5 Things to Know about Rome's Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy

On December 8, 2015 the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, Pope Francis opened the Holy Door in St. Peter's Basilica, officially commencing The Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy. The period until the Feast of Christ the King (November 20, 2016) is known as The Holy Year of Mercy, which, in Pope Francis' words, is meant to be “a year in which we grow ever more convinced of God's mercy.”

A view of the St Peter's Piazza in Vatican City

During the upcoming period, millions of pilgrims are expected to travel to Rome and pass through the Holy Door so they can receive a plenary indulgence, meaning a full remission of sins. “To pass through the Holy Door”, said Pope Francis in his homily for Mass before opening the Holy Door, “means to rediscover the infinite mercy of the Father who welcomes everyone and goes out personally to encounter each of them”.

The Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy, announced by Pope Francis on March 13, 2015, the second anniversary of his election, is special in many ways. It comes 15 years since the last Jubilee, held in 2000, and, consistent with the mission of his papacy, was called by Pope Francis in order for the Catholic Church to draw attention to its role as a witness of Mercy. The Jubilee aims to be an occasion for Catholic Christians to meditate on the moral virtue of mercy, seen in Christian morality as a feeling that motivates us to show compassion, forgiveness and kindness and perform deeds of Mercy towards those who suffer.

1. What is a Jubilee Year?

Jubilee Years, mentioned in the Old Testament in Leviticus 25, 10-13, are rooted in the Judaic tradition of calling, every 50 years, a year of forgiveness. During the jubilee year, debts were forgiven, slaves were freed and the land was left to rest, as no agricultural works were permitted and everyone lived off provisions. On a spiritual level, the period allowed community members to renew or fix relationships with one another and with God. According to the Vatican, a Jubilee, or a Holy Year, is “a year of forgiveness of sins and also the punishment due to sin,” of “reconciliation between adversaries and of conversion and receiving the Sacrament of Reconciliation, and consequently of solidarity, hope, justice, commitment to serve God with joy and in peace.”

2. Jubilee Years in History

The tradition of holding a Jubilee Year was adopted by the Catholic Church in 1300, when it was introduced by Pope Boniface VIII. Ordinary Jubilees, such as the Great Jubilee of 2000, celebrated under Pope John Paul II, are held every 25 years, to allow all Catholics to experience a Holy Year in their lifetime. Extraordinary Jubilees, such as the Jubilee of Mercy, are called in order to emphasize a particular topic and draw the community's attention to one particular theme of reflection. So far, there have only been 26 Jubilee Years in the history of the Catholic Church. Out of those, the last two Extraordinary Jubilees were called in 1933 and 1983 respectively, when Pope Pius XI called a Holy Year to mark the 1900th anniversary of Redemption and—50 years later—Pope John Paul II decided to hold one to celebrate 1,950 years of redemption after Christ's death and resurrection. The next ordinary Jubilee will be held in 2025.

3. What is the importance of the Holy Door?

A Holy Door (Porta Sancta in Latin) is a door located in the four major Papal Basilicas of Rome. It represents the “extraordinary path” offered to believers during the Holy Years and its being opened by the Pope in Saint Peter's Basilica marks the start of the Holy Year. The Holy Doors in the other three Papal Basilicas, St. John Lateran, St. Mary Major and St. Paul outside the Walls are traditionally opened by designated cardinals, but for the Great Jubilee Pope John Paul II chose to open all the doors himself. Between Jubilee celebrations, Holy Doors are kept shut, traditionally sealed with bricks and mortar. One of the most important gestures and one of profound symbolism during the Holy Year is the pilgrims' passage through the Holy Door. As Pope John Paul II mentioned in his Incarnationis Mysterium (Mystery of the Incarnation) bull of indiction of the Great Jubilee of 2000, the Holy Door “evokes the passage from sin to grace which every Christian is called to accomplish. Jesus said 'I am the door' (John 10:7) in order to make it clear that no one can come to the father except through Him.” Therefore, by entering through the Holy Door, at a symbolic level, the believer leaves behind the world and steps towards the Kingdom of God.  

4. Why are Jubilee Years Important?

Jubilee years are among the most important events in the Roman Catholic Church. For Catholic Christians, Jubilee Years are the time when they can receive a plenary indulgence, the highest form of forgiveness. According to the Vatican, a plenary indulgence brings “...a remission before God of the temporal punishment due to sins whose guilt has already been forgiven, which the faithful Christian who is duly disposed gains under certain prescribed conditions through the action of the Church which, as the minister of redemption, dispenses and applies with authority the treasury of the satisfactions of Christ and the saints”. (para 1471) As stated in the Vatican's Apostolic Penitentiary, in order to receive an indulgence, Catholic Christians must be in a state of grace and fulfill the following prerequisites: “have the interior disposition of complete detachment from sin, even venial sin; have sacramentally confessed their sins; receive the Holy Eucharist (preferably but not necessarily within the context of Mass) and pray for the intentions of the Pope.”

5. Introducing the Jubilee of Mercy. What is special about this Extraordinary Jubilee?

In the past, the faithful would travel from all over the world to take part in one of a limited number of events where indulgences were granted. However, due to a major innovation introduced by Pope Francis, during the Jubilee of Mercy, Catholic Christians are able to experience the events of the Holy Year in the midst of their communities. It is the desire of Pope Francis that this Holy Year be experienced by everybody, regardless of whether they have the possibility to travel to Rome of not. That is why, before the debut of the Jubilee of Mercy, bishops were given the opportunity to register a Door of Mercy in their diocese, to give all Catholic Christians the opportunity to live the Holy Year. Hence, alongside those located in the Vatican and the three Papal Basilicas, Doors of Mercy can be found around the world, from Algeria to Venezuela. But the Jubilee of Mercy also brought other major innovations. For the first time in the history of the Catholic Church, Pope Francis instructed priests to absolve repentant women who asked for forgiveness for having an abortion, although abortion is still considered a grave sin in the teachings of the Catholic Church.

Additionally, this was the first time in the history of the Catholic Church that a Pope opened a Holy Door outside of Rome. On November 29, Pope Francis opened a Holy Door in Bangui, the capital of the Central African Republic, before starting the Holy Year in the Vatican formally on December 8. Not least, this was the first time ever when two Popes, namely Pope Francis and Emeritus Pope Benedict XX, attended the opening of the Holy Year in St. Peter's Basilica. If you are traveling to Rome to celebrate the Jubilee Year, you can take advantage of one of the many itineraries and guided tours of the Jubilee that the best tour companies have designed to provide a full experience of this special time. During this visit the pilgrims can have not just a spiritual experience but also, so to speak, an aesthetic one. Because the experience of Faith in Rome is not separated from that of artistic expression. Faith is in Art as much as Art is a way of expressing the divine. This is why the Jubilee in Rome is always a special time.

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