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The Catholic Encyclopedia
Holy Year of Jubilee
The ultimate derivation of the word jubilee is disputed, but it is most probable that the Hebrew jobel, to which it is traced, meant "a ram's horn", and that from this instrument, used in proclaiming the celebration, a certain idea of rejoicing was derived. Further, passing through the Greek iobelaios, or iobelos, the word became confused with the Latin jubilo, which means "to shout", and has given us the forms jubilatio and jubilaeum, now adopted in most European languages.
For the Israelites (see HEBREW YEAR OF JUBILEE), the year of Jubilee was in any case preeminently a time of joy, the year of remission or universal pardon. "Thou shalt sanctify the fiftieth year," we read in Leviticus 25:10, "and shalt proclaim remission to all the inhabitants of thy land: for it is the year of jubilee." Every seventh year, like every seventh day, was always accounted holy and set aside for rest, but the year which followed seven complete cycles was to be kept as a sabbatical year of special solemnity. The Talmudists and others afterwards disputed whether the Jubilee Year was the forty-ninth or the fiftieth year, the difficulty being that in the latter case two sabbatical years must have been observed in succession. Further, there are historical data which seem to show that in the age of the Machabees the Jubilee of the fiftieth year could not have been kept, for 164-163 B.C. and 38-37 B.C. were both certainly sabbatical years, which they could not have been if two sabbatical years had been intercalated in the interval. However, the text of Leviticus (25:8-55) leaves no room for ambiguity that the fiftieth year was intended, and the institution evidently bore a close analogy with the feast of Pentecost, which was the closing day after seven weeks of harvest. In any case it is certain that the Jubilee period, as it was generally understood and adopted afterwards in the Christian Church, meant fifty and not forty-nine years; but at the same time the number fifty was not originally arrived at because it represented half a century, but because it was the number that followed seven cycles of seven.
It was, then, part of the legislation of the Old Law, whether practically adhered to or not, that each fiftieth year was to be celebrated as a jubilee year, and that at this season every household should recover its absent members, the land return to its former owners, the Hebrew slaves be set free, and debts be remitted.
The same conception, spiritualized, forms the fundamental idea of the Christian Jubilee, though it is difficult to judge how far any sort of continuity can have existed between the two. It is commonly stated that Pope Boniface VIII instituted the first Christian Jubilee in the year 1300, and it is certain that this is the first celebration of which we have any precise record, but it is also certain that the idea of solemnizing a fiftieth anniversary was familiar to medieval writers, no doubt through their knowledge of the Bible, long before that date. The jubilee of a monk's religious profession was often kept, and probably some vague memory survived of those Roman ludi saeculares which are commemorated in the "Carmen Saeculare" of Horace, even though this last was commonly associated with a period of a hundred years rather than any lesser interval. But, what is most noteworthy, the number fifty was specially associated in the early thirteenth century with the idea of remission. The translation of St. Thomas of Canterbury took place in the year 1220, fifty years after his martyrdom. The sermon on that occasion was preached by Stephen Cardinal Lantron, who told his hearers that this accident was meant by Providence to recall "the mystical virtue of the number fifty, which, as every reader of the sacred page is aware, is the number of remission" (P.L., CXC, 421).
We might be tempted to regard this discourse as a fabrication of later date, were it not for the fact that a Latin hymn directed against the Albigenses, and certainly belonging to the early thirteenth century, speaks in exactly similar terms. The first stanza runs thus:
Anni favor jubilaei
Poenarum laxat debitum,
Post peccatorum vomitum
Et cessandi propositum.
Currant passim omnes rei.
Pro mercede regnum Dei
Levi patet expositum.
In the light of this explicit mention of a jubilee with great remissions of the penalties of sin to be obtained by full confession and purpose of amendment, it seems difficult to reject the statement of Cardinal Stefaneschi, the contemporary and counsellor of Boniface VIII, and author of a treatise on the first Jubilee ("De Anno Jubileo" in La Bigne, "Bibliotheca Patrum", VI, 536), that the proclamation of the Jubilee owed its origin to the statements of certain aged pilgrims who persuaded Boniface that great indulgences had been granted to all pilgrims in Rome about a hundred years before. It is also noteworthy that in the Chronicle of Alberic of Three Fountains, under the year 1208 (not, be it noted 1200), we find this brief entry: "It is said that this year was celebrated as the fiftieth year, or the year of jubilee and remission, in the Roman Court" (Pertz, "Mon. Germ. Hist.: Script." XXIII, 889). It is beyond all dispute that on 22 February, 1300, Boniface published the Bull "Antiquorum fida relatio", in which, appealing vaguely the precedent of past ages, he declares that he grants afresh and renews certain "great remissions and indulgences for sins" which are to be obtained "by visiting the city of Rome and the venerable basilica of the Prince of the Apostles". Coming to more precise detail, he specifies that he concedes "not only full and copious, but the most full, pardon of all their sins", to those who fulfill certain conditions. These are, first, that being truly penitent they confess their sins, and secondly, that they visit the basilicas of St. Peter and St. Paul in Rome, at least once a day for a specified time--in the case of the inhabitants for thirty days, in the case of strangers for fifteen. No explicit mention is made of Communion, nor does the word jubilee occur in the Bull--indeed the pope speaks rather of a celebration which is to occur every hundred years--but writers both Roman and foreign described this year as annus jubileus, and the name jubilee (though others, such as the "holy year" or "the golden year" have been used as well) has been applied to such celebrations ever since. Dante, who is himself supposed by some to have visited Rome during this year to gain the Jubilee, refers to it under the name Giubbileo in the Inferno (xviii, 29) and indirectly bears witness to the enormous concourse of pilgrims by comparing the sinners passing along one of the bridges of Malebolge in opposite directions, to the throngs crossing the bridge of the Castle Sant' Angelo on their way to and from St. Peter's. Similarly, the chronicler Villani was so impressed on this occasion by the sight of the monuments of Rome and the people who flocked thither that he then and there formed the resolution of his great chronicle, in the course of which he gives a remarkable account of what he witnessed. He describes the indulgence as a full and entire remission of all sins di culpa e di pena, and he dwells upon the great contentment and good order of the people, despite the fact that during the greater part of that year there were two hundred thousand pilgrims on an average present in Rome over and above the ordinary population. With regard to the phrase just noticed, a culpa et a poena, which was often popularly used of the Jubilee and other similar indulgences, it should be observed that it means no more than what is now understood by a "plenary indulgence". It implied, however, that any approved Roman confessor had faculties to absolve from reserved cases, and that the liberty thus virtually accorded of selecting a confessor was regarded as a privilege. The phrase was an unscientific one, and was not commonly used by theologians. It certainly did not mean, as some have pretended, that the indulgence of itself released from guilt as well as penalty. The guilt was remitted only in virtue of sacramental confession and the sorrow of the penitent. The sovereign pontiff never claimed any power of absolving in grievous matters apart from these. "All theologians", remarks Maldonatus with truth, "unanimously without a single exception, reply that an indulgence is not a remission of guilt but of the penalty." (See Paulus in "Zeitschrift f. kath. Theologie", 1899, pp. 49 sqq., 423 sqq., 743 sqq., and "Dublin Review", Jan., 1900, pp. 1 sqq.)
The jubilee of 1350
As we have seen, Boniface VIII had intended that the Jubilee should be celebrated only once in a hundred years, but some time before the middle of the fourteenth century, great instances, in which St. Bridget of Sweden and the poet Petrarch amongst others had some share, were made to Pope Clement VI, then residing at Avignon, to anticipate this term, particularly on the ground that the average span of human life was so short as otherwise to render it impossible for many to hope to see any Jubilee in their own generation. Clement VI assented, and in 1350 accordingly, though the pope did not return to Rome himself. Gaetani Cardinal Ceccano was dispatched thither to represent His Holiness at the Jubilee. On this occasion daily visits to the church of St. John Lateran were enjoined, besides those to the basilicas of St. Peter and St. Paul without the walls, while at the next Jubilee, St. Mary Major was added to the list. The visit to these four churches has remained unchanged ever since as one of the primary conditions for gaining the Roman Jubilee.
The jubilees of 1390 and 1423
The celebration next following was held in 1390, and in virtue of an ordinance of Urban VI, it was proposed to hold a Jubilee every thirty-three years as representing the period of the sojourn of Christ upon earth and also the average span of human life.
Another Jubilee was accordingly proclaimed by Martin V in 1423, but Nicholas V, in 1450, reverted to the quinquagesimal period, while Paul II decreed that the Jubilee should be celebrated every twenty-five years, and this has been the normal rule ever since.
The Jubilees of 1450 and 1475 were attended by vast crowds of pilgrims, and that of 1450 was unfortunately made famous by a terrible accident in which nearly two hundred persons were trampled to death in a panic which occurred on the bridge of Sant' Angelo. But even this disaster had its good effects in the pains taken afterwards to widen the thoroughfares and to provide for the entertainment and comfort of the pilgrims by numerous charitable organizations, of which the Archconfraternity of the Holy Trinity, founded by St. Philip Neri, was the most famous.
On the other hand, it is impossible to doubt the evidence of innumerable witnesses as to the great moral renovation produced by these celebrations. The testimony comes in many cases from the most unexceptionable sources, and it extends from the days of Boniface VIII to the striking account given by Cardinal Wiseman ("Last Four Popes", pp. 270, 271) of the only Jubilee held in the nineteenth century, that of 1825. The omission of the Jubilees of 1800, 1850, and 1875 was due to political disturbances, but with these exceptions the celebration has been uniformly maintained every twenty-five years from 1450 until the present time. The Jubilee of 1900, though shorn of much of its splendour by the confinement of the Holy Father within the limits of the Vatican, was, nevertheless carried out by Pope Leo XIII with all the solemnity that was possible.
The most distinctive feature in the ceremonial of the Jubilee is the unwalling and the final walling up of the "holy door" in each of the four great basilicas which the pilgrims are required to visit. It was formerly supposed that this rite was instituted by Alexander VI in the Jubilee of 1500, but this is certainly a mistake. Not to speak of a supposed vision of Clement VI as early as 1350, who is said to have been supernaturally admonished to "open the door", we have several references to the "holy door" or the "golden gate" in connection with the Jubilee long before the year 1475. The earliest account seems to be that of the Spanish pilgrim, Pero Tafur, c. 1437. He connects the Jubilee indulgence with the right of sanctuary, which, he maintains, existed in pagan times for all who crossed the threshold of the puerta tarpea upon the site of the Lateran. He goes on to say that, at the request of Constantine, Pope Sylvester published a Bull proclaiming the same immunity from punishment for Christian sinners who took sanctuary there. The privilege, however, was grossly abused and the popes consequently ordered the door to be walled up at all seasons save certain times of special grace. Formerly the door was unwalled only once in a hundred years, this was afterwards reduced to fifty, and now it is said to be "opened at the will of the pope." However legendary all this may be, it is hardly possible that the story could have been quite recently fabricated at the time Tafur recorded it. Moreover, a number of witnesses allude to the unwalling of the holy door in connection with the Jubilee of 1450. One of these, the Florentine merchant Giovanni Rucellai, speaks of the five doors of the Lateran basilica,
one of which is always walled up except during the Jubilee year, when it is broken down at Christmas when the Jubilee commences. The devotion which the populace has for the bricks and mortar of which it is composed is such that at the unwalling, the fragments are immediately carried off by the crowd, and the foreigners (gli oltremontani) take them home as so many sacred relics. . . . Out of devotion every one who gains the indulgence passes through that door, which is walled up again as soon as the Jubilee is ended. (Archivio di Storia Patria, IV, 569-570)
All this describes a rite which has lasted unchanged to the present day, and which has nearly always supplied the principal subject depicted upon the long series of Jubilee medals issued by the various popes who have opened and closed the holy door at the beginning and end of each Jubilee year. Each of the four basilicas has its holy door. That of St. Peter's is opened on the Christmas Eve preceding the anno santo by the pontiff in person, and it is closed by him on the Christmas Eve following. The pope knocks upon the door three times with a silver hammer, singing the versicle "Open unto me the gates of justice". The masonry, which has been loosened beforehand, is made to fall in at the third blow, and, after the threshhold has been swept and washed by the Jubilee penitentiaries, the pope enters first. Each of the holy doors at the other basilicas is similarly opened by a cardinal specially deputed for the purpose. The symbolism of this ceremony is probably closely connected with the idea of the exclusion of Adam and Eve from Paradise, and the expulsion and reconciliation of penitents according to the ritual provided in the Pontifical. But it may also have been influenced by the old idea of seeking sanctuary, as Tafur and Rucellai suggest. The sanctuary knocker of Durham Cathedral still remains to remind us of the important part which this institution played in the life of our forefathers.
This is a plenary indulgence which, as stated by Boniface VIII in Consistory, it is the intention of the Holy See to grant in the most ample manner possible. Of course, when first conceded, such an indulgence, and also the privilege annexed of choosing a confessor who had power to absolve from reserved cases, was a much rarer spiritual boon than it has since become. So preeminent was the favour then regarded that the custom arose of suspending all other indulgences during the Jubilee year, a practice which, with certain modifications, still obtains at the present day. The precise conditions for gaining each Jubilee are determined by the Roman pontiff, and they are usually announced in a special Bull, distinct from that which it is customary to issue on the preceding feast of the Ascension giving notice of the forthcoming celebration. The main conditions, however, which do not usually vary, are three: confession, Communion and visits to the four basilicas during a certain specified period. The statement made by some, that the Jubilee indulgence, being a culpa et a paena, did not of old presuppose either confession or repentance, is absolutely without foundation, and is contradicted by every official document preserved to us. Besides the ordinary Jubilee indulgence, to be gained only by pilgrims who pay a visit to Rome, or through special concession by certain cloistered religious confined within their monasteries, it has long been customary to extend this indulgence the following year to the faithful throughout the world. For this fresh conditions are appointed, usually including a certain number of visits to local churches and sometimes fasting or other works of charity. Further, the popes have constantly exercised their prerogative of conceding to all the faithful indulgences ad instar jubilaei (after the model of a jubilee) which are commonly known as "extraordinary Jubilees". On these occasions, as at the Jubilee itself, special facilities are usually accorded for absolution from reserved cases, though on the other hand, the great indulgence is only to be gained by the performance of conditions much more onerous than those required for an ordinary plenary indulgence. Such extraordinary Jubilees are commonly granted by a newly elected pontiff at his accession or on occasions of some unwonted celebration, as was done, for example, at the convening of the Vatican Council, or again at times of great calamity.
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Obstat, Nihil. Lafort, Remy, Censor. Entry for 'Holy Year of Jubilee'. The Catholic Encyclopedia. https://www.studylight.org/encyclopedias/eng/tce/h/holy-year-of-jubilee.html. Robert Appleton Company. New York. 1914.