VATICAN CITY - Pope Francis announced an extraordinary jubilee, a Holy Year of Mercy, to highlight the Catholic Church's "mission to be a witness of mercy."
"No one can be excluded from God's mercy," the pope said March 13, marking the second anniversary of his pontificate by leading a Lenten penance service in St. Peter's Basilica.
"I frequently have thought about how the church can make more evident its mission to be a witness of mercy," he said during his homily; that is why he decided to call a special Holy Year, which will be celebrated from Dec. 8, 2015, until Nov. 20, 2016.
The biblical theme of the year, he said, will be "Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful," an admonition that applies "especially to confessors," the pope said with a smile.
Traditionally, every 25 years the popes proclaim a holy year, which features special celebrations and pilgrimages, strong calls for conversion and repentance, and the offer of special opportunities to experience God's grace through the sacraments, especially confession (see below). Extraordinary holy years, like the Holy Year of Mercy, are less frequent, but offer the same opportunities for spiritual growth.
The doors of the church "are wide open so that all those who are touched by grace can find the certainty of forgiveness," Pope Francis said at the penance service, which featured individual confessions. It was part of a worldwide celebration of "24 Hours for the Lord," in which Catholic churches were staying open for prayer, eucharistic adoration and confession.
At each of the dozens of confessionals in St. Peter's Basilica, as well as in simple chairs scattered along the walls, priests welcomed people to the sacrament. The pope removed his liturgical vestments and went to confession before putting on a purple stole and hearing the confessions of others.
"God never ceases to demonstrate the richness of his mercy over the course of centuries," the pope said in his homily, which preceded the confessions. God touches people's hearts with his grace, filling them with repentance and a desire to "experience his love."
"Being touched by the tenderness of his hand," people should not be afraid to approach a priest and confess their sins, he said. In the confessional, one has "the certainty of being welcomed in the name of God and understood, despite our misery."
"The greater the sin, the greater the love, which the church must express toward those who convert," Pope Francis said.
The Gospel reading at the penance service was the story of the sinful woman who washed Jesus' feet with her tears and dried them with her hair. Every time one goes to confession, the pope said, "we feel the same compassionate gaze of Jesus" that she did.
Jesus' love, he said, allowed her to draw near, to demonstrate her repentance and to show her love for him. "Every gesture of this woman speaks of love and expresses her desire to have an unshakable certainty in her life, that of having been forgiven."
"Love and forgiveness are simultaneous" in the story of each person, just as in the story of the sinful woman, he said. "God forgave her for much -- for everything -- because he loved her much."
Through Jesus, the pope said, God took the woman's sins and "threw them over his shoulder, he no longer remembers them."
Jesus' encounter with the woman took place in the home of a Pharisee named Simon. Unlike the woman, the pope said, Simon "isn't able to find the path of love. He remains stopped at the threshold of formality. He is not able to take the next step to encounter Jesus, who brings salvation."
The Pharisee is concerned only with following God's law, with justice, which is a mistake, the pope said. "His judgment of the woman distances him from the truth and prevents him from understanding who his guest is."
Jesus scolds Simon, pointing out how the "sinful woman" has shown nothing but love and repentance, the pope said. "Jesus' rebuke pushes each of us to never stop at the surface of things, especially when dealing with a person. We are called to look deeper, to focus on the heart in order to see how much generosity the personal is capable of."
Pope Francis said he asked the Pontifical Council for Promoting New Evangelization to coordinate preparations for the Holy Year so that it would be "a new stage in the church's journey in fulfilling its mission of bringing the Gospel of mercy to each person."
St. John Paul II pushes open the Holy Door and walks into St. Peter’s Basilica on Christmas Eve 1999. Opening a sealed Holy Door is one of the traditions that usually marks a Holy Year. Photo: CNS photo/Arturo Mari, Vatican
Time for a change: Holy years proclaimed to encourage spiritual renewal
By Carol Glatz, Catholic News Service
VATICAN CITY - A holy year as a time of spiritual renewal has its biblical roots in the jubilees observed by the Jewish people at 50-year intervals, when debts were pardoned and slaves were freed.
The term "jubilee" itself comes from the Hebrew word "yobel," meaning a ram's horn, which was used to make the trumpet that signaled the beginning of this time of forgiveness.
For the Catholic Church, a holy year remains a time of great spiritual significance, and emphasis is placed on the examination of conscience and conversion, the forgiveness of sins, reconciliation, concrete acts of solidarity and initiatives to restore justice.
The jubilee is called a holy year because it aims to encourage holiness, strengthen faith in Christ and inspire greater communion within the church and society.
The first Holy Year was proclaimed by Pope Boniface VIII in 1300, when thousands of Christians from throughout Europe came on pilgrimage to Rome. Among those who journeyed to the Eternal City for the first celebration was the Italian poet Dante Alighieri, who is commonly said to have found the inspiration for his "Divine Comedy" during that pilgrimage.
In the 15th century, Pope Paul II set a 25-year timetable for holy years, which has been the norm since, in order to allow each generation the possibility of experiencing at least one holy year.
As a way to stress the importance of forgiveness and renewing one's relationship with God, plenary indulgences are offered during holy years. An indulgence -- that is, the remission of temporal punishment for sins -- is customarily granted to those who make a pilgrimage to Rome and fulfill certain other conditions: reception of the sacraments of penance and the Eucharist, visits and prayers for the intention of the pope and performing simple acts such as visiting the sick.
Those who do not make a pilgrimage to Rome can gain the same indulgence by receiving penance and the Eucharist and praying for the pope during a visit or a community celebration in a church designated by the local bishop.
The Holy Door, symbolizing the doorway of salvation, marks the "extraordinary" spiritual passage offered the faithful during a jubilee year. There are only seven Holy Doors: four at the major basilicas in Rome and one each in France, Spain and Canada.
On Christmas Eve 1999, St. John Paul II changed the traditional Holy Door ritual at St. Peter's Basilica when he did not strike the wall sealing the door. Instead, he pushed open the Holy Door -- the wall had been dismantled beforehand.
Bishop Piero Marini, then-master of papal liturgical ceremonies, said, "Elements of the old ritual which have become obsolete will be replaced by others which better express the biblical and liturgical significance of the Holy Door."
When Pope Alexander VI opened the Holy Door on Christmas 1499, "he used a mason's hammer, and the blows were not completely symbolic; the pope tried to break through part of the wall," Bishop Marini said. For centuries, the opening ceremony included a long pause to allow masons to finish taking the wall down before the pope crossed the threshold.
In addition to an "ordinary" holy year set at 25-year intervals, occasionally a special jubilee is proclaimed to mark some outstanding event. The custom of these so-called "extraordinary" jubilees began in the 16th century, and they can vary in length from a few days to a year.
There have been 26 "ordinary" holy years so far, the last one being the Great Jubilee of the Year 2000. There were no jubilee celebrations in 1800 and 1850 because of political turmoil at the time.
There have been two extraordinary jubilees in the last century: 1933, proclaimed by Pope Pius XI to mark the 1,900th anniversary of Christ's redemption, and 1983, proclaimed by St. John Paul II to mark 1,950 years since the redemption.
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