December 8, 2015, saw the beginning of the Jubilee of Mercy, an event of utmost spiritual importance in the Catholic faith. According to Catholic tradition, the Jubilee represents a year in which the faithful are given the opportunity to remit their sins, and reconciliation, conversion, and sacramental penance are celebrated.

There are 2 distinguishing aspects of the Holy Year. The first are indulgences, which are believed to grant a full pardon from the temporal punishment for sins that have already been forgiven in confession. In layman’s terms, that translates as a shorter penance for the faithful to atone, or a shorter time his/her soul will have to spend in purgatory. The second is the opening of the Holy Door, the initial rite of the Jubilee. This door is only opened during the Holy Year, otherwise remaining tightly sealed. Each of the 4 major basilicas of Rome – St. Peter’s, St. John Lateran, St. Paul Outside the Walls, and St. Mary Major – has a Holy Door. Opening the Holy Door symbolically illustrates the notion that Catholics have a chance to leave behind past transgressions.

Saint Peter’s Square. (Photo credit: Flickr)

The First Jubilee: 1300

The origins of the Jubilee tradition can be traced to the 14th century, when Pope Boniface VIII declared the first Jubilee in the year 1300. Crowds of pilgrims convening on Rome to venerate the tomb of St. Peter led Boniface to concede special spiritual benefits on the devoted worshipers. The fervent requests and demonstrations of faith convinced the Pope to proclaim the first Jubilee in the history of Christianity on February 22, 1300.

What was perhaps meant to be a singular event by Boniface soon grew: the desire to unite and celebrate the strength of the Catholic community persuaded subsequent popes to proclaim the Jubilee a centennial event. In the 14th century, 4 Jubilees were proclaimed. By the 19th century, the pontifical power was disrupted with the introduction of the Roman Republic, forcing Pope Pius IX into a self-imposed exile. In 1875, he was able to declare the first Jubilee since the end of the Church’s temporal power, cemented by the military’s taking of Rome in 1870 and the proclamation of Rome as the capital of a united Italy. In 1900, the 21st Jubilee (proclaimed by Pope Leo XIII) saw waves of pilgrims arrive in Rome, confirming that the shift in the Church’s authority did not in any way influence their expression of faith. In total, 26 Jubilees have been celebrated, the last under Pope John Paul II to mark the beginning of the third millennium.

St. Peter’s Basilica at night. (Photo credit: Flickr)

An Extraordinary Jubilee

If the last Holy Year was held only 15 years ago, then why is there one now? If we’re following the Church’s past example, don’t we have another decade to go? While Jubilees every quarter of the century (dubbed “ordinary”) are the norm, the possibility of “extraordinary” ones also exists. Extraordinary Jubilees are called by the Pope to mark a significant occasion.

Known as the “people’s Pope,” Pope Francis marked the second anniversary of his election by announcing an extraordinary Jubilee Year, to begin on December 8, 2015. For Catholic history buffs, the starting date is of religious significance, as it marks both the Feast of the Immaculate Conception and the 50th anniversary of the Second Vatican Council’s conclusion. According to Francis, the Jubilee has been called to help the Church focus on humility and mercy, themes that have been central to Francis’s papacy.

While Rome’s Jubilee began on the 8th with the opening of St. Peter’s Basilica’s Holy Door, the event had already officially begun even earlier: Pope Francis jump-started the celebration on November 28 by opening the diocese of Bangui’s Holy Door while in the Central African Republic, as a sign of prayer and solidarity for the war-torn nation. A 2015 Jubilee, while unconventional in its timing and start, is ultimately to be expected from a Pope who has built his papacy on being refreshingly unpredictable.

Hoping to walk through a Holy Door? St. Peter’s Basilica opened on December 8, 2015; St. John Lateran on December 13, 2015; St. Mary Major on January 1, 2016; and St. Paul Outside the Walls on January 26, 2016. For more information about St Peter’s and reservations, visit

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