What is a Jubilee Year?



What is a Jubilee Year?
With the inauguration of the Pauline Year by Pope Benedict XVI, many are asking the question – what is a Jubilee year or a Holy year?
The celebration of a Jubilee as a special year of remission of sins and universal pardon has its origins in the Biblical book of Leviticus, in chapter 25, verses 8-55. A Jubilee year is mentioned to occur every fifty years, in which slaves and prisoners would be freed, debts would be forgiven and the mercies of God would be particularly manifest. The year of Jubilee in both the Jewish and Christian traditions is a time of joy - a year of remission or universal pardon. In Mosaic law, each fiftieth year was to be celebrated as a jubilee year, and that at this season every household should recover its absent members, the land return to its former owners, the Hebrew slaves be set free, and debts be remitted. The same conception, spiritualized, forms the basis of the Christian Jubilee. Christian Jubilees, particularly in the Catholic tradition, generally involve pilgrimage to a sacred site, normally the city of Rome. At various times in Church history, they have been celebrated every 50 or 25 years.
It is commonly stated that Pope Boniface VIII instituted the first Christian Jubilee in the year 1300, and it is certain that this is the first celebration of which we have any precise record, but it is also certain that the idea of solemnizing a fiftieth anniversary was familiar to medieval writers, no doubt through their knowledge of the Bible, long before that date. The jubilee of a religious profession was often kept. It is noteworthy that the number fifty was specially associated in the early thirteenth century with the idea of remission. The translation of the body of St. Thomas of Canterbury took place in the year 1220, fifty years after his martyrdom. The sermon on that occasion was preached by Stephen Cardinal Lantron, who told his hearers that this coincidence was meant by Providence to recall "the mystical virtue of the number fifty, which, as every reader of the sacred page is aware, is the number of remission."
We might be tempted to regard this discourse as a fabrication of later date, were it not for the fact that a Latin hymn directed against the Albigensian heretics, and certainly belonging to the early thirteenth century, speaks in exactly similar terms. The first stanza runs thus:
The blessing of the year of jubilee releases the obligation of punishments. After sinners have been purged, the cause against them ends. All the guilty go free by the mercy of God's kingdom, as set forth in the law of Levi.
In the light of this explicit mention of a jubilee with great remissions of the penalties of sin to be obtained by full confession and purpose of amendment, it seems difficult to reject the statement of Cardinal Stefaneschi, the contemporary and counsellor of Pope Boniface VIII, and author of a treatise on the first Jubilee, that the proclamation of the Jubilee owed its origin to the statements of certain aged pilgrims who persuaded Boniface that great indulgences had been granted to all pilgrims in Rome about a hundred years before.
It is beyond all dispute that on February 22, 1300, Pope Boniface published the Bull "Antiquorum fida relatio", in which, appealing vaguely the precedent of past ages, he declares that he grants afresh and renews certain "great remissions and indulgences for sins" which are to be obtained "by visiting the city of Rome and the venerable basilica of the Prince of the Apostles". Coming to more precise detail, he specifies that he concedes "not only full and copious, but the most full, pardon of all their sins", to those who fulfill certain conditions. These are, first, that being truly penitent they confess their sins, and secondly, that they visit the basilicas of St. Peter and St. Paul in Rome, at least once a day for a specified time--in the case of the inhabitants of the city for thirty days, in the case of strangers for fifteen.
No explicit mention is made of Communion as a requirement to receive the indulgence, nor does the word jubilee occur in the Bull--indeed the pope speaks rather of a celebration which is to occur every hundred years--but writers both Roman and foreign described this year as annus jubileus, and the name jubilee (though others, such as the "holy year" or "the golden year" have been used as well) has been applied to such celebrations ever since.
The Jubilees of 1450 and 1475 were attended by vast crowds of pilgrims. Innumerable witnesses have pointed to the great moral renovation produced by these celebrations. The testimony comes in many cases from the most unexceptionable sources, and it extends from the days of Pope Boniface VIII to the striking account given by Cardinal Wiseman of the only Jubilee held in the nineteenth century, that of 1825. The omission of the Jubilees of 1800 and 1850 was due to political disturbances. Pope Pius IX announced a Jubilee for 1875, but it was celebrated without any external solemnity, with only a few present for the inauguration. Nonetheless, with these exceptions the celebration has been uniformly maintained every twenty-five years from 1450 until the twentieth century. The Jubilee of 1900, though stripped of much of its splendor by the confinement of the Holy Father within the limits of the Vatican, was, nevertheless carried out by Pope Leo XIII with all the solemnity that was possible.
In the twentieth century, Jubilees were held in 1925, 1933 (in commemoration of Jesus' death), 1950, 1975, 1983 (Holy Year of the Redemption) and 2000.
Pope John Paul II announced a Great Jubilee for the year 2000 with his Apostolic Letter Tertio Millennio Adveniente (As the Third Millennium Approaches) of November 10, 1994. In this writing, he called for a three-year preparation period leading up to the opening of the Great Jubilee in December 1999. The first year, 1997, was to be dedicated to meditation on Jesus, the second to the Holy Spirit, and the third to God the Father. This Jubilee was especially marked by a simplification of the rites and the requirements for achieving the indulgence, as well as a huge effort to involve more Christians in the celebration.
The Orthodox churches and Protestant communities were invited to celebrate the Jubilee together with the Catholics as a sign of ecumenical dialogue. Furthermore, special Jubilees were invoked for various groups within the Church, such as children, athletes, politicians, and actors. World Youth Day, celebrated in Rome in August, brought over two million young people together.
The Jubilee was closed by the pope on January 6, 2001, by the closing of the holy door of St. Peter's and the promulgation of the Apostolic Letter Novo Millennio Ineunte (Upon Entering the New Millennium), which outlined the pope's vision for the future of the Church.
The most distinctive feature in the ceremonial of the Jubilee is the un-walling and the final walling up of the "holy door" in each of the four great basilicas which the pilgrims are required to visit. The doors are opened by the Pope at the beginning of the Jubilee and then sealed up again afterwards. Previously, the rite included the use of a silver hammer (for removing the concrete at the opening) and a silver trowel (for sealing it again after the Jubilee). The Pope would pound on the wall, which would then be set to collapse. This ritual caused injury of bystanders, so for the Great Jubilee of 2000, Pope John Paul II simplified the rite considerably, opening and closing the doors with his hands.
Traditionally, the Pope himself opens and closes the doors of St. Peter's Basilica personally, and designates a cardinal to open those of St. John Lateran, St. Mary Major, and St. Paul outside the Walls. In the Great Jubilee, the Pope chose to open all the doors personally, while designating cardinals to close all the doors except that of St. Peter's.
Catholic parishes all over the world share a similar rite dedicating a door for the purposes of the Jubilee Year in order to accommodate its parishioners who do not intend to visit Rome for the occasion. Local parishes' doors include the same indulgence given to the Basilica doors.
This is a plenary indulgence which, as stated by Pope Boniface VIII in Consistory, it is the intention of the Holy See to grant in the most ample manner possible. Of course, when first conceded, such an indulgence, and also the privilege annexed of choosing a confessor who had power to absolve from reserved cases, was a much rarer spiritual boon than it has since become. So preeminent was the favor then regarded that the custom arose of suspending all other indulgences during the Jubilee year, a practice which, with certain modifications, still exists to the present day. The precise conditions for gaining each Jubilee indulgence are determined by the Roman pontiff, and they are usually announced in a special Bull, distinct from that which it is customary to issue on the preceding feast of the Ascension giving notice of the forthcoming celebration. The main conditions, however, which do not usually vary, are five: Confession, Communion, Prayer for the Pope, complete renunciation of all attachment to sin, and visits to the four Roman basilicas during a certain specified period. (The first four are common to all plenary indulgences.) The statement made by some, that the Jubilee indulgence, being a culpa et a paena, did not of old presuppose either confession or repentance, is absolutely without foundation, and is contradicted by every official document preserved to us. Besides the ordinary Jubilee indulgence, to be gained only by pilgrims who pay a visit to Rome, or through special concession by certain cloistered religious confined within their monasteries, it has long been customary to extend this indulgence the following year to the faithful throughout the world, though in 2000, the indulgence was extended to the whole world during the Jubilee year itself.
Pope John Paul II convoked Jubilees in 1983 (Holy Year of the Redemption) and in 2000 (the Great Jubilee). In 2000, he greatly liberalized the conditions for gaining the Jubilee indulgence. A visit to only one of the four patriarchal basilicas in Rome was necessary (entering through the holy door). To the four basilicas were added the Sanctuary of Divine Love in Rome, and each diocese was permitted to name a location within the diocese where the indulgence could be gained. Most dioceses simply named the local cathedral as the pilgrimage site. There was no requirement for multiple visits. On the last full day of the Jubilee, pilgrims were permitted to enter the holy door at St. Peter's until late into the night, so that no one would be denied the opportunity to gain the indulgence. The requirements of Confession, Communion, Prayer for the Pope and freedom from all attachment to sin remained in place, as they do for all plenary indulgences.

Pope Benedict XVI has proclaimed the Pauline Year, or Jubilee Year of St. Paul the Apostle, from June 28, 2008 to July 29, 2009. The year celebrates the 2000th anniversary of St. Paul's birth.

Sources for this article are the New Advent Catholic Encyclopedia, the Encyclopedia of Catholic Devotions and Practices, and the Vatican website concerning the Pauline Year celebrations.

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