This past Friday, Pope Francis made a remarkable announcement – one that I think few people have yet heard about and even fewer have realized the significance of. During a Penitential Service at St. Peter’s Basilica, the Holy Father announced that he is calling for an Extraordinary Jubilee to begin December 8, 2015, and run through November 20, 2016 – a Holy Year of Mercy. It’s the kind of surprise that we should expect from Pope Francis, and it also aligns perfectly with the major themes of this pontificate and in a sense brings everything full circle. And it could be Church-changing and life altering – because that’s what Holy Years are supposed to be. But first, some Frequently Asked Questions …

What is a Jubilee Year? With roots in the Old Testament Book of Leviticus, a Jubilee Year for the Israelites was something of an extended and ramped-up Sabbath – coming after a week of weeks – seven counts of seven years. Every 50 years, the Jubilee Year was a full year of rest and worship with some extraordinary characteristics – debts were to be forgiven, slaves freed, families that had been separated reunited, and those who had left their homes were to return to their land.

What is the Christian Holy Year? Modeled on the biblical Jubilee Year, the Holy Year is an intense time of conversion and purposeful worship of God. It is focused particularly on forgiveness of sins and growth in holiness. It has also been closely associated with pilgrimage to Rome and the tombs of the apostles, with the four Major Basilicas in Rome each having a Holy Door that is only opened during Holy Years.

How many Holy Years have their been? There are two types of Holy Years – Ordinary and Extraordinary. The first Holy Year was held in 1300, and after a period of time the interval was set at every 25 years, half the time of the biblical Jubilee Year, so that more people would have the opportunity to worthily celebrate a Holy Year during their lifetime. There have been 26 of these Ordinary Holy Years, the most recent in 2000. Extraordinary Holy Years can be declared by the Holy Father at opportune times outside the 25-year cycle – such as the Extraordinary Holy Year of 1983, marking the 1950th Anniversary of our Redemption. The Year of Mercy will be an Extraordinary Holy Year, and there have been numerous such years through history.

What happens during a Holy Year? Some of the exact activities and events depend on the nature of the year, but Holy Years are generally marked by pilgrimage, prayer, Sacraments (especially Reconciliation), and a unified plan for growth in holiness and conversion. Some events are centered in Rome – which often sees a significant increase in pilgrims during a Holy Year – while other events happen on the local level. In 2000, the culmination of events for the Great Jubilee in the Archdiocese of Indianapolis was an Archdiocesan-wide Mass for 25,000 people during which, among other things, thousands of young people received the Sacrament of Confirmation.

What are the Holy Doors? Each of the four Major Basilicas in Rome has a Holy Door – St. Peter’s in the Vatican, St. Paul Outside-the-Walls, St. Mary Major, and St. John Lateran. These Holy Doors are opened with great solemnity at the beginning of a Holy Year and people walk through them when entering these basilicas during the year. They are then walled up at the end of the Holy Year. The Holy Door signifies the Door of Grace – the Door of Christ – that is open to pilgrims desiring to intensify their growth in holiness by walking the path of discipleship during the Holy Year. Visiting these four Major Basilicas is an integral part of a Holy Year Pilgrimage to Rome and part of receiving a Holy Year Plenary Indulgence.

The Holy Door at the Basilica of St. Mary Major in Rome

The Holy Door at the Basilica of St. Mary Major in Rome

Why is the Holy Year of Mercy so significant? Mercy is one of the hallmark themes of this pontificate – and so a Year of Mercy seems to be Pope Francis’ way of making God’s mercy not just his own theme, but at the heart of what the Church is about. The next World Youth Day will fall during the Year of Mercy, and it had already been announced that the theme of the 2016 World Youth Day in Krakow will be “Blessed are the merciful.” The timing is also significant – the opening of the Year of Mercy on December 8, 2015, coincides with the 50th anniversary of the close of the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council. And the very name of this type of Holy Year is not an accident – it is Extraordinary in the sense that it is scheduled outside the Ordinary cycle of 25-year Holy Years, but also because it can become an occasion of extraordinary missionary zeal and growth in holiness for the Church and the world. The message of mercy is one that many people need to hear – those of us regularly active in the Church, those who feel alienated by the Church, those on the margins of Church or society, and indeed the entire world. Spending a full year preaching and practicing mercy has the potential to transform the Church and the world.

Where do we go from here? Unlike the Great Jubilee of the Holy Year 2000 (when the first major document written by St. John Paul II to prepare for the Jubilee was issued in 1994), there’s not much time for preparation – the Holy Year of Mercy begins in less than 9 months. Pope Francis said Friday that the Bull officially decreeing the Holy Year will be issued on Divine Mercy Sunday (April 12), so I imagine we’ll know more of his thoughts at that time. There will certainly be events in Rome and recommendations on how local communities can observe the year – I’m sure every diocese will put together a plan for local commemorations of the Year of Mercy and ideas on how to incorporate the themes of the Holy Year into every aspect of Church life and ministry.

And then there’s pilgrimage – which has historically been a central component to Holy Years. The Archdiocese of Indianapolis is gearing up to take pilgrims to Krakow for World Youth Day during the Year of Mercy. But there are also the Holy Doors that will be open for the first time since 2000 … so who wants to go to Rome?