By CAROL GLATZ, Catholic News Service | Published March 19, 2015
VATICAN CITY (CNS)—A holy year as a time of spiritual renewal has its biblical roots in the jubilees observed by the Jewish people at 50-year intervals, when debts were pardoned and slaves were freed.
The term “jubilee” itself comes from the Hebrew word “yobel,” meaning a ram’s horn, which was used to make the trumpet that signaled the beginning of this time of forgiveness.
For the Catholic Church, a holy year remains a time of great spiritual significance, and emphasis is placed on the examination of conscience and conversion, the forgiveness of sins, reconciliation, concrete acts of solidarity and initiatives to restore justice.
The jubilee is called a holy year because it aims to encourage holiness, strengthen faith in Christ and inspire greater communion within the church and society.
The first Holy Year was proclaimed by Pope Boniface VIII in 1300, when thousands of Christians from throughout Europe came on pilgrimage to Rome. Among those who journeyed to the Eternal City for the first celebration was the Italian poet Dante Alighieri, who is commonly said to have found the inspiration for his “Divine Comedy” during that pilgrimage.
In the 15th century, Pope Paul II set a 25-year timetable for holy years, which has been the norm since, in order to allow each generation the possibility of experiencing at least one holy year.
As a way to stress the importance of forgiveness and renewing one’s relationship with God, plenary indulgences are offered during holy years. An indulgence—that is, the remission of temporal punishment for sins—is customarily granted to those who make a pilgrimage to Rome and fulfill certain other conditions: reception of the sacraments of penance and the Eucharist, visits and prayers for the intention of the pope and performing simple acts such as visiting the sick.
Those who do not make a pilgrimage to Rome can gain the same indulgence by receiving penance and the Eucharist and praying for the pope during a visit or a community celebration in a church designated by the local bishop.
The Holy Door, symbolizing the doorway of salvation, marks the “extraordinary” spiritual passage offered the faithful during a jubilee year. There are only seven Holy Doors: four at the major basilicas in Rome and one each in France, Spain and Canada.
On Christmas Eve 1999, St. John Paul II changed the traditional Holy Door ritual at St. Peter’s Basilica when he did not strike the wall sealing the door. Instead, he pushed open the Holy Door—the wall had been dismantled beforehand.
Bishop Piero Marini, then-master of papal liturgical ceremonies, said, “Elements of the old ritual which have become obsolete will be replaced by others which better express the biblical and liturgical significance of the Holy Door.”
When Pope Alexander VI opened the Holy Door on Christmas 1499, “he used a mason’s hammer, and the blows were not completely symbolic; the pope tried to break through part of the wall,” Bishop Marini said. For centuries, the opening ceremony included a long pause to allow masons to finish taking the wall down before the pope crossed the threshold.
In addition to an “ordinary” holy year set at 25-year intervals, occasionally a special jubilee is proclaimed to mark some outstanding event. The custom of these so-called “extraordinary” jubilees began in the 16th century, and they can vary in length from a few days to a year.
There have been 26 “ordinary” holy years so far, the last one being the Great Jubilee of the Year 2000. There were no jubilee celebrations in 1800 and 1850 because of political turmoil at the time.
There have been two extraordinary jubilees in the last century: 1933, proclaimed by Pope Pius XI to mark the 1,900th anniversary of Christ’s redemption, and 1983, proclaimed by St. John Paul II to mark 1,950 years since the redemption.