Pope Francis has announced an “extraordinary” Jubilee which begins on December 8, the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, and which will be more commonly known as the “Year of Mercy”. During this special year, the Church will open its treasury to dispense Mercy, in the form of special devotions, pilgrimages, the opening of “holy doors”, and indulgences intended to bring us all closer to our Lord Jesus Christ.
But, what exactly is a “Jubilee” and what are its origins?
I. The Church’s practice of celebrating the Jubilee is inherited from the Ancient Hebrews
The Third Commandment of God is to remember the Sabbath Day (i.e., the seventh day of the week) and keep it holy. The Hebrews followed a seven-day week according to the account in Genesis, in which God rested on the seventh day of creation.
Springing from the practice of observing the Sabbath — seventh — day of the week, there were also “Sabbath Years” in Jewish custom, which took place every seventh year, when the fields were left fallow, and allowed to rest for the entire year.
Building upon that, according to Leviticus, the year that followed every seventh of Sabbath Years (i.e., the 50th year, after 7 times 7 years [49 years]) was the Jubilee Year. The etymology of Jubilee, of Hebrew origin, is “the year of the blowing of the ram’s horn”, announced to the people by the blowing of a ram’s horn from the Temple. In Ezekiel, the Jubilee is called the “Year of Release”, and it provided three main enactments for the people of God:
- rest of the soil;
- reversion of landed property to its original owner, who had been driven by poverty to sell it; and,
- and the freeing of Israelites who had become slaves of their brethren.
Thus for the Israelites, to some extent commerce and temporal matters were also tied to the jubilee, because the amount of time to a “Year of Release” was the extent of what a new owner of land could expect when he purchased from the man with an ancient familial claim. Likewise, the slave who sold himself would be freed at the next jubilee.
According to the Catholic Encyclopedia:
The aim of the jubilee, therefore, is to preserve unimpaired the essential character of the theocracy, to the end that there be no poor among the people of God (Deut. xv, 4). Hence God, who redeemed Israel from the bondage of Egypt to be his peculiar people, and allotted to them the promised land, will not suffer any one to usurp his title as Lord over those whom he owns as his own. It is the idea of grace for all the suffering children of man, bringing freedom to the captive and rest to the weary as well as to the earth, which made the year of jubilee the symbol of the Messianic year of grace (Isaiah 61:2), when all the conflicts in the universe shall be restored to their original harmony, and when not only we, who have the first-fruits of the Spirit, but the whole creation, which groaneth and travaileth in pain together until now, shall be restored into the glorious liberty of the sons of God (comp. Isaiah 61:1-3; Luke 4:21; Romans 8:18-23; Hebrews 4:9).
II. The First Christian Jubilee Most Likely Occurred in 1300
In A.D. 1300, Pope Boniface VIII declared a Jubilee Year, and it is commonly thought that it was a response to the pilgrims to Rome who came seeking great indulgences. Boniface published the Bull “Antiquorum fida relatio“, in which he declared “great remissions and indulgences for sins” obtained “by visiting the city of Rome and the venerable basilica of the Prince of the Apostles”. Boniface declared in the Bull “not only full and copious, but the most full, pardon of all their sins”, to those fulfilling certain conditions: true penitence and confession of sins, and visits to the basilicas of St. Peter and St. Paul in Rome.
III. There are “Ordinary” and “Extraordinary” Jubilee Years
In discussing the last “ordinary” Jubilee of A.D. 2000, the Vatican website has a document found here, which notes that a Jubilee is “ordinary” if it falls after a set period of years, and “extraordinary” when it is proclaimed from some outstanding event. The upcoming Year of Mercy would be considered an extraordinary jubilee.
Including A.D. 2000, there have been 26 “ordinary” Jubilees since the first in A.D. 1300.
“The custom of calling ‘extraordinary’ Jubilees began in the 16th century and they can vary in length from a few days to a year.” In the last (20th) century, there were two extraordinary jubilees:
- A.D. 1933, proclaimed by Pope Pius XI to mark the 1900th anniversary of Redemption;
- A.D. 1983, proclaimed by Pope St. John Paul II to mark the 1950th anniversary of Redemption.
Given the fact that both of the preceding extraordinary jubilees are tied to Redemption, it could be anticipated that the next extraordinary jubilee after this upcoming one might occur on A.D. 2033, for the 2000th anniversary.
IV. Jubilee Years are Characterized by Opening the Holy Doors
Each of the four major papal basilicas in Rome (St. Peter’s, St. John Lateran, St. Paul Outside the Walls, and St. Maria Maggiore) have a “holy door” that is sealed shut from the inside and only opened for jubilee years.
When Pope Boniface IX declared a extraordinary jubilee, he unsealed the Holy Door at St. John Lateran on Christmas Eve A.D. 1390. At that time, St. Peter’s Basilica was still the “old” basilica originally built by Emperor Constantine, and not the current one which was completed in A.D. 1626, and which features for its Holy Door the northernmost entrance to the basilica.
Since then, each jubilee has been characterized by the opening of the holy doors, a practice which has been modified in modern times so that each diocese’s cathedral may designate a “holy door” (as well as at other suitable pilgrimage sites within the diocese) to be symbolically and ceremonially opened at the start of the jubilee year. This expansion of opening “holy doors” all over the world provides to pilgrims who cannot travel all the way to Rome the opportunity to take part more fully in the jubilee, and obtain the indulgences promised to them.
Since the original intent of jubilees for the ancient Hebrews involved making impossible “absolute poverty” by restoring individuals to their ancestral lands and doing away with slavery, it was a special time when the riches of mercy were poured out for the good of God’s people.
While it has less to do with the temporal concerns of those first jubilees, the upcoming “Year of Mercy” is nevertheless very much about doing away with spiritual poverty and slavery to sin, by restoring us to the full and rich life in Christ that is promised to us in Baptism. As the saying goes, “To Fast when the Church Feasts, is to Fast alone”, so we would do well to join in this important celebration however we are able.
- Catholic Encyclopedia (maintained at NewAdvent.org), “Year of Jubilee (Hebrew)”, http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/08534a.htm.
- Catholic Encyclopedia (maintained at NewAdvent.org), “Holy Year of Jubilee”, http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/08531c.htm.
- Vatican Website, Documents on the A.D. 2000 Jubilee, http://www.vatican.va/jubilee_2000/docs/documents/ju_documents_17-feb-1997_history_en.html.
- Wikipedia, “Holy door”, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Holy_door.