Tuesday, December 8, 2015 will begin the Jubilee Year of Mercy. Popes have proclaimed a Jubilee Year from time to time since at least the fifteenth century. It’s inspired by the practice of Jubilee Years described in the Shared Scriptures, and traditionally the year is begun when the Pope opens up a door at St. Peter’s that is at all other times kept closed, and traditionally even bricked up from behind. This door is called the Holy Door, and special blessings are available for those who enter through the Holy Door during the Jubilee year. (More on what those blessings are in my next post.) Traditionally, other Holy Doors are then opened in other major churches in Rome, and one aspect of the Jubilee is to go on pilgrimage to these places.
Francis has done two interesting and unusual things with this tradition.
First, he opened the first Holy Door not at St. Peter’s, but at a church in the Central African Republic, one of the poorest and most war-ravaged countries in the world. This was a high point of his trip through several African countries last week; he announced that the Jubilee Year of Mercy was coming early to the CAR, and opened the Holy Door there. This is beautifully consistent with his preaching that the church should be centered and focused on and among the poor, rather than the wealthy.
Second, he is giving every bishop in the world permission to open a Holy Door in their own diocese! Typically this will be at the cathedral, but it is up to the bishops’ discretion: they might choose another popular shrine, or — who knows? — follow Francis’ example and choose a poor church in a poor neighborhood.
I love this proliferation of Holy Doors for two reasons. First and most obviously, it’s a clear and beautiful symbol of the abundance and availability of God’s mercy, which is what this Jubilee Year is all about.
But there’s also ecclesiological symbolism at work. Contrary to the centralized model of the church in which Rome is the Head Office and local churches (ie dioceses) are franchise outlets, this is another move towards implementing the decentralized, collegial, communion ecclesiology envisioned by the Vatican 2 document on the church, Lumen Gentium, and retrieved from the early church.
With a Holy Door in every local church, Rome moves a bit closer to its historic place as first among equals — which is the historical reason that the Bishop of Rome is the head of the Catholic Church, a history to which Francis has nodded from the first moments of his papacy. What I see here is the church of Rome taking a step back to allow more room for its sister/daughter churches to shine.