Opening a year of mercy – literally

By Patricia Kasten | The Compass | January 15, 2016

Holy doors in Rome’s basilicas are only open for jubilee years

One of the most visible features of this Extraordinary Jubilee Year of Mercy are holy doors.

Pope Francis opens the holy door at the Basilica of St. John Lateran in Rome Dec. 13. Holy doors around the world were opened at city cathedrals, major churches and sanctuaries in December as part of the Extraordinary Jubilee Year of Mercy. (CNS photo | Tony Gentile, Reuters)
Pope Francis opens the holy door at the Basilica of St. John Lateran in Rome Dec. 13. Holy doors around the world were opened at city cathedrals, major churches and sanctuaries in December as part of the Extraordinary Jubilee Year of Mercy. (CNS photo | Tony Gentile, Reuters)

Most of us take doors for granted — we use them every day. We leave home through one; we get into our cars through another; we enter school or work through yet another. All day long, in and out of doors. We probably don’t even think about those doors, much less consider them holy or otherwise.

Yet the four major basilicas of Rome, the cathedrals of our dioceses and other designated holy places have special holy doors — porta sanctae — this year. There is even a shelter in Rome — the Caritas Hostel on Via Marsala — with a holy door, which Pope Francis opened on Dec. 18. The hostel, located near the Termini railway station, is being remodeled to house 180 homeless men.

In some ways, a holy door reminds us that we are all homeless in some sense.

When you are homeless, you don’t own a door. No door is waiting to open up and close out the dark at day’s end. No door is there to keep out the cold. No door with someone waiting to welcome you on the other side of it. Suddenly, doors seem much more important.


That is the idea behind the holy doors of jubilee years. These special doors are opened so pilgrims can come and pass through them, with the promise of receiving a welcome — and a plenary indulgence. Such an indulgence (when coupled with the Sacrament of Reconciliation, full participation in the Eucharist and reflection on mercy, a profession of faith and prayers for the Holy Father and his intentions) frees us from any burden from sins. It welcomes us into God’s mercy by removing from our souls any “temporal punishment” remaining due because of sins — even those that have already been forgiven. With such mercy, the door of heaven opens wide for us and we know we have a home waiting for us.

As Pope Francis said on Sept. 15 last year, “I wish that the Jubilee Indulgence may reach each one as a genuine experience of God’s mercy, which comes to meet each person in the face of the Father who welcomes and forgives, forgetting completely the sin committed.”

All that through a simple door.

‘Great Pardon’

The door at St. Peter’s Basilica is not quite as simple as our home doors. It is made of bronze and dates to 1949, when it was made by the artist Vico Consorti, and was first opened for the Jubilee Year of 1950. It is sometimes called “the Door of Great Pardon” and depicts images of salvation history on its 16 panels. These include the Annunciation, the Crucifixion, the sending of the Holy Spirit upon the church, the forgiveness to St. Peter and the call of St. Paul.

The previous Holy Door was wood and dated back to 1749. When it’s not a jubilee year, the holy door is bricked over on the inside. This wall must be broken down by the masons who work at St. Peter — called the San Petrini — before the pope can knock on the door with a silver hammer and push it open for all to enter.

According to Vatican Radio, St. Peter’s holy door was unbricked a few days before Pope Francis opened it, in a Recognitio ceremony led by Cardinal Angelo Comastri, the basilica’s archpriest. Inside the wall was a zinc box that contained mementoes from the Jubilee Year of 2000, as well as documents certifying the closure at the end of that year, as well as some bricks, medals and the keys that allowed the pope to open the door on Dec. 8.

This ceremony is probably fairly recent and is done for some practical purposes. Vatican Radio’s host, Veronica Scarisbrick, noted that — on Christmas Eve 1974 — fragments of bricks from the wall covering the door struck Pope Paul VI. (Pope used to actually remove some of the bricks along with the masons.)

The use of a special holy door dates to at least the year 1423, when Pope Martin V opened a holy door at St. John Lateran, the cathedral church of the bishop of Rome. Records at St. Peter’s note that, in 1390, Pope Boniface IX opened a holy door there on Christmas Eve.

Every 25 years

Christian jubilee years themselves date back to the early 14th century, when Pope Boniface VII declared a “year of forgiveness” in 1300 for all who visited the tombs of St. Peter and St. Paul. He further decreed that holy years should be repeated every 100 years. However, the practice was an instant hit and the next jubilee year was held in 1350. In 1390, Boniface IX opened the holy door in St. Peter’s on Christmas Eve. In modern times, holy years are celebrated every 25 years. The last Ordinary Jubilee Year was in 2000.

Extraordinary jubilee years, like the Year of Mercy, have usually been declared to honor an event of special importance. The last extraordinary jubilee was in 1983, called by St. John Paul II, to mark 1,950 years since the death of Christ on the cross. An extraordinary jubilee was held in 1933, for the same reason.

Extraordinary jubilees date back to the 16th century. Pope Pius IV declared a holy year in 1560 to ask the help of the Holy Spirit for the Council of Trent, which was resuming after hiatus of eight years. In 1585, Pope Sixtus V declared a jubilee to mark the beginning of his pontificate. St. Peter’s Basilica’s site notes that the first “special jubilee” was declared by Pope Leo X in 1518, to pray for Poland in its war against the Turks.

No one agrees on exactly how many special jubilees have been declared since then, and their duration has varied in length. However, their purpose remains the same: to welcome sinners home. No doubt that is why, this year, when Pope Francis prepared to step through the Holy Door at St. Peter’s for the first time, he first gave a hug to Pope Emeritus Benedict. Nothing says “welcome home” like a hug at the door.


Sources: “The Catholic Encyclopedia”;;; “On the Symbolism of Holy Doors” at;;; and


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