connor echoed personal expressions of remorse made by Pope John Paul II and other senior church leaders in recent years and also echoed the Vatican's official call for teshuvah, or repentance.
It appeared to be an attempt to heal recent friction in Catholic-Jewish relations over issues such as the possible beatification of World War II-era Pope Pius XII and a Vatican document on the Holocaust last year that many Jews believed offered too little, too late.
Jewish leaders, including author Elie Wiesel, were so moved by O'Connor's "inspiring and courageous" message that they sponsored publication of the Sept. 8 letter as a full-page ad in Sunday's New York Times so that the sentiments could be shared.
O'Connor couched his letter in the New Year's greetings that he sends annually to Jewish friends and leaders. But he underscored that, just as 5760 marks the beginning of a new decade in the Jewish calendar, the coming year marks the beginning of a new millennium for Christianity, to be celebrated as a jubilee, or holy year, by the church.
He stressed that the pope has called on all Catholics to use the year 2000 as a time to reflect and ask forgiveness for past sins, including anti-Semitism.
"Part of the process of jubilee is a call for teshuvah, or repentance," O'Connor wrote. "Ash Wednesday, March 8, has been specifically set aside as a day for Catholics to reflect upon the pain inflicted on the Jewish people by many of our members over the last millennium. We most sincerely want to start a new era.
"I pray that as you begin a new decade, and as we begin another millennium in our Jewish-Christian relationship, we will refresh our encounter with a new respect and even love for one another as children of God."
"I ask this Yom Kippur that you understand my own abject sorrow for any member of the Catholic Church, high or low, including myself, who may have harmed you or your forebears in any way."
O'Connor did not specifically mention the Holocaust.
His reference to any member of the church "high or low" was taken by observers to be a possible reference to Pius XII -- as well as to a host of popes, cardinals, bishops, priests, kings, queens and commoners who expelled Jews from cities and countries, burned them at the stake and otherwise persecuted them over the centuries.
It also followed the church's line in condemning individuals for their actions but absolving the church itself from wrongdoing.
O'Connor spokesman Joseph Zwilling said the cardinal was referring to Nazi atrocities and other anti-Semitic acts during the last 2,000 years.
Eugene Fisher, the U.S. Catholic bishops' staff expert on Jewish relations, said the letter "expresses the mind of the church very clearly and without any possible ambiguity. It's not a new statement. He was not intending to break any new ground."
Still, Wiesel, the Nobel Peace Prize winner and Holocaust survivor who helped sponsor the ad along with other Jewish leaders, said that "for the prince of the church to say the things he does, it's very strong. He went very far, and it's a great gesture of understanding."
The American Jewish Committee will host Understanding and Hope, a forum that will examine the relationship between Jews and Catholics, on Wednesday evening, Sept. 29, at Valley Beth Shalom in Encino.
The event, led by Cardinal Roger Mahony and Rabbi Harold Schulweis, features panel discussions on such topics as "Prevailing Jewish and Catholic Attitudes Toward One Another" and "Can We Correct the Anti-Semitic Interpretations of the Christian Bible?" with representatives from Hebrew Union College, Loyola Marymount University and B'nai David Judea Congregation. For more information and to make reservations, call (213) 637-7555 or (310) 282-8080.