04 December 2015

An FAQ on the Jubilee of Mercy

As is now well known, the Holy Father Pope Francis surprised us by announcing his intention to declare an Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy for the spiritual benefit of the Christian faithful. At the conclusion of his homily in which he reflected on the mercy of God, His Holiness said:
Dear brothers and sisters, I have often thought about how the Church might make clear its mission of being a witness to mercy. It is journey that begins with a spiritual conversion. For this reason, I have decided to call an extraordinary Jubilee that is to have the mercy of God at its center. It shall be a Holy Year of Mercy. We want to live this Year in the light of the Lord's words: “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful. (cf. Lk 6:36)”

This Holy Year will begin on this coming Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception and will end on November 20, 2016, the Sunday dedicated to Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe – and living face of the Father’s mercy. I entrust the organization of this Jubilee to the Pontifical Council for Promotion of the New Evangelization, that [the dicastery] might animate it as a new stage in the journey of the Church on its mission to bring to every person the Gospel of mercy.

I am convinced that the whole Church will find in this Jubilee the joy needed to rediscover and make fruitful the mercy of God, with which all of us are called to give consolation to every man and woman of our time. From this moment, we entrust this Holy Year to the Mother of Mercy, that she might turn her gaze upon us and watch over our journey.
Pope Francis gave the formal declaration of the Extraordinary Holy Year of Mercy by means of the Bull of Indiction Misericordiae Vultus (The Face of Mercy) on April 11, 2015.

Frequently Asked Questions About a Jubilee

Naturally, you may be asking yourself a few questions about this announcement. I will try to answer a few of the more obvious questions below. 

What is a jubilee?

Pope Boniface VIII presides over the jubilee of 1300
A jubilee - also known as a Holy Year - is a designated space of time - generally a year or a period approximating to it - which the Popes have used over the centuries to urge the faithful to an ever greater conversion and holiness of life, symbolized by undertaking a pilgrimage to Rome and crossing the threshold of the Holy Doors.

To encourage this pilgrimage of conversion, the Supreme Pontiffs have offered the grace of a plenary indulgence to the faithful who participate in the jubilee and fulfill the usual requirements for the reception of an indulgence.

Pope Boniface VIII (yes, the one who issued Unam Sanctam in 1302), insprired by the jubilees found in the Old Testament, called the first Christian Jubilee in the year 1300. When he did so, he expected a Jubilee year to be held at the beginning of each new century, but it soon happened that a jubilee was celebrated every thirty-three years. Since the Jubilee announced by Pope Paul II for 1475, a jubilee has been held every twenty-five years (with the exception of 1800 and 1850 due to political reasons).

The notion of a jubilee is found in the Book of Leviticus in which is recounted the Lord's declaration to Moses:
You shall treat this fiftieth year as sacred. You shall proclaim liberty in the land for all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee for you, when each of you shall return to your own property, each of you to your own family. This fiftieth year is your year of jubilee; you shall not sow, nor shall you reap the after growth or pick the untrimmed vines, since this is the jubilee. It shall be sacred for you (25:10-12).
In the verses that follow, the Lord gave additional regulations for the year of jubilee.

What is an indulgence?

Canons 992 and 993 of the Code of Canon Law describe indulgences as follows:
An indulgence is the remission before God of temporal punishment for sins whose guilt is already forgiven, which a properly disposed member of the Christian faithful gains under certain and defined conditions by the assistance of the Church which as minister of redemption dispenses and applies authoritatively the treasury of the satisfactions of Christ and the saints.
An indulgence is partial or plenary insofar as it partially or totally frees from the temporal punishment due to sins.
In his Apostolic Constitution Indulgentiarum doctrina, Blessed Pope Paul VI explained what this means:
The remission of the temporal punishment due for sins already forgiven insofar as their guilt is concerned has been called specifically "indulgence."

It has something in common with other ways or means of eliminating the vestiges of sin but at the same time it is clearly distinct from them.

In an indulgence in fact, the Church, making use of its power as minister of the Redemption of Christ, not only prays but by an authoritative intervention dispenses to the faithful suitably disposed the treasury of satisfaction which Christ and the saints won for the remission of temporal punishment.

The aim pursued by ecclesiastical authority in granting indulgences is not only that of helping the faithful to expiate the punishment due sin but also that of urging them to perform works of piety, penitence and charityparticularly those which lead to growth in faith and which favor the common good (8).
The Blessed Pontiff went on to note that an indulgence "cannot be acquired without a sincere conversion of mentality ('metanoia') and unity with God, to which the performance of the prescribed works is added. Thus the order of charity is preserved, into which is incorporated the remission of punishment by distribution from the Church's treasury" (11). Hence, we see here that indulgences, like the sacraments, are not magical, but are granted because of an interior disposition manifested in external pious acts.

What happens during a Jubilee?

A jubilee begins with the opening of the Holy Door of the Basilica of St. Peter in Rome and concludes with the closing of the same Holy Door. Throughout the jubilee year, pilgrims are invited to walk through the Holy Door to complete their pilgrimage - in addition to the usual requirements to obtain a plenary indulgence, namely sacramental confession, the reception of Holy Communion, the recitation of the Creed and the Our Father, and praying for the intentions of the Holy Father - to receive the granted indulgence.

Throughout the holy year, the faithful are called to greater lives of love and charity, of faith and hope, both internally and externally. During the Jubilee of Mercy, Pope Francis has called the faithful to the corporal and spiritual works of mercy (Misericordiae Vultis, 15), which the Catechism of the Catholic Church describes as follows:
The works of mercy are charitable actions by which we come to the aid of our neighbor in his spiritual and bodily necessities.241 Instructing, advising, consoling, comforting are spiritual works of mercy, as are forgiving and bearing wrongs patiently. the corporal works of mercy consist especially in feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless, clothing the naked, visiting the sick and imprisoned, and burying the dead.242 Among all these, giving alms to the poor is one of the chief witnesses to fraternal charity: it is also a work of justice pleasing to God (2447).
In all of this, Pope Francis is calling us to be merciful like the Father, words which he has given us as the motto for this Jubilee.

In the most recent Jubilee of 2000, Saint Paul John Paul II granted a plenary indulgence to those members of the faithful who walked through the Holy Doors of one or all of the principle basilicas in Rome. He granted this same indulgence to those in the Holy Land who visited the Basilicas of the Nativity in Bethlehem, the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, and/or the Annunciation in Nazareth. He also granted this same indulgence to those who visited the Cathedral within their Diocese and he allowed Diocesan Bishops to designate other churches in their diocese where the jubilee indulgence could be obtained.

Additionally, he decreed that
The plenary indulgence of the Jubilee can also be gained through actions which express in a practical and generous way the penitential spirit which is, as it were, the heart of the Jubilee. This would include abstaining for at least one whole day from unnecessary consumption (e.g., from smoking or alcohol, or fasting or practising abstinence according to the general rules of the Church and the norms laid down by the Bishops' Conferences) and donating a proportionate sum of money to the poor; supporting by a significant contribution works of a religious or social nature (especially for the benefit of abandoned children, young people in trouble, the elderly in need, foreigners in various countries seeking better living conditions); devoting a suitable portion of personal free time to activities benefitting the community, or other similar forms of personal sacrifice (Incarnationis Mysterium).
Did Pope Francis concede the same conditions for the jubilee indulgence as Saint John Paul II?

Pope Francis has ordered the opening of a Holy Door in every Cathedral throughout the world and has also authorized Diocesan Bishops to open Holy Doors in princple shrines and other churches in their Dioceses so that all of the faithful will have the opportunity to avail themselves of the mercy extended in this Jubilee.

He has not, however, granted the indulgence through the same additional acts as did Pope Saint John Paul II in Incarnationis Mysterium.

What is the difference between an ordinary and an extraordinary Jubilee?

An ordinary jubilee is held every twenty-five years. At the present time, 26 ordinary jubilees have been held.

An extraordinary jubilee is called by the Supreme Pontiff for a particular reason of great importance. Saint Pope John Paul II announced the last extraordinary jubilee year in 1983 to celebrate the 1,950th anniversary of our redemption by the Death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ. Before this, Pope Pius XI announced an extraordinary jubilee in 1933 to celebrate the 1,900th anniversary of our redemption. I have not been able to determine how many other extraordinary jubilees have been proclaimed.

His Holiness Pope Francis has announced this new extraordinary jubilee to celebrate the greatness of God's mercy. The Jubilee of Mercy will begin on the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception on December 8, 2015 - the 50th anniversary of the conclusion of the Second Vatican Council - and will conclude on November 20, 2016, the Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe.

What are 'Holy Doors'?

The Holy Door of St. Peter's, from the inside
Each of the principle basilicas in Rome have a set of Holy Doors. These doors remained sealed shut and are unusable except when they are opened during a Holy Year. It seems that Pope Martin V opened the first Holy Door in 1423, although this is debated.

Before he opens the Holy Door, the Pope prays in front of it and then strikes the Holy Door three times with, according to tradition, a golden hammer. The Pope then kneels in front of the open doors in quiet prayer before passing through them as the Te Deum is sung.

At the conclusion of the jubilee, the Pope blesses the cement and bricks that will be used to reseal the Holy Book and places the first bit of mortar himself, together with three bricks and a few coins.

How many Holy Doors are there?

There are four sets of Holy Doors. The Basilicas of St. Peter, St. John Lateran, St. Mary Major, and St. Paul Outside the Walls each have a Holy Door.

Additional Questions?

I have tried to answer what seem to me the most common questions regarding a jubilee. If you have an additional question relating to a holy year, please leave your question as a comment to this post and I will try to answer it for you and for others.

Online sources:


  1. So, for those poor souls who do not accept the year of Jubilee, and do not walk through the doors, what does this mean for them once the doors are closed?

  2. Of course not, my anonymous. Please point out to me where any such thing was even hinted at.

  3. I am sorry. I do not understand your answer. Perhaps my wording was unclear in my question. I will reword it. What if someone refuses to accept the offer of forgiveness of sins that the walking through the doors offers, rejects the ritual as conflicting with Biblical teachings? What is this person's eternal state after the doors close, in the view of the Roman Catholic Church?

    1. God never forces his mercy upon anyone because he respects our freedom.

      The crossing of the threshold of the holy door is meant to be the the climax, if you will, of a pilgrimage. A pilgrimage is a journey to encounter God in a holy and to return home changed. Walking through the holy door is an external symbol or what has already happened interiorly.

      As the sign next to the holy door says, "As you pass through the Holy Door remember that Jesus is the Door who introduces you to the embrace of God's mercy."

      The consent of a jubilee is thoroughly biblical. But even if it were not, nothing in the Bible says that everything we do has to be found explicitly in the bible.