Pope Boniface VIII instituted the practice of celebrating Jubilee Holy Years in Rome in 1300. Pilgrims were invited to journey to the basilicas in Rome as acts of penance. In what was to be the fifth such Holy Year, Pope Martin V added to this celebration by opening a special Holy Door at the Lateran Basilica for the first time in connection with the Jubilee of 1423.
Pilgrims were invited to step through this holy door as a symbolic act of reparation for their sins. Some historians believe that the use of holy doors in cathedrals and churches may have its origin in the ancient Christian practice of public penitence. Rather than immediately receiving absolution as we do today, in ancient times sinners were given public penances to perform before receiving absolution. When the penitent had completed their penance they would solemnly reenter the church through a special holy door in order to symbolize their repentance and re-commitment to follow Christ. This general use of holy doors was later adapted to the Jubilee holy door (called porta santa in Italian and porta sancta in Latin). In addition to the symbolism of repentance special indulgences were attached to these doors for pilgrims during the Jubilee year.
Eventually Jubilee holy doors became a standard feature of each of the Roman basilicas. After the holy year was finished, these special doors were sealed up with bricks. The most famous of these doors is the one created at St. Peter’s Basilica. Traditionally after workers had loosened the masonry, the Holy Father would strike the masonry three times with a silver hammer to break it and symbolically open the door on the eve of the Holy Year. The Holy Father himself is the first to pass through the door as a penitent.
This gesture could echo a number of scriptures such as Moses striking the rock in the wilderness (Numbers 20:6ff), but the most obvious reference would be found in the book of Revelation where Jesus declares, “Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, [then] I will enter his house and dine with him, and he with me” (Revelation 3:20). Christ is knocking at the door to our hearts and asking for greater intimacy and communion with us. Jesus is calling each of us to repentance and re-commitment to follow him.
The Holy Door at St. Peter’s Basilica is decorated with sixteen panels, four panels grouped into four rows. These panels retell the story of salvation from the exile of Adam and Eve from the garden to the conversion of St. Paul. The final panel shows the Holy Father striking the Holy Door, and this panel is engraved with the words of Revelation 3:20 “I stand at the door and knock.”
At the Year 2000 Jubilee, St. Pope John Paul II noted that journeying through the holy door “evokes the passage from sin to grace which every Christian is called to accomplish.” He observes that “Jesus said: ‘I am the door’ (John 10:7), in order to make it clear that no one can come to the Father except through him” (Incarnationis Mysterium 8). Jesus alone is “one way that opens wide the entrance into this life of communion with God.” Perhaps Jesus words in John 10 echo the Psalmist “This is the door of the Lord where the just may enter” (Psalm 118:20).
At the Year 2000 Jubilee St. Pope John Paul II called for the faithful to recommit themselves to Christ as they pass through the holy door,
To pass through that door means to confess that Jesus Christ is Lord; it is to strengthen faith in him in order to live the new life which he has given us. It is a decision which presumes freedom to choose and also the courage to leave something behind, in the knowledge that what is gained is divine life (IM8).
During the coming Holy Year of Mercy, Pope Francis has asked that each of the faithful make a pilgrimage to a Holy Door. Those not afforded the privilege of visiting the Holy Door in Rome at St. Peters Basilica may visit those set up though out the world in Cathedrals and other churches. Seven sites in our diocese have been designated as Places of Pilgrimage for the special Jubilee Year. These sites include Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception; the Co-Cathedral of St. Joseph; the Minor Basilica of the Immaculate Conception at Conception Abbey; Sacred Heart/Guadalupe Parish, Kansas City; Sacred Heart Parish, Warrensburg; and Holy Rosary Parish, Clinton.
Scott McKellar is associate director of the Bishop Helmsing Institute.