Pope Francis officially and solemnly convoked the Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy by the publication of the papal document Misericordiae vultus, on the evening of April 11 at the entrance St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City.

This kind of papal document is called a jubilee bull. This particular document for this Holy Year outlined the spirit with which it has been promulgated, the pope’s intentions for establishing this jubilee year and his aspirations for the positive results which it is hoped to produce, the exact duration of the jubilee and the principal ways in which it will unfold. The Holy Year will be celebrated in Rome and throughout the Catholic Church.

It should come as no great revelation that Pope Francis gave the universal Church and the world another surprise during the scheduled Lenten penitential service inside St. Peter’s Basilica on March 13. He announced an 11-month-long Jubilee of Mercy. The day marked the second anniversary of his election as pope. The jubilee will begin on the 50th anniversary of the closing of Council Vatican II, Dec. 8, 2015, and will close on the Feast of Christ the King, Nov. 20, 2016.

The world has come to know Pope Francis is a person full of surprises. I suspect that when he told the youth in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, during the celebrations of the World Youth Day on July 25, 2013, to shake up things in their dioceses and parishes, he was also speaking of his own intentions … for that is exactly what he has been doing since his papal election.

He has been shaking up all kinds of things … and all kinds of people, especially among the Church upper hierarchy. Upon close examination, we can find a common thread in his way of doing things. It is rooted in the Lord’s boundless mercy.

While it is true that some people expect that such mercy should allow for the inclusion of a relaxation in moral matters, the fact is that Pope Francis will apply mercy solely as a faithful follower of the Lord and a member, even though he is the supreme leader, of the Roman Catholic Church. He is not afraid of speaking about the elephant in the room and he does not hesitate to confront painful and embarrassing situations in the Church.

Popes can do wonders through the Petrine ministry, but always within the boundaries of Church doctrine. The revolution of Pope Francis lies within the new ways the Church should minister not only to her own members but also to humanity at large. His genius lies in his extraordinary touch to the human heart. In this regard, his pastoral ministry is exceptional and inspirational. The Jubilee of Mercy is another manifestation of this.

rnThe origin of jubilees

The Year of Jubilee is not an invention of the Catholic Church. Rather, it is rooted in the Old Testament. The Law of Moses, as presented in Leviticus 25:10-14, states that there should be a year of jubilee every 50 years.

It was a wonderful year, announced with great fanfare. Property was restored to its original owner. Slaves were set free and returned to their proper family. Debts were forgiven. The land was left uncultivated. Jesus Christ, quoting Isaiah 61:1-2, announced the completion of the Jubilee according to the Law of Moses with its replacement and presented himself as being the new jubilee, not only to Israel but to humanity (Luke 4:19). He came down from heaven to redeem the world.

The numbering of the year for a jubilee in the Catholic Church is calculated according to the anniversary of the birth of Jesus Christ as man. The Catholic Church marks the beginning and the end of a Jubilee Year or holy year with solemn religious celebrations. The underlying aim of every jubilee year is to deepen one’s relationship with God, to renew and strengthen the faith of the believer, to encourage works of charity, to deepen fraternal communion among human beings, and to obtain pardon of the temporal punishment of sin — a call to an authentic personal conversion.

It is rooted in the Lord’s gift of mercy and forgiveness. This is why the celebration of the sacrament of reconciliation (confession) is an integral part of each jubilee year. It is above all a time for special graces (indulgences) from the redeemer.

There are two kinds of jubilees. The “ordinary” kind is celebrated every 25 years. There have been 26 such events in the history of the Catholic Church. The other kind is the “extraordinary” jubilee. The coming Jubilee of Mercy falls within this category. The last extraordinary jubilee year was in 1987.

rnPrevious jubilee years

The first time that a jubilee year took place in the Catholic Church was enacted in 1300. At the time, Europe was recovering from devastating wars among Catholic rulers and the ravages of the bubonic plague. Christians wanted to return to a holier way of living. Thousands became determined to travel on foot and make a pilgrimage to Rome to pray at the tombs of Sts. Peter and Paul and to seek a blessing from the pope so as to obtain special graces and persevere in their renewed Christian lifestyle.

Nobility and peasants flocked to Rome on Christmas Day 1299. Among the pilgrims was Dante Alighieri, who wrote about it in his “Divine Comedy” (Canto XXXI of “Paradise”).

The reigning pope, Boniface VII, was moved with admiration for their faith, issued a papal bull (Antiquorum Habet Fida Ratio) and declared that 1300 be a year celebrated with the forgiveness of all sins. He also decreed that a similar jubilee year should be held every hundred years.

The popes took up residence in Avignon, France, in 1305 (the Avignon Papacy: 1305-1377). As the year 1350 approached, many people, experiencing the initial ravages of the Black Death, requested Pope Clement VI to declare 1350 as a jubilee year rather than wait for the year 1400. He consented to the request and determined that a jubilee year be held every 50 years.

However, once the papacy returned to Rome, Pope Urban VI decided to reduce the time between jubilees to 33 years — in honor of the length of the earthly life of the Lord — and declared 1390 as a jubilee year. He died on Oct. 15, 1389. Pope Boniface IX presided over the Jubilee Years of 1390 and 1400. Pope Martin V decided that 1425 and not 1433, as formerly set, should be a jubilee year. The marking of a jubilee year every 25 years was set via papal bull by Pope Paul II in 1470. So, the next jubilee year was to be 1475. The pope died on July 26, 1471 and the jubilee year was presided by Pope Sixtus IV.

Pope Alexander VI declared that for the jubilee year 1500, he would personally open the Holy Door of St. Peter’s Basilica. This was the last time that a holy door of the ancient Constantinian Basilica of St. Peter’s would be opened, before its initial and slow dismantling in 1506. It was replaced by our present St. Peter’s Basilica, which took 120 years to finish.

By the time that the jubilee year 1525 began, the Protestant Reformation had taken root and all of Europe would soon enter a great religious and social crisis, including the (last) sack of Rome by Protestant soldiers of the Catholic Emperor Charles V in 1527.

The Council of Trent (1545-1563) was in suspension when Pope Paul III proclaimed the jubilee year 1550. He died Nov. 10, 1549, and the celebrations were carried out by Pope Julius III. Vast crowds flocked to Rome despite the grave Catholic-Protestant crisis. Pope Gregory XIII, who gave us our modern calendar in 1582, proclaimed the jubilee year 1575 and some 300,000 pilgrims visited Rome.  

The jubilee years of 1600, 1625 and 1650 were proclaimed respectively by Popes Clement VIII, Urban VIII and Clement X.

Pope Innocent XII declared the jubilee year 1700. He died on Sept. 27, 1700 and the jubilee year was closed by Pope Clement XI. Pope Innocent XII was the first pope to offer substantial shelter and assistance to pilgrims travelling to Rome specifically for the jubilee year. A similar program was offered by Pope Benedict XIII, who proclaimed the jubilee year 1725. The 14 Stations of the Cross inside the ruins of the Roman Coliseum were erected during the jubilee year 1750, proclaimed by Pope Benedict XIV.

The jubilee year 1775 was proclaimed by Pope Clement XIV. Since he died on Sept. 22, 1774, the celebrations took place under Pope Pius VI. This is the pope who established the first diocese (Baltimore) in the United States on Nov. 26, 1784. This same pope lived through the French Revolution and was taken prisoner by the French Republican troops on Feb. 20, 1798, dying in exile at Valence on Aug. 29, 1799.

This pontificate was followed by an interregnum of over six months (August 1799-March 1800), until the election of Pope Pius VII in Venice. There was no jubilee year to mark 1800.

Pope Leo XII proclaimed the jubilee year 1825. More than half a million pilgrims went to Rome. There was no jubilee year in 1850, as Pope Pius IX was in exile (November 1848-April 1850). However, he was able to declare the jubilee year 1875, though there was no ceremony of the opening of the holy door because at the time Rome was occupied by the Italian troops of King Victor Emanuel II.

Pope Pius IX gave the United States its first cardinal, John McCloskey of New York. He is also, to date, the longest-reigning pope (1846-1878) in the history of the Catholic Church. He is also the last pope to reign as sovereign of the Papal States.

Pope Leo XIII welcomed the 20th century by declaring the jubilee year 1900. Pope Pius XI proclaimed the Jubilee Year 1925. He declared the extraordinary jubilee year 1933 to mark the 1900th anniversary of redemption.

Pope Pius XII declared the jubilee year 1950. It was during this year, on Nov. 1, that he proclaimed the dogma of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, body and soul, into heaven.

Pope Paul VI declared the jubilee year 1975. Pope John Paul II declared the extraordinary Jubilee Year 1983 to mark the 1950th anniversary of redemption, as well as the jubilee year 2000, known as the Great Jubilee.

The upcoming Jubilee of Mercy starts this coming December on the heels of the XIV Ordinary General Assembly (Oct. 4- 25, 2015) to treat the topic, “The Vocation and Mission of the Family in the Church and Contemporary World.” It is reasonable to assume that the theme of mercy will be a very important feature during this gathering.