The Jubilee or Holy Year is a religious event, universal in character, that has involved the Catholic faithful since 1300, when Pope Boniface VIII proclaimed the first. Its origins, however, are much older and rooted in Judaism.
In 700 years of tradition, there have been 26 ordinary Jubilees, held either every fifty years, as wished by Pope Boniface VIII, or every twenty-five years, as is now the case.
The Jubilee being celebrated this year and proclaimed by the Pope as an Extraordinary Holy Year does not coincide with the normal frequency for the event. This follows a tradition of the Catholic Church begun in the sixteenth century, when the first Extraordinary Holy Year was celebrated. The most recent Extraordinary Holy Years were celebrated in the twentieth century and were proclaimed by Pope Pius XI for the year 1933 and Pope John Paul II for 1983 to celebrate the nineteenth centenary and the 1,950 years of the Redemption respectively. In 1954, on the centenary of the apparitions of Lourdes, Pope Pius XII celebrated a Marian Year, followed in 1987 by Pope John Paul II who, in preparation for the Jubilee of 2000, wanted to highlight the Christological dimension of the life of Mary
The Extraordinary Holy Year being celebrated this year at the will of Pope Francis, marks the fiftieth anniversary of the end of the Second Vatican Council and the Pope himself, following in the steps of the Magisterium of his two predecessors, dedicated the Year, with the Misericodiae Vultus bull, announced in March 2015 and issued the following April, to Mercy, “the lintel that supports the life of the Church”.
For the Catholic Church, the Jubilee is a great religious event. It is the year of reconciliation with God, the forgiveness of sins, peace between opponents, conversion and sacramental penance, and, consequently, of solidarity, hope, justice, commitment to serve God in joy and in peace with others.
The origins of the Jubilee of the Catholic Church lie in the Old Testament. In the Book of Leviticus, the Hebrew people were told, “And you shall consecrate the fiftieth year, and proclaim liberty throughout all the land to all its inhabitants. It shall be a Jubilee for you; and each of you shall return to his possession, and each of you shall return to his family. That fiftieth year shall be a Jubilee to you; in it you shall neither sow nor reap what grows of its own accord, nor gather the grapes of your untended vine. For it is the Jubilee; it shall be holy to you; you shall eat its produce from the field. In this Year of Jubilee, each of you shall return to his possession.”(Lev 25.10 to 13).
The beginning of this Holy Year was announced to the Jewish people with the sound of a ram’s horn, called a “Yobel”, the word from which the term “Jubilee” derives. The celebration of the Jubilee of the Jews involved the restitution of land to former owners, the forgiveness of debts, the liberation of slaves and the rest of the earth.
In the New Testament, Jesus presents himself as the one who brings to fulfilment the ancient Jubilee, having come to “preach the year of grace of the Lord” (Lk 4:19), quoting a verse from Isaiah (61.2).
The first ordinary Jubilee in the history of the Catholic Church was proclaimed in 1300 by Pope Boniface VIII, with the Antiquorum Habet Fida Relatio bull. The huge influx of pilgrims to Rome led the Pope to grant an indulgence throughout the course of the year and, in the future, every hundred years. Pilgrims at the first Jubilee in history included Charles of Valois and his wife Catherine, Cimabue, Giotto and Dante, who recalls the event in a number of verses of the XXXI canto of Paradise in the Divine Comedy.
During the move of the Papal Seat to Avignon (1305-1377), numerous requests were made to hold the second Jubilee in 1350 and not in 1400. Pope Clement VI agreed, and, to unify the Jewish with the Catholic Jubilee, established a fifty-year recurrence. Pope Urban VI later decided to move it to 33 years, in reference to the period of Jesus’ earthly life, but the proposal came to nothing. Before his death, Pope Boniface IX proclaimed the Holy Year of 1390 and, with the end of the century approaching and a significant influx of pilgrims, a second Holy Year in 1400.
The reduction to 25 years was due to Pope Martin V, who proclaimed the Holy Year for 1425. He introduced two innovations, the minting of a special commemorative medal and the opening of the Holy Door also in San Giovanni in Laterano. Under the pontificate of Pope Nicholas V, the Jubilee of 1450 was announced; Pope Paul II, with a Bull in 1470, established that the Jubilee should take place every 25 years. The 1475 Jubilee was proclaimed by Pope Sixtus IV. For this occasion, the Pope wished to embellish Rome with a number of major new works, including the Sistine Chapel and the Sisto Bridge over the Tiber, thus initiating a tradition followed by subsequent popes to promote public works in the Jubilee years.
In 1500 Pope Alexander VI wanted the Holy Doors of the four basilicas to be opened at the same time, he himself opening the Holy Door of St. Peter’s. Pope Clement VII opened the ninth Jubilee on 24th December 1524. Pope Paul III proclaimed the Jubilee for 1550 but Pope Julius III inaugurated it. The large influx of pilgrims had an urgent need for accommodation and care, which was provided by San Filippo Neri and the “Brotherhood of the Holy Trinity”. In 1575, under Pope Gregory XIII, more than 300,000 people from all over Europe came to Rome. The Holy Years of the seventeenth century were called by the Popes Clement VIII (1600), Urban VIII (1625), Innocent X (1650) and Clement X (1675).
During the eighteenth century, initiatives to accommodate the needs of the pilgrims were increased: Pope Innocent X, who proclaimed the Jubilee of 1700, promoted one of the largest charities in Rome, the Hospice of San Michele a Ripa, currently one of the offices of the Ministry of Cultural Heritage and Tourism. Pope Benedict XIII and Pope Benedict XIV distinguished themselves in these charitable works during the Holy Years they proclaimed for 1725 and 1750. Of particular note in the 1750 Jubilee is the contribution of the tireless preacher, San Leonardo da Porto Maurizio, who placed 14 shrines in the Coliseum for pilgrims to worship the Stations of the Via Crucis and a large cross in the middle of the arena; the ritual of the Via Crucis at the Coliseum was resumed by Paul VI in the twentieth century and is still closely followed by Catholics. Pope Clement XIV proclaimed the Jubilee in 1775, but could not open it because he died before the inauguration of the Holy Year, which was celebrated by his successor Pope Pius VI.
The Jubilee of 1800 was not held because of the political situation and almost all the jubilee celebrations of the century were troubled. Pope Leo XII proclaimed the Holy Year of 1825, which was attended by more than half a million pilgrims in Rome, however, Pope Pius IX could not celebrate the one of 1850, due to the vicissitudes of the Roman Republic and his temporary exile in Gaeta. Pope Pius IX also proclaimed the Jubilee of 1875 but because of the occupation of Rome by the troops of Victor Emmanuel II, the ceremonies for opening and closing the Holy Door could not take place.
Pope Leo XIII proclaimed the twenty-second Jubilee of 1900, which saw six beatifications and two canonizations. Pope Pius XI celebrated the Holy Year of 1925, asking the faithful to acknowledge the work of the missions and exhorting them to pray for peace between nations. Pope Pius XII, after the end of World War II, promulgated the Jubilee of 1950, during which the dogma of the Assumption of Mary into heaven was proclaimed. The Holy Year of 1975 was proclaimed by Pope Paul VI, who asked the faithful to adhere to the objectives of Renewal and Reconciliation among men. The great millennium Jubilee of 2000 was promulgated and celebrated by Pope John Paul II, who had announced it in 1994 with the Tertio Millennio adveniente bull.