This week I returned home from my annual spiritual retreat and pilgrimage. My itinerary included visiting Istanbul, Assisi and Rome. This post reports some considerations for pilgrims to Rome during this Extraordinary Jubilee for the “Year of Mercy”. By following the suggestions outlined here, you will be better able to plan and anticipate your journey, and draw the most you can from it.
1. Anticipate Lines and Crowds, especially “On-Season”
I have never visited Rome in the summer, because everyone says that it’s unbearably hot, so hot that the Romans escape the city — especially in August — and there are vast crowds of tourists and pilgrims for every attraction. If you can possibly manage it, I would suggest making a pilgrimage in the early spring or late autumn to avoid the most extreme heat and crowds. And, I can attest that right now is a wonderful time to visit, if you don’t mind slightly cooler temperatures and even fewer people everywhere.
Historically, Jubilee years equal greater than average numbers of people descending upon the city. Shopkeepers, restaurants and hotels anticipate additional revenue from a Jubilee. Some early reports are indicating that the numbers of pilgrims at the start of the Jubilee are falling short of original expectations, and there are a couple of potential reasons for this. Nevertheless, you shouldn’t expect a visit to Rome this year to be “normal”.
2. Be Prepared for Security Checks at All Four Major Papal Basilicas
On my trip, I visited all four major papal basilicas (St. Peter’s, St. John Lateran, St. Maria Maggiore, and St. Paul Outside the Walls), and I witnessed the security measures undertaken to keep tourists and pilgrims safe. Unless you have been hiding under a rock, you know that Islamic terrorists have explicitly referred to Rome multiple times as a potential target for attack.
As a result, the first thing you will see when you visit these sites is a military presence, complete with Humvee-style vehicles parked nearby, soldiers armed with assault rifles (and a significant number of police also), cordons around each basilica complex, single points of entry and exit for tourists and pilgrims, and metal detectors and x-ray machines.
It’s a shame that in order to visit a house of peace and prayer you will be reminded of the threat of terrorist violence, but this is the new reality in which we presently live. The purpose of the security measures is to protect the individuals who visit and the sacred places themselves, and so we can accept the minor inconvenience and anxiety without letting it ruin the purpose of the visit.
At a minimum, you should expect to add at least 15-20 minutes (and during busier periods you would probably want to at least double this amount of time) to pass security. It goes without saying that if you visit without bags or backpacks you will save yourself some hassle, but you will still have to empty your pockets and wait your turn to pass through at least one metal detector, and possibly a secondary security screening.
3. The Holy Doors and Gaining a Plenary Indulgence
Once you’ve passed security at the four major papal basilicas, you will want to enter the basilica by way of the “Porta Santa” or “Holy Door” that is normally kept sealed but opened specifically for the Jubilee. In his “bull of indiction” (Misericordiae Vultus) for this Year of Mercy, Pope Francis indicates his desire for the faithful that “…pilgrimage be an impetus to conversion: by crossing the threshold of the Holy Door, we will find the strength to embrace God’s mercy and dedicate ourselves to being merciful with others as the Father has been with us.”
The Church offers the opportunity to gain one plenary indulgence (i.e., remission of all temporal punishments due to sin) per day for pilgrims who meet certain conditions: (1) the pilgrim must be in a state of grace at the time of the “indulgenced work”, (2) the pilgrim should have a detachment from all sin, including venial sin,
(3) the pilgrim should sacramentally confess their sins, not necessarily on the same day as the pilgrimage, but within about ten days before or after, (4) the pilgrim should receive Communion, preferably by attending Holy Mass, for each indulgence, and (5) the pilgrim should pray for the intentions of the Holy Father.
4. Going to Confession
Compared to prior visits to Rome, when it was never terribly difficult to go to confession, the presence of priests in confessionals all over the Eternal City (and especially at the four major papal basilicas) appears to have increased for the Year of Mercy. In other words, the Church is “putting her money where her mouth is” by making priests even more available for sacramental confession — in a variety of languages, including English — so that a pilgrim has every opportunity to fulfill all the requirements for obtaining an indulgence and receiving God’s mercy.
5. Take Note of the Signs and Banners for the Year of Mercy
Throughout Rome at various places, there are signs and banners announcing the Year of Mercy and directing pilgrims to sites of interest. The logo for the Year of Mercy is, ahem, a little strange, but it is distinctive and these signs will help orient you to where you want to go.
6. Special Considerations for Visiting St. Peter’s Basilica
Holy doors have been opened throughout the world in every diocese, but the pilgrimage undertaken by millions of faithful Catholics in a Jubilee year is to St. Peter’s Basilica, Vatican City. In terms of Rome’s observance of this Year of Mercy, St. Peter’s is the focal point, and thus, there are some additional things to know before you visit this chief among pilgrimage destinations.
First, the largest crowd that you will find anywhere in Rome will most likely be at St. Peter’s. Long before this Year of Mercy, St. Peter’s was one of the few places in Rome where everyone was required to pass through security and have their bags x-rayed (clerics, nuns and religious in habits included). Since the most recent terrorist threats and attacks, the Vatican’s security routine has expanded and intensified. Expect that no matter when you visit St. Peter’s, you will wait in a long line to get inside, and if you leave the secured area for any reason, you will do it all again before getting back inside.
Second, if you wish to attend a liturgy presided by the Holy Father, you will need a ticket, which can be obtained by writing to the Prefecture of the Pontifical Household. Follow the link for a calendar of the Pope’s events for the upcoming months, and note that the only electronic means of writing for tickets is to send your request by fax at the number indicated. Normally (unless you write well in advance or make special arrangements) tickets will be held for you at a ticket office near Paul VI Audience Hall. Do not forget that you will be instructed to pick up your tickets the day before the event, and, you will need to go through security to get them. In other words, budget additional time for this. To date, there is no e-mail address or on-line form that I know about for requesting tickets directly (however, you can request them on-line through the Pontifical North American College in Rome, but you will need to go there to get them).
Third, if you wish to pass through the Holy Door of St. Peter’s, you should register as a pilgrim at the Vatican’s official website for the Year of Mercy. You can register as a group or as an individual. Shortly before your scheduled visit, you will receive an e-mail containing a document that you will need to print and bring with you. A volunteer will scan a bar code printed on the document to check you in as a pilgrim. As a registered pilgrim, you will be directed to first visit Castel Sant’Angelo to check in. From there, you or your group will walk down the Via della Conciliazione (which has been closed to traffic) to Piazza San Pietro. From there, you will go through security before passing through the Holy Door.
Please note that if you do not register as a pilgrim, you may not be permitted to pass through the Holy Door. On the day of my visit, tourists were (as typical) being admitted to the basilica, and it was possible to go through the Holy Door even if you did not begin at Castel Sant’Angelo as a registered pilgrim. However, the reports that I have read indicate that if there are sufficient crowds, only those who have registered will be permitted. Failing to register could mean intense disappointment.
7. Visit the Year of Mercy Pilgrim Information Center for your “Official Certificate”
After completing your pilgrimage, you can proceed to the “Pilgrim Information Center” established at Via della Conciliazione, 7 (group leaders can also visit here ahead of time for pilgrimage materials) to receive a certificate printed with your name attesting when you made your pilgrimage to Rome. This is provided for free to anyone who has registered, and makes a nice personalized souvenir.
If you have never visited Rome before, a pilgrimage during a Jubilee is a special opportunity to seek graces. The Church’s Treasury of Mercy is flung open — not unlike the Holy Doors themselves — pouring out abundant riches upon the faithful.