Pope John Paul said today that the entire Catholic Church should use the forthcoming start of the third millennium as a chance to seek forgiveness for its past errors and sins.
In an address to visiting bishops from England and Wales, the pope also reaffirmed the church's long-standing ban on women priests and restated that the female priesthood in the Anglican Church was a setback on the road to Christian unity.
"Our journey to the year 2000 should take the form of genuine pursuit of conversion and reconciliation by purifying ourselves of past errors and instances of infidelity, inconsistency and slowness to act," the 77-year-old pope said.
"Certainly it is not enough to make public statements of sorrow for past wrongs. We must remind ourselves and the faithful of the radically personal nature of the repentance and conversion required."
Although he did not mention any specific errors and sins in his speech, in recent years he has said the church needed to assume its responsibility for the Inquisition, which was marked by the forced conversion of Jews and the torture and killing of heretics.
In a trip to Germany last year, the pope said not enough of that country's Catholics had stood up to Hitler.
Jewish leaders have asked the pope to issue a document before the year 2000 on the role of the Catholic Church during the Holocaust. They have accused Pope Pius XII of turning a blind eye as the Nazis killed some 6 million Jews.
In another section of his speech to the bishops, the pope reaffirmed the Catholic teaching that only men can become priests.
"The faithful should be helped to see that this teaching does not discriminate against women, since the priesthood is not a 'right' or a 'privilege' but a vocation, which one does not take upon oneself but to which one is called by God," he said.
The Vatican says the pope's 1994 ruling against the ordination of women is a definitive and infallible part of Catholic teaching that cannot be changed.
The Catholic Church says it cannot allow women priests because Christ willingly chose only men as his apostles. Women's groups have contested this as an attempt to keep the church male-dominated, saying Christ was merely acting according to the social norms of his times.
In his address to the bishops, the pope restated his view that the move was among the "difficulties and apparent setbacks" on the road toward full unity between the two churches, which split in 1534 over the issue of papal authority.