The Jubilee: What to Expect in Rome

Anticipation is mounting in Rome as Pope Francis prepares to commence the Year of Jubilee on December 8th, 2015. But we at Context have noticed that very few people – natives and visitors alike – have a full grasp of what precisely the Jubilee Year means, both in the Catholic faith or to the city of Rome. So we’ve put together a summary of where the tradition comes from, and what to expect here in the months ahead.

St. Peter's basilica
St. Peter’s basilica

In the ancient Hebrew tradition, the Jubilee was celebrated every 50 years and designed to rebalance rights and justice. It would offer families that had lost property, and sometimes their freedom, an opportunity to change their circumstances. It was also a reminder to the rich of their obligations to the poor and a reminder that slaves could again become their equals.

In the Catholic Church, it all started in the year 1300, when Pope Boniface VIII granted “great remissions and indulgences for sins” to pilgrims who visited the city of Rome and its holy sites within a year.

Since then Jubilees, or Holy Years, have typically been held every 25-50 years, focusing on justice and mercy, implying a general pardon and an indulgence open to all, as well as offering the opportunity to deepen one’s faith.

Popes are known to occasionally stray from that traditional timespan, calling Extraordinary Jubilees to mark special occasions in off-years. Such was the case in 1983, the year of the the last Extraordinary Jubilee, when John Paul II celebrated the 1,950 years that had passed since the death and resurrection of Jesus.

Bernini's baldachin in St. Peter's basilica
Bernini’s baldachin in St. Peter’s basilica

Such is again the case this Holy Year, which comes only 15 years since the previous Jubilee.

The start of the upcoming Extraordinary Jubilee coincides with the 50th anniversary of the conclusion of the Second Vatican Council, and carries the theme of divine mercy.

“Dear Brothers and Sisters, I have often reflected upon how the Church can make its mission as a witness of mercy more apparent,” said Francis when he announced the Jubilee. “It is a journey that begins with spiritual conversion. For this reason I have decided to proclaim an Extraordinary Jubilee which focuses on God’s mercy. It will be a Holy Year of Mercy. We wish to experience this inspired by the Word of the Lord: “Be merciful, just as your father is merciful” (cfr. Luke 6:36). This Holy Year will begin on the next Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception and will conclude on 20 November 2016, Sunday of Our Lord Jesus Christ King of the universe and the living face of the Father’s mercy.”

The Jubilee begins with the opening of the Holy Door of St. Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican, which is normally cemented shut, and opened only throughout the Holy Year.

The other Roman basilicas – St. John in the Lateran, St. Paul Outside the Walls and Santa Maria Maggiore – also have holy doors, which will be opened shortly afterward. The act symbolizes the start of an “extraordinary journey” for the faithful toward salvation. Catholic pilgrims are required to visit all four basilicas.

Basilica of St. John in the Lateran
Basilica of St. John in the Lateran

For security reasons, all pilgrims wanting to cross the holy door at St Peter’s Basilica will have to register online. There will be a reserved walking path for them, which will will begin at Castel Sant’Angelo and finish at the Holy Door, passing through via della Conciliazione, Piazza Pio XII and Saint Peter’s Square. Pilgrims can sign up via this website, on the page “Registration for Pilgrims.”

Once pilgrims are registered, in addition to being able to sign up for the major events, they will be able to choose the date and approximate time of their pilgrimage to the holy door of Saint Peter’s, and they will receive a note confirming the request. There will be a Welcome Center for Pilgrims at via della Conciliazione 7, where people can sign up and find help regarding logistics.

Considering the wild popularity of Pope Francis, officials estimate a massive turnout of up to 33 million people throughout the course of the Jubilee. In 2000, some 25 million visited Rome during the last Holy Year.

Detail of St. Peter's square colonnades
Detail of St. Peter’s square colonnades

According to Context docent Sara Magister, a scientific consultant for the Vatican Museums and editor for the National Italian Encyclopaedia, this Jubilee gives tourists the perfect chance to see Rome in a different light, not only as the capital of the ancient Roman empire, but also as a holy city. “This event gives us a better chance to understand how art and faith are so deeply connected and how it is mainly this specific connection that generated some of the best masterpieces.

In the run-up, Rome has undertaken a city-wide makeover. While you won’t see any major changes to infrastructure, you will notice repaved streets, repainted crosswalks, and areas where sidewalks have been widened, especially in the center. The objective was to create four main pedestrian itineraries that connect the major basilicas, while including some lesser-known, yet important, churches, such as the Chiesa Nuova, St. Salvatore at the Laurels, and the Church of the Most Holy Trinity of Pilgrims.

View of St Peter's dome
View of St Peter’s dome

For more information visit the Vatican’s official Jubilee website