In the Roman Catholic tradition, a Holy Year, or Jubilee is a great religious event. It is a year of forgiveness of sins and also the punishment due to sin. It is a year of reconciliation between adversaries, of conversion and receiving the Sacrament of Reconciliation, and consequently of solidarity, hope, justice, commitment to serve God with joy and in peace with our brothers and sisters. A Jubilee year is above all the year of Christ, who brings life and grace to humanity.
The origin of the Christian Jubilee goes back to Bible times. The Law of Moses prescribed a special year for the Jewish people: “You shall hallow the fiftieth year and proclaim the liberty throughout the land, to all its inhabitants; it shall be a jubilee for you when each of you shall return to his property and each of you shall return to his family. This fiftieth year is to be a jubilee year for you: you will not sow, you will not harvest the un-gathered corn, you will not gather the untrimmed vine. The jubilee is to be a holy thing to you, you will eat what comes from the fields.”(The Book of Leviticus 25, 10-14)
The trumpet with which this particular year was announced was a goat’s horn called Yobel in Hebrew, and the origin of the word jubilee. The celebration of this year also included the restitution of land to the original owners, the remission of debts, the liberation of slaves and the land was left fallow. In the New Testament, Jesus presents himself as the One who brings the old Jubilee to completion, because he has come to “preach the year of the Lord’s favour” (Isaiah 61: 1-2).
It is interesting to note that in almost every country, time is counted as before and after Christ’s coming into the world, although today few people may realise the reasons for this calculation.
The Jubilee is called Holy Year, not only because its begins, is marked, and ends with solemn holy acts, but also because its purpose is to encourage holiness of life. It is actually convoked to strengthen faith, encourage works of charity and brotherly communion within the Church and in society and to call Christians to be more sincere and coherent in their faith in Christ, the only Saviour.
A Jubilee can be “ordinary” if it falls after the set period of years, and “extraordinary” when it is proclaimed for some outstanding event. There have been twenty-six “ordinary” Holy Years so far.
HISTORY OF THE JUBILEE
The first ordinary Jubilee was proclaimed in 1300 by Pope Boniface VII a member of the noble Caetani family, with a Bull, “Antiquorum Habet Fida Relatio.” Throughout Christendom (the known world at that time) there was great suffering, caused by wars and diseases such as the plague and all kinds of ills: among the people there was a great desire to return to a more holy way of living. So with great faith the Christians determined to travel (on foot) to Rome, to pray at the tombs of the Apostles Peter and Paul and to receive the Pope’s blessing, in order to obtain the grace and strength to carry on. They came in their thousands at Christmas in 1299. Due to their great number the Pope, having inquired and learned the reason for their coming, full of admiration for their faith proclaimed a “year of forgiveness of all sins.”
A similar year would be held in future, every hundred years. Outstanding names are recorded among the pilgrims of that first Jubilee: Dante, Cima Bue, Giotto, Carlo de Valois brother of the King of France, with his wife Catherine. Dante Alighiere who writes of the event in his “Divine Comedy” in Canto XXXI of Paradise.
While the Apostolic See was transferred to Avignon in France (1305-1377) there were many requests for the second Jubilee to be held earlier, in 1350 instead of 1400. Clement VI gave his consent and set a period of fifty years between jubilees. Besides visiting the Basilicas built over the tombs of Peter and Paul the pilgrims were also required to visit Saint John Lateran, the city’s Cathedral, being the first Church of the Bishop of Rome who is the Pope. Later Pope Urban VI decided to reduce the period to thirty three years in memory of the earthly life of Jesus. When Pope Urban died, however, the new Pope, Boniface IX opened the Holy Door on Christmas Eve 1390, but since the numbers of pilgrims were so great he called for a second Holy Year on Christmas 1400.
In 1425, and not in 1433, as it had been formerly set, Pope Martin V proclaimed the Holy Year 1425 with two novelties: a special commemorative Jubilee Medal and the opening of a Holy Door in the Cathedral of Saint John in the Lateran. Nicholas V called the 1450 Holy Year and in 1470 Pope Paul II issued a Bull to fix the Jubilee for every twenty-five years. The next Holy Year 1475 was proclaimed by Sixtus IV. And for the occasion the Pope wished to adorn Rome with more works of art: he ordered the building of the Sistine Chapel and the Ponte Sisto or Sixtus Bridge over the River Tiber (both named after him). Several renowned artists were working in Rome at that time: Verroccio, Signiorelli, Ghirlandaio, Botticelli, Perugino, Pinturicchio, Melozzo da Forli.
In 1500 Pope Alexander VI announced that the Doors in the four major basilicas would be opened contemporaneously and that he himself would open the Holy Door of Saint Peter’s. The ninth Jubilee was solemnly opened on December 24th 1524 by Pope Clement VII, at a time when there were already symptoms of the great crises which would soon tear the Church apart, with the Protestant Reform. The 1550 Jubilee was proclaimed by Paul II, but it was Pope Julius III who actually opened it. The remarkable afflux of pilgrims caused no few difficulties in the city and Saint Philip Neri was among those who came to their help with his Holy Trinity Confraternity. It is recorded that in 1575, in the time of Pope Gregory XIII, as many as 300,000 people came to Rome from all over Europe. The next Holy Years were proclaimed by Clement VIII, (1600) Urban VIII (1650), Clement X (1675).
Innocent XII, who opened the Jubilee of the year 1700, is remembered especially for establishing one of Rome’s most renowned charitable institutions, the Hospice St Michele a Ripa. Gradually other similar institutions were opened to offer shelter and assistance to pilgrims, as in the year 1725, the Holy Year called by Benedict XIII. A famous preacher during the Jubilee 1750, proclaimed by Benedict XIV, was Saint Leonardo da Porto Maurizio, the apostle of the Via Crucis, who set up 14 stations of the Cross inside the ruins of the Colosseum. Clement XIV announced the Jubilee of the Year 1775 but he died three months before Christmas and the Holy Door was opened by the new Pope, Pius VI. The difficult situation in which the Church found herself during the hegemonic rule of Napoleon prevented Pius VII from proclaiming the Jubilee of 1800.
More than a half a million pilgrims made the journey to Rome for the Jubilee of 1825. As St Paul’s Basilica was under new construction, having been destroyed by fire two years earlier, Pope Leo XII substituted the visit to St Paul’s outside the walls with Santa Maria in Trastevere Basilica. Twenty five years later, the Holy Year could not be held because of the unsettled situation in the Roman Republic and temporary exile of Pius IX. However, this Pope did proclaim the Holy Year 1875, although there was no ceremony of the opening of the Door due to Rome’s occupation by the troops of King Vittorio Emmanuele.
It was Pope Leo XIII who called the 22nd Christian Jubilee which opened the 20th century of the Christian era, characterised by six beatifications and two canonisations, (Saint Jean Baptist de La Salle and Saint Rita da Cascia). In the Holy Year 1925, Pius XI wished to direct the attention of the faithful to the prodigious work of the missions. To gain the indulgence, the people were asked to pray (according to the intention of the Pope) for peace among peoples. In 1950, a few years after World War II, Pius XII called the Holy Year with the following indications: the sanctification of souls through prayer and penance and unfailing faith in Christ and the Church; action for peace and protection of the Holy Places; defence of the Church against constant attacks by her enemies; prayers for the gift of faith for those in error, and for unbelievers; the promotion of social justice and assistance
In 1950, a few years after World War II, Pius XII called the Holy Year with the following indications: the sanctification of souls through prayer and penance and unfailing faith in Christ and the Church; action for peace and protection of the Holy Places; defence of the Church against constant attacks by her enemies; prayers for the gift of faith for those in error, and for unbelievers; the promotion of social justice and assistance of the poor and needy. It was during this year that the Pope defined the Assumption into Heaven of Mary, the Mother of Jesus, as a dogma of the Catholic faith. (November 1st, 1950). The 1975 Jubilee was called by Pope Paul VI with two main themes for reflection and action: Renewal and Reconciliation.
The Jubilee of the year 2000 called by Pope John Paul II was especially important because it was a celebration of the 2000th anniversary of the birth of Christ (apart from differences of exact chronological count.) What was more, it was the first Holy Year which marked the turn of a millennium, since the first Jubilee was proclaimed by Pope Boniface VIII in 1300. So the Jubilee of the Year 2000 was a great prayer of praise and thanksgiving to God for the gift of the Incarnation of His Son and the Redemption He brings. To prepare for it, the pope dedicated three consecrated years to the Holy Trinity as follows:
1997: Year of God the Son (faith)
1998: Year of God the Holy Spirit (hope)
1999: Year of God the Father (charity)