Strolling among pilgrims visiting old St. Peter’s Basilica in the early evening of Christmas 1299, Pope Boniface VIII caught wind of a rumored “Pilgrimage Indulgence” eliminating purgatorial cleansing after death by wiping out all temporal punishment due to sin would be decreed to celebrate “the 100th year.”

Impressed with the intensity of faith he encountered, Pope Boniface proclaimed a Jubilee Year with the Antiquorum Habet Fida Relatio (“The trustworthy tradition of our elders”) on Feb. 22, 1300, the Feast of the Chair of St. Peter. Romans going to Confession as a sign of repentance, who prayerfully visited St. Peter’s Basilica and St. Paul’s Outside the Walls 30 times during the year (pilgrims need visit the tombs of the apostles a mere 15 times), would gain a plenary indulgence. As a result, more than 2,000,000 pilgrims traveled to Rome to purify their souls.

So began the Catholic tradition of the Year of Jubilee. The Golden Year. The Holy Year.

Boniface decreed the Jubilee should close each century, but Petrarch, the famed Renaissance poet, convinced Clement IV to proclaim a Jubilee at midcentury so more people might obtain the indulgence. He cited Leviticus 25:10: “Thou shalt sanctify the 50th year and shalt proclaim remission to all the inhabitants of thy land: for it is the year of jubilee.” Clement was unable to participate in the 1350 Jubilee in Rome, the papacy being then ensconced at Avignon.

In 1389, the papacy back in Rome, Urban VI announced a Jubilee for 1390, to be observed every 33 years, the span of Jesus’ earthly life. He added visitation to the Basilica of St. Mary Major to obtain the indulgence. Just 10 years later Boniface IX decreed a Holy Year for 1400 to close the 14th century.

Jubilee traditions and timetables continued to evolve over the years — and centuries — that followed.

In 1423 (33 years after 1390) Martin V added visitation to the Basilica of St. John Lateran, the cathedral church of Rome. There, the Porta Sancta (the “Holy Door”) was first opened. Pilgrims having completed other conditions gained the plenary indulgence by walking through it. At year’s end the door was bricked up, to be opened for the next celebration.

In 1450 Nicholas V restored the 50-year Jubilee cycle, reducing the number of visits to the four patriarchal basilicas from 30 to three. Without calling a jubilee, in 1470 Paul II decreed that they would occur every 25 years. In 1475 Sixtus IV officially called the Jubilee a “Holy Year.”

Alexander VI installed Holy Doors in St. Peter’s, St. Paul’s and St. Mary Major’s for the 1500 Jubilee. In 1525 Clement VII opened St. Peter’s Holy Door with a silver hammer for the first time. The Protestant Revolt having begun, dissidents flocked to Rome distributing tracts challenging the doctrine of indulgences.

During the 1750 Jubilee, Benedict XIV began the Way of the Cross in the Colosseum. He added reception of Holy Communion to accompany Confession to obtain the indulgence, and recommended Catholics make a General Confession of their entire lives during Jubilee years.

Pius VII, elected in March 1800, declined to call a Holy Year as a rebuke to Napoleon for his kidnapping of Pius VI and theft of the Papal States. In 1804 Pius VII almost crowned Napoleon Emperor of France. But in 1812, Napoleon kidnapped him, too.

Pius IX, forced to flee Rome in 1848 when revolutionaries threatened his life and desecrated St. Peter’s, returned amid continuing conflict in 1850. Again, there was no Jubilee.

Italian Reunification forces, having annexed the Papal States, finally entered Rome in 1870, permanently interrupting the 1st Vatican Council. King Victor Emmanuel’s troops surrounded the Vatican Palace to prevent the pope from escaping again.  

 Unable to travel, the wily Pius IX turned the tables on the radicals by inviting the world’s Catholics visit him for the 1875 Jubilee. An estimated 400,000 pilgrims traveled to Rome to support the Holy Father.

During the 1925 Holy Year, Pius XI instituted the Feast of Christ the King, and asked Catholics to pray for missionaries. Pius then called the first Extraordinary Jubilee in 1933 to commemorate the 1900th anniversary of Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection.

The 1950 Holy Year was a spectacle attracting 3.5 million pilgrims grateful that the Church had survived World War II. MGM even produced the movie comedy “When in Rome,” which starred Van Johnson as a U.S. priest on the Holy Year pilgrimage. In 1975, following Vatican II, Paul VI proclaimed a Holy Year for “Renewal and Reconciliation” — the first themed celebration, which many theologians dismissed as bereft of meaning. But nine million pilgrims flocked to Rome anyway.

Following Pius XI’s example, John Paul II decreed a second Extraordinary Jubilee for 1983, commemorating 1950 years since the redemption. The Holy Doors were ceremonially opened. Pilgrims in Rome could visit the four patriarchal basilicas, or visit the catacombs of the Basilica of the Holy Cross, reciting the Apostles Creed, an Our Father and offering prayers for the pope’s intentions. Greater emphasis was placed on “works of mercy.”

The pope extended the Holy Year indulgence to the sick and physically challenged, who could obtain the indulgence simply by praying with their families.

As the third Christian millennium approached, John Paul II proclaimed a Great Jubilee for 2000, beginning Christmas Eve 1999 and ending on Epiphany 2001, celebrating “the mercy of God and forgiveness of sin.”

For the first time, jubilee events were scheduled all over the world. John Paul went on pilgrimage to the Holy Land, and thousands of young Catholics journeyed to Rome for World Youth Day.

Pope Francis has now called a third Extraordinary Jubilee for 2016, a Holy Year of Mercy. The plenary indulgence is the constant plea for mercy, which is at the heart of every Holy Year. 

Sacred Heart of Jesus, have mercy on us during Holy Year 2016!