Rome's Catholic Jubilee: When, What, and Where

Whether you’re an ardent believer or of a secular mindset, there’s no stopping it: the Jubilee is upon us. For some, this will be a momentous occasion of religious redemption. For others, it is at best a moment of historical significance, at worst, a headache of packed streets and long lines. Regardless of which category you fall into, an understanding of what is currently underway in Rome is essential.

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 two 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 four 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 and obtain salvation through prayer and sacraments like confession.

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 worshippers. The fervent requests and demonstrations of faith convinced the Pope to proclaim the first Jubilee in the history of Christianity on February 22.

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, four Jubilees were proclaimed. The third Jubilee (1390) sanctioned and exalted the return of the papal seat to Rome after a brief stint in Avignon, France. 1450’s Jubilee was called by the “humanist” pope, Nicholas V, who assumed the challenge of reconciling faith and the rebirth of study and admiration for antiquity, heralding a new era in the Church’s history. In 1470, Pope Paul II decided the celebration would become more frequent and take place every 25 years, and the seventh Jubilee opened in 1475. The Jubilee of 1500 was under Pope Alexander VI Borgia, who first introduced the concept of the Holy Doors, and the Jubilee of 1575 of Gregory XIII saw the addition of three Jubilee churches: St. Sebastian, St. Lawrence Outside the Walls, and Holy Cross in Jerusalem.

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.

If the last Holy Year was held only fifteen 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. 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. During the very first Angelus after his elections, Francis’s opening remarks foreshadowed the Holy Year: “A little mercy makes the world less cold and more just. We need to understand properly this mercy of God, this merciful Father who is so patient.” In his Lenten message, the Pope persisted, proclaiming, “How greatly I desire that all those places where the Church is present, especially our parishes and our communities, may become islands of mercy in the midst of the sea of indifference!” 

While Rome’s Jubilee will begin on the 8th with the opening of St. Peter’s Basilica’s Holy Door, the event has already officially begun: 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.

Opening dates of the Basilicas' Holy Doors

St. Peter: December 8, 2015.
St. John Lateran: December 13, 2015.
St. Mary Major: January 1, 2016.
St. Paul Outside the Walls: January 26, 2016.
For a chance to walk through St. Peter’s Holy Door, reservations are possible at www.im.va

DID YOU KNOW...Another novelty of this Jubilee? For the first time ever, Holy Doors will be designated in every diocese throughout the world.