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February Article for The RI Catholic

Sr. Patricia McCarthy, CND

The timing for the Jubilee Year of Mercy called by Pope Francis is clearly a response to the signs of our times. Our times are replete with the savagery of war, the horror of trafficking, the scourge of poverty, the destruction of our planet, and the staggering numbers of refugees as a result of all these factors.

The foremost symbolism of any Jubilee Year is the opening of a Holy Door. A look at the history of the Holy Door reveals the spirituality behind it. The idea started in 1300 with Pope Boniface. The Holy Door was at St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. The Pope would be the one to open the door by knocking three times before opening the door. Behind the door was a wall of cement and mortar that could only be opened from the inside This tradition lasted until 1974 when a piece of the wall fell and hit Pope Paul VI. That did away with the brick and mortar aspect of the Holy Door.

The symbolism was associated with Adam and Eve being driven from the Garden of Eden. Opening the door was a sign of their entrance into Paradise, and all the faithful behind them. Reconciliation, of course, is the essence of the story of redemption and thus is the essence of the Holy Door today. God’s people must repent, being first called to do so by the mercy of God, by God who is mercy.

By 1400, the Holy Doors were being opened only every hundred years; then it went down to every 50 years and finally became at the will of the Pope. In 1500, Pope Alexander opened other doors than just St. Peter’s. St. Mary Major and St. John Lateran in Rome became the first Holy Doors outside of St. Peter’s. It spread throughout the world, but the Doors had to be designated by the Pope. In October of 2015 when Pope Francis declared a Jubilee Year of Mercy, he also said that Bishops could designate a Holy Door, so they are in every city now. No longer is a pilgrimage to Rome necessary to walk through a Holy Door and receive the grace of mercy and reconciliation. There is a responsibility built on this long tradition for any who walk through the Door. It is a responsibility of acknowledgment of sin and of sorrow for it, of failing to live the Christian life with Jesus and of a willingness to try harder.

During this 15th century, the idea of sanctuary in a church came into being and it was associated with the Holy Doors. Any Christian seeking sanctuary could walk through the Holy Door and be safe. This sanctuary movement spread to any church and was a very common practice in the Middle Ages. It has been revived recently with refugees seeking safety within churches. The right to sanctuary is not always respected. In Ruwanda during the genocide, a whole church filled with people seeking sanctuary was attacked and each person was brutally murdered.

Today we have 60 million refugees; 14.4 million last year alone.[1] 11 thousand children a day lose their homes. If there was ever a time for the need of sanctuary, it is today. With due diligence but with charity and without fear and prejudice, Christians are being called to welcome the stranger as Jesus taught us to do. Pope Francis has called on churches, parishes, religious communities and all Catholics to open their doors to people fleeing war and oppression. This is not a political question for a Catholic; it is a spiritual one.

“What good would it do to open all the Holy Doors of all the basilicas in the world if the doors of our own heart are closed to love, if our hands are closed to giving, if our homes are closed to hospitality and our churches to welcome and acceptance.”[2]

Article first published by the Rhode Island Catholic

[1] United Nations Statistics

[2] Pope Francis, Christmas talk to Curia


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