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Brief History of Holy Years and Jubilees in the Church

Fr. Thomas Rosica, CSB

December 5, 2015
In the Catholic tradition the first ordinary Jubilee was indicted in 1300 by Pope Boniface VIII. Its remote motivation was a wave of spirituality, forgiveness and fellowship spreading at that time in Christendom in reaction to the dominating hatred and violence of the era. The more immediate motivation is to be connected with the rumour, which began to circulate in 1299, that at the turn of the century every pilgrim to Saint Peter’s would receive “full remission of sins” The enormous flow of pilgrims flocking to Rome convinced Boniface VIII to conceded an indulgence for the whole of 1300 and in the future every hundred years.  After 1300, although many changes were to follow in its form and frequency (100, 33, 50, 25, besides extraordinary ones), the Holy Year will maintain its specific finality as a time of penance, forgiveness and reconciliation, interior renewal and conversion. Jubilees will be indicted with a Bull generally promulgated by the Pope on the feast of the Ascension or in Advent and regulated by “proper norms” to define the jubilee celebrations, directive regarding pilgrimages, actions and works of charity, conditions for gaining the indulgence attached to it.
Jubilees in Rome
The numerous requests made to Pope Clement VI, when the Apostolic See was transferred to Avignon (1305-77), for the second Jubilee to be called in 1350 instead of 1400, convinced the Pope to set the frequency of Holy Years for every 50 years. To the Basilicas to be visited, Saint Peter’s in the Vatican and Saint Paul’s outside the Walls, Saint John Lateran’s was added. Later Pope Urban VI decided to change the frequency to every 33 years, in memory of the time of Christ’s life on earth. When Urban VI died the new Pope, Boniface IX, called a Holy Year in 1390 extending the privileges to cities distant from Rome and adding to the usual Basilicas, the visit to Saint Mary Major’s. The approaching centenary year with the passage to the new century, brought such a vast flow of pilgrims to Rome as to induce Boniface IX to call Christianity to mark a Jubilee Year in 1400 although without the traditional Bull of Indication.
With the end of the Schism of the West, Pope Martin V, returning to the frequency of every 33 years, called the Holy Year 1423, with two novelties: the coining of a special commemorative medal and the opening of the Holy Door in Saint John Lateran’s. Later Pope Nicholas V, returning to the interval of fifty years between one Jubilee and the next, starting from 1450 with the Bull dated January 1449 and the opening of the “Golden Door” in Saint Peter's, indicted the Jubilee of 1450, called Jubilee of Saints because of the initiative to connect with the Jubilee the canonization of some “witnesses of the faith”. It will be Pope Paul II who, with a Bull in 1470, establishes the interval of 25 years which will remain stable; and so his successor, Pope Sixtus IV, confirming this decision, indicted the Jubilee of 1475 setting as the opening date Christmas Eve, December 24th. For this occasion the Pope wished for Rome to be embellished with new works of art, such as the Sistine Chapel and the bridge, Ponte Sisto, over the Tiber river. At that time at work in Rome there were greatest artists of the day: Verroccio, Signorelli, Ghirlandaio, Botticelli, Perugino, Pinturicchi, Melozzo da Forli.
In 1500 Alexander VI decided that the Holy Doors of the four basilicas would be opened at the same moment, and that he himself would open the Holy Door in Saint Peter’s. Clement VII solemnly opened, on December 24th 1524, the ninth Jubilee; it was a period in which there was already an air of the great crisis which was soon to fall on Europe, with the Protestant reform.Holy Year of Mercy 2015
History shows how enthusiastically the People of God have entered into the Holy Years seeing in them a time for conversion. But during history there have also been “abuses and misunderstandings” , for example regarding the indulgence. TheJubilee of 1550 was indicted by Paul II, but opened by Julius II. The remarkable flow of pilgrims caused no few problems regarding their assistance, provided, to great extent, by Saint Philip Neri, with his Confraternity of the Holy Trinity. In 1575, during the pontificate of Gregory XIII, more than 300,000 people traveled to Rome from all over Europe. The next Holy Years of the 17thcentury were called by Clement VIII (1600), Urban VIII (1625), Innocent X (1650), Clement X (1675). The memory of Innocent X, who promoted the Jubilee of 1700, is connected with one of the most famous charitable works in Rome: St. Michele Ripa Hospice.
In the meantime initiatives to meet the needs of the pilgrims flourished, as in 1725 during the Pontificate of Benedict XIII. A tireless preacher in the Holy Year 1750 (indicted by Benedict XIV) was Saint Leonardo da Porto Maurizio, who set up inside the Colosseum 14 stations for the pious exercise of the Way of the Cross with a giant cross in the centre of the arena. Clement XIV promulgated the Jubilee for 1775 but died three months before its solemn opening (performed by the new Pope, Pius VI).  More than half a million pilgrims made the journey to Rome in 1825: Leo XII substituted the usual visit to the Basilica of Saint Paul’s outside the Walls, destroyed by a fire in 1823, with the minor Basilica of Santa Maria in Trastevere. Twenty five years later, the Holy Year could not take place due to the vicissitudes of the Roman Republic and temporary exile of Pius IX.  However the same Pope was able to indict that of 1875, although without the ceremony of opening and closing of the Holy Door since Rome at that time was occupied by the troops of King Victor Emmanuel II.  It fell to Leo XIII to indict the twenty-second Jubilee for the beginning of the 20th century of the Christian era, characterized by six beatifications and the canonizations of two saints, John Baptist de La Salle and Rita da Cascia.
In 1925, Pius XI asked that during the Holy Year the attention of the faithful should be drawn to the work of the missions and he encouraged Catholics to pray for peace among the nations as a condition for gaining the indulgence. In 1950, a few years after the end of the Second World War, Pius XII promulgated the next Jubilee indicating its objectives: the sanctification of souls through prayer and penance and unswerving fidelity to Christ and the Church; action for peace and the safeguarding of the Holy Places; defense of the Church against new attacks from her enemies and imploration for the truth faith for those who had strayed, those without faith and those without God; promotion of social justice and work of assistance for the poor and the needy. During this year there was the proclamation of the Dogma of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary into heaven (November 1st 1950). The last ordinary Jubilee was 1975 and was indicted by Paul VI who summarized its objectives with the words: Renewal and Reconciliation.
Christ Enthroned
Preparation for the Great Jubilee began when Pope John Paul II issued his Apostolic Letter Tertio Millennio Adveniente (As the Third Millennium Approaches) on November 10, 1994. In the letter, he invited the Church to begin a three-year period of intensive preparation for the celebration of the third Christian millennium. The first year, 1997 would be marked by an exploration of the person of Jesus, the second, 1998, by meditation on the person of the Holy Spirit, and the third, 1999, by meditation on the person of God the Father. Each year was also to be marked by a special prayer of entrustment to the Blessed Virgin Mary.
The formal convocation of the holy year came through the papal bull of indiction, Incarnationis Mysterium (Mystery of the Incarnation), on November 29, 1998. In the bull, the Pope indicated that he had desired to lead the Church into the Great Jubilee since the beginning of his pontificate. He explained that this Jubilee would be a chance to open new horizons in preaching the Kingdom of God. However, it would also be a time of repentance, both for individuals and for the Church as a whole. Furthermore, he stressed the ecumenical character of this event, which he saw as not only for Catholics, but for all Christians and indeed for the whole world.
Misericordiae Vultus
CNS photo/L'Osservatore Romano via Reuters