The Holy Catholic Church has regularly celebrated “Holy Years,” usually every twenty-five years, except for special circumstances, like in 1983 when a Holy Year was declared to mark the 1950th anniversary of the death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ and in 2016 when the Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy has just been declared to emphasize the importance of mercy and mark the 50th anniversary of the closing of the Second Vatican Council. But, how did this Jubilee celebration come to begin?
In Leviticus 25:8-13 (WEB), it states: “You shall count off seven Sabbaths of years, seven times seven years; and there shall be to you the days of seven Sabbaths of years, even forty-nine years. Then you shall sound the loud trumpet on the tenth day of the seventh month. On the Day of Atonement you shall sound the trumpet throughout all your land. You shall make the fiftieth year holy, and proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee to you; and each of you shall return to his own property, and each of you shall return to his family. That fiftieth year shall be a jubilee to you. In it you shall not sow, neither reap that which grows of itself, nor gather from the undressed vines. For it is a jubilee; it shall be holy to you. You shall eat of its increase out of the field. In this Year of Jubilee each of you shall return to his property.” Thus, the celebration of the Jubilee Year in the Pre-Christian era, i.e. in Jewish Mosaic Law, means that at this season every household should recover its absent members, the land return to its former owners, the Hebrew slaves be set free, and debts be remitted. Hence, the sacred Scripture is clear on the purpose of the celebration: “This fiftieth year is sacred—it is a time of freedom and of celebration when everyone will receive back their original property, and slaves will return home to their families” (Leviticus 25:10 CEV).
Indeed, it is in Christianity that the purpose of the celebration has been fulfilled: the freedom from the slavery of sin through penance that reconciles man to God and pilgrimage that gets one to go back home, the Church. As what a 13th-century hymn against Albigensis states, “The blessing of the year of jubilee releases the obligation of punishments. After sinners have been purged, the cause against them ends. All the guilty go free by the mercy of God’s kingdom, as set forth in the law of Levi.”
It is commonly asserted that the celebration of Christian Jubilee has started in 1300 when Pope Boniface VIII, through his bull, Antiquorum habet fida relatio, declared that he grants afresh and renews certain full remissions of and indulgences for sins which are to be obtained by visiting the city of Rome and St. Peter’s Basilica. Although the word jubilee did not occur in the said papal bull but the writers both Roman and foreign described that year as annus jubileus, from whence the name jubilee has been applied to such celebrations ever since.
Furthermore, despite the fact that the first universal Jubilee (intended for every a hundred years) only has a precise record in 1300, it is also certain that the practice of solemnizing the fiftieth year has been observed even the earliest years of Christianity; for instance, the jubilee of a monk’s religious profession was often kept. Also, as early as 1200, the Chronicle of Alberic of Three Fountains has shown the following entry: “It is said that this year was celebrated as the fiftieth year, or the year of jubilee and remission, in the Roman Court.” Thus, it is indeed true that the the number 50 has been given an important and special treatment, i.e. the number of remission, in the Salvation History. Stephen Cardinal Lantron, in his homily during the translation of the body of St. Thomas of Canterbury in 1220 (fifty years after his martyrdom), said: “the mystical virtue of the number fifty, which, as every reader of the sacred page is aware, is the number of remission.”
Nevertheless, although Pope Boniface VIII had intended originally that the Holy Year be celebrated only once in a hundred years, Pope Clement VI, then residing in Avignon, gave his consent to the requests made by St. Birgitta of Sweden and poet Petrarch (among others) to hold the Jubilee Year in 1350 instead of 1400; thus, setting a period of fifty years between jubilees. Later Pope Urban VI decided to reduce the period to thirty three years in memory of the earthly life of the Lord Jesus Christ. When Pope Urban died, the new Pope, Boniface IX opened the Jubilee in 1390, but since the numbers of pilgrims were so great he called a second Holy Year in 1400. Another Jubilee was proclaimed by Pope Martin V in 1423 (33 years after the last proclaimed Jubilee in 1390), but Pope Nicholas V, in 1450, reverted to the quinquagesimal period, while in 1470 Pope Paul II decreed that the Jubilee should be celebrated every twenty-five years, and this has been the normal rule ever since.
On the other hand, a very important symbolic act performed by each pilgrim during the Holy Year has been to pass through the Holy Door. But, what is the significance of this Holy Door?
In the New Testament, the Lord Jesus Christ refers to Himself as the door of His sheepfold. “I am the door. If any man enter by Me, he shall be safe” (John 10:9) with His encouring invitation: “Pulsate, et aperietur vobis—And I say to you . . . knock, and it shall be opened to you. For to him that knocketh, it shall be opened” (Luke 11:9).
Thus, to pass through the door from the outside is to pass from this world into the presence of God, just as in the old Temple of Jerusalem when the High Priest on the Feast of Yom Kippur passed through the veil covering the doorway of the Holy of Holies to enter into the presence of God to offer the sacrifice of atonement (cf. Leviticus 16). It is indeed true that for pilgrims who enter through the Holy Door may piously gain the plenary indulgences, i.e. the remission of sin and its temporal punishment. As what Virgilio Cardinal Noe, the former archpriest of St. Peter’s Basilica, said in his book, The Holy Door in St. Peter’s in 1999: “The door of a church marks the divide between the sacred and profane, separating the church’s interior from the outside world. It is the boundary defining welcome and exclusion.” Meanwhile, how did this practice begun?
The earliest account dates back to the earliest centuries of Christianity wherein those who crossed the threshold of the Puerta Tarpea upon the site of the Lateran are given the right of sanctuary from persecution. Accordingly, at the request of Emperor Constantine I, Pope Sylvester I (AD 314-335) published a papal bull proclaiming the immunity from punishment for Christian sinners who took sanctuary there. The privilege however, was grossly abused and even commercialised at some point resulting the popes to consequently ordered the door to be walled up at all seasons except during certain times of special grace. Formerly the wall was destroyed for the door to be opened only once in a hundred years, this was afterwards reduced to fifty years and now it is said to be opened regulary every twenty-five years and/or at the will of the pope.
Consequently, it was Pope Martin V who in 1423, at the Basilica of Saint John Lateran, opened the Holy Door for the first time in the history of the Jubilee. In fact, Giovanni di Paolo Rucellai (1403–1481), a Florentine eyewitness to the first opening of the Holy Door at the start of the Jubilee in 1423, recorded in his chronicle: “One of which is always walled up except during the Jubilee year, when it is broken down at Christmas when the Jubilee commences. The devotion which the populace has for the bricks and mortar of which it is composed is such that at the unwalling, the fragments are immediately carried off by the crowd, and the foreigners take them home as so many sacred relics . . . Out of devotion every one who gains the indulgence passes through that door, which is walled up again as soon as the Jubilee is ended.” From thence, the next popes, especially Pope Alexander VI in 1499, maintained this tradition and extended it to the four major basilicas, namely, in addition to Saint John Lateran, the Basilica of Saint Peter in the Vatican, Saint Mary Major and Saint Paul Outside the Walls.
Moreover, the following Holy doors are portals upon which the pope has canonically designated within Church law as a permanent Holy Door:
Briefly, the Holy Door represents the passage to salvation — the path to a new and eternal life, which was opened to humanity by Christ the Lord. As what Pope Francis said in his homily at the opening of the Holy Year of Mercy: “To pass through the Holy Door means to rediscover the infinite mercy of the Father who welcomes everyone and goes out personally to encounter each of them.”