Jubilee (Christian)

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The concept of the Jubilee is a special year of remission of sins and universal pardon. In the Biblical book of Leviticus, 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. In Christianity, the tradition dates to 1300, when Pope Boniface VIII convoked a holy year. 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.


"Pre-History" of the Christian Jubilee

The year of Jubilee in both the Jewish and Christian traditions is a time of joy, the year of remission or universal pardon. In Mosiac 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 (see Jubilee (Biblical)).

The same conception, spiritualized, forms the fundamental idea of the Christian Jubilee, though it is difficult to judge how far any sort of continuity can have existed between the two. 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 monk's religious profession was often kept, and probably some vague memory survived of those Roman ludi saeculares which are commemorated in the "Carmen Saeculare" of Horace, even though this last was commonly associated with a period of a hundred years rather than any lesser interval. But, what is most noteworthy, the number fifty was specially associated in the early thirteenth century with the idea of remission. The translation of the body 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 Albigenses, and certainly belonging to the early thirteenth century, speaks in exactly similar terms. The first stanza runs thus:

Anni favor jubilaei
Poenarum laxat debitum,
Post peccatorum vomitum
Et cessandi propositum.
Currant passim omnes rei.
Pro mercede regnum Dei
Levi patet expositum.
(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 also noteworthy that in the Chronicle of Alberic of Three Fountains, under the year 1208 (not, be it noted 1200), we find this brief entry: "It is said that this year was celebrated as the fiftieth year, or the year of jubilee and remission, in the Roman Court."

The first Christian jubilee

It is beyond all dispute that on February 22, 1300, 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. Dante, who is himself supposed by some to have visited Rome during this year to gain the Jubilee indulgence, refers to it under the name Giubbileo in the Inferno and indirectly bears witness to the enormous concourse of pilgrims by comparing the sinners passing along one of the bridges of Malebolge in opposite directions, to the throngs crossing the bridge of the castle of Sant’Angelo on their way to and from St. Peter's. Similarly, the chronicler Villani was so impressed on this occasion by the sight of the monuments of Rome and the people who flocked thither that he then and there formed the resolution of his great chronicle, in the course of which he gives a remarkable account of what he witnessed.

Villani describes the indulgence connected with this jubilee as a full and entire remission of all sins di culpa e di pena (Italian: of guilt and of punishment), and he dwells upon the great contentment and good order of the people, despite the fact that during the greater part of that year there were two hundred thousand pilgrims on an average present in Rome over and above the ordinary population. With regard to the phrase just noticed, a culpa et a poena (in Latin), which was often popularly used of the Jubilee and other similar indulgences, it should be observed that it means no more than what is now understood by a "plenary indulgence". It implied, however, that any approved Roman confessor had faculties to absolve from reserved cases (sins whose forgiveness can only be granted by certain priests), and that the liberty thus virtually accorded of selecting a confessor was regarded as a privilege. The phrase was an unscientific one, and was not commonly used by theologians. It certainly did not mean, as some have pretended, that the indulgence of itself released from guilt (which could be punished by Hell) as well as penalty (for sins already forgiven, usually removed in Purgatory). Guilt is actually remitted in the Catholic Church only in virtue of sacramental confession and the sorrow of the penitent. The sovereign pontiff never claimed any power of absolving in grievous matters apart from the sacrament. "All theologians", remarks Maldonatus, "unanimously without a single exception, reply that an indulgence is not a remission of guilt but of the penalty."

The Jubilee of 1350

As we have seen, Boniface VIII had intended that the Jubilee should be celebrated only once in a hundred years, but some time before the middle of the fourteenth century, great urgings, in which St. Birgitta of Sweden and the poet Petrarch amongst others had some share, were made to Pope Clement VI, then residing at Avignon, to anticipate this term, particularly on the ground that the average span of human life was so short as otherwise to render it impossible for many to hope to see any Jubilee in their own generation. Clement VI assented, and in 1350 accordingly, a Jubilee was held, though the pope did not return to Rome himself. Gaetani Cardinal Ceccano was dispatched thither to represent His Holiness at the Jubilee. On this occasion daily visits to the Basilica di San Giovanni in Laterno were enjoined, besides those to the basilicas of St. Peter and St. Paul outside the Walls, while at the next Jubilee, (in 1390) the Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore was added to the list. The visit to these four churches has remained ever since as one of the primary conditions for gaining the Roman Jubilee indulgence.

The Jubilees of 1390 and 1423

The celebration next following was held in 1390, and in virtue of an ordinance of Pope Urban VI, it was proposed to hold a Jubilee every thirty-three years as representing the period of the sojourn of Christ upon earth and also the average span of human life. In 1400, so many people came to Rome, that Pope Boniface IX granted the indulgence again, even though he had not decreed a Jubilee year previously.

Another Jubilee was proclaimed by Pope Martin V in 1423 (33 years after the last proclaimed Jubilee in 1390), but Pope Nicholas V, in 1450, reverted to the quinquagesimal period, while Pope Paul II decreed that the Jubilee should be celebrated every twenty-five years, and this has been the normal rule ever since.

Subsequent Jubilees

The Jubilees of 1450 and 1475 were attended by vast crowds of pilgrims, and that of 1450 was unfortunately made famous by a terrible accident in which nearly two hundred persons were trampled to death in a panic which occurred on the bridge of Sant' Angelo. But even this disaster had its good effects in the pains taken afterwards to widen the thoroughfares and to provide for the entertainment and comfort of the pilgrims by numerous charitable organizations, of which the Archconfraternity of the Holy Trinity, founded by St. Philip Neri, was the most famous.

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 the clergy present for the inauguration. The holy doors were not opened, and the pilgrims who came were generally in Rome to do homage to the Pope, who had not accepted the Italian annexation of Rome, rather than to obtain an indulgence. 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 shorn of much of its splendour 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.

The "Great Jubilee" of 2000

Missing image
The official logo of the Great Jubilee of 2000 features its motto: Christ Yesterday, Today, Forever.

Main Article: Great Jubilee

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.

Protestant Churches and the Orthodox 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.

Ceremonial of the Jubilee

The most distinctive feature in the ceremonial of the Jubilee is the unwalling 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), however, in 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.

The Jubilee Indulgence

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 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. For this, fresh conditions are appointed, usually including a certain number of visits to local churches and sometimes fasting or other works of charity. Further, the popes have constantly exercised their prerogative of conceding to all the faithful indulgences ad instar jubilaei (after the model of a Jubilee) which are commonly known as "extraordinary Jubilees". On these occasions, as at the Jubilee itself, special facilities are usually accorded for absolution from reserved cases, though on the other hand, the great indulgence is only to be gained by the performance of conditions much more onerous than those required for an ordinary plenary indulgence. Such extraordinary Jubilees are commonly granted by a newly elected pontiff at his accession or on occasions of some unwexpected celebration, as was done, for example, at the convening of the First Vatican Council, or again at times of great calamity.

Pope John Paul II has 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 baslicas 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. For instance, the diocese of Rome added the chapel in the airport at Fiumicino as a possible pilgrimage site. 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 for all plenary indulgences.

List of Known Jubilee Years

  1. 1300 : Pope Boniface VIII
  2. 1350 : Pope Clement VI
  3. 1390 : decreed by Pope Urban VI, presided by Pope Boniface IX
  4. 1400 : Pope Boniface IX
  5. 1423 : Pope Martin V
  6. 1450 : Pope Nicholas V
  7. 1475 : decreed by Pope Paul II, presided by Pope Sixtus IV
  8. 1500 : Pope Alexander VI
  9. 1525 : Pope Clement VII
  10. 1550 : decreed by Pope Paul III, presided by Julius III
  11. 1575 : Pope Gregory XIII
  12. 1600 : Pope Clement VIII
  13. 1625 : Pope Urban VIII
  14. 1650 : Pope Innocent X
  15. 1675 : Pope Clement X
  16. 1700 : decreed by Pope Innocent XII, presided by Pope Clement XI
  17. 1725 : Pope Benedict XIII
  18. 1750 : Pope Benedict XIV
  19. 1775 : decreed by Pope Clement XIV, presided by Pope Pius VI
  20. 1825 : Pope Leo XII
  21. 1875 : Pope Pius IX (without great solemnity)
  22. 1900 : Pope Leo XIII
  23. 1925 : Pope Pius XI
  24. 1933 : Pope Pius XI
  25. 1950 : Pope Pius XII
  26. 1975 : Pope Paul VI
  27. 1983 : Pope John Paul II
  28. 2000 : Pope John Paul II

Initial text from 1910 Catholic Encyclopedia, with considerable editing

See also


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