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The Church has a 'Jubilee Year' coming up. What's that?

Pope Francis opens the Holy Doors at St. Peter’s Basilica during the Year of Mercy in 2015. public domain.

The Vatican on Thursday announced the theme for the Church’s upcoming “Jubilee Year 2025.”

Archbishop Rino Fischella, president of the Pontifical Council for the New Evangelization, said Jan. 13 that the “Jubilee Year,” which begins in three years, will have as its theme the phrase “Pilgrims of Hope.”

Cool. But what actually is a Jubilee Year? And does it matter?

The Pillar explains.

So what is this thing?

A Jubilee Year is a special celebration the Church holds at least once every 25 years. It’s a year of pilgrimages, of a focus on the spiritual life, of confession and special Masses, and of a general turn towards God in thanksgiving, and in repentance.

It’s often said that Jubilee years are all about seeking and giving forgiveness - asking God and one another for forgiveness, and offering forgiveness to the people we need to forgive.

Customarily, Catholics can receive a “Jubilee indulgence” during a Jubilee year, by going to confession, receiving the Eucharist, praying for the pope, and by making a pilgrimage — either to the basilicas of Rome, to the Holy Land, or the cathedral church of a local diocese. Those who could not make a pilgrimage could instead make a spiritual sacrifice or a work of mercy.

Where does the idea of a ‘Jubilee Year’ come from?

In ancient Israel, the Jewish people passed on from each generation a set of customs that placed their calendar on seven-year cycles.

For six years, the fields of Israel would be plowed, planted, pruned, and harvested, like most agricultural societies. But in the seventh year, the land would lie fallow for a sabbath year — during which most agricultural labor came to a halt.

After every seventh sabbath year, Israel celebrated a Jubilee, slaves would be set free, commercial debts would be canceled, and leased property would be returned to its original owners.

The customs of the Jubilee years were not entirely unlike similar customs in other ancient Near Eastern societies.

But in Israel, they took on the theological significance of honoring God, and ordering Israel to the reality that all things belong to God, and that justice requires a recognition of that.

“The Jubilee was a time dedicated in a special way to God,” Pope St. John Paul II wrote.

“The Jubilee year was meant to restore equality among all the children of Israel, offering new possibilities to families which had lost their property and even their personal freedom. On the other hand, the Jubilee year was a reminder to the rich that a time would come when their Israelite slaves would once again become their equals and would be able to reclaim their rights.”

But while sabbath and Jubilee years were prescribed by Sacred Scripture, and by the customs and traditions of Israel, they were not always actually observed very much when the time came around.

Most scholars think they were regarded as really good ideas, but not ones that people actually practiced, at least not every time.

Pope St. John Paul II wrote that was because the Jubilee year norms were really meant to point towards Christ.

“The prescriptions for the Jubilee year largely remained ideals—more a hope than an actual fact. They thus became a prophecy for the future, insofar as they foretold the freedom which would be won by the coming Messiah.”

In the Gospel of Luke, Christ said that promise of the Jubilee year was fulfilled by his own Incarnation, that the promise of freedom for captive, and sight for the blind, and liberty for the oppressed would be most fulfilled in his own Messianic identity.

Ok. But when did the Church start doing this?

Not for a while, actually. The first Jubilee year was more than 1000 years after Christ’s Incarnation.

In February 1300, during a period of pandemic, war, and poverty in Europe, Pope Boniface VII declared a holy year — “a year of forgiveness of all sins,” in which the pope would ask the Lord to give the Church strength to carry through a difficult time, and pilgrims to Rome would receive indulgences.

Boniface decreed that there should be that sort of holy year every 100 years.

Thousands of pilgrims made the journey to Rome in the first holy year.

A few years later, because people liked the first one so much, Pope Clement VI decided that instead of 100 years, there should be 50 years between the holy years, which had come to be called “Jubilee Years.”

In the 1380s, Pope Urban VI decided the Church should have “Jubilee Years” every 33 years, to honor the life of Christ. There were a few more changes after that.

But eventually, by the late 1400s, the Church decided there should be 25 years between Jubilee years, and the practice has mostly continued steadily after that.

Since 1500, special doors, called “Holy Doors,” have been used at the major basilicas in Rome, through which pilgrims proceed during Jubilee years.

The Holy Door at St. Peter’s Basilica, Rome. Credit: Dnalor01 via wikimedia. CC BY SA 3.0

Between Jubilee years, the Church used constructed walls behind the doors, which the pope would symbolically break when he opened them for pilgrims. Pope St. John Paul II modified the custom in 2000, pushing open the “Holy Doors,” and then kneeling down in prayer at the threshold of each of Rome’s major basilicas.

Passing through the doors is symbolic of interior conversion, and a reminder of Christ’s admonition to “knock, and the door shall be opened unto you.”

So one is coming up in 2025? What will happen?

The last “ordinary Jubilee” was in 2000, a year broadly promoted and celebrated by Pope St. John Paul II.

But then in 2015, Pope Francis declared an “extraordinary Jubilee” — the Year of Mercy.

During that year, indulgences were offered, pilgrimages were organized, and the pope appointed special confessors, “Missionaries of Mercy,” with the faculty to hear confessions and even remit canonical penalties, and a mandate to make themselves available as missionaries of the sacrament of penance.

The next regularly scheduled Jubilee year is in 2025.

It now has the theme “Pilgrims of Hope.”

In 2015, Pope Francis changed Jubilee customs slightly, urging local dioceses to designate not only a pilgrimage site, but also local  “Holy Doors” — to give local pilgrims a greater sense of unity with those who could travel to Rome.

It is not known whether the pope will encourage the same designation in 2025. Nor has a program of Jubilee events in Rome been announced — in 2000, Jubilee events for different groups of Catholics took place throughout the year; it is expected that same kinds of events will be organized in 2025.

Just as an aside, what’s ‘cherries jubilee?’

That’s a weird question. But since you asked, cherries jubilee is a desert in which pitted cherries are flambeed in alcohol, and then served over vanilla ice cream.

The dish was invented for Queen Victoria’s “Diamond Jubilee,” or 60th anniversary on the throne.

The word “Jubilee,” you see, can also mean a significant personal milestone or anniversary.

And actually JPII wrote about that:

In the lives of individuals, Jubilees are usually connected with the date of birth; but other anniversaries are also celebrated, such as those of Baptism, Confirmation, First Communion, Priestly or Episcopal Ordination, and the Sacrament of Marriage. Some of these anniversaries have parallels in the secular world, but Christians always give them a religious character. In fact, in the Christian view, every Jubilee—the twenty-fifth of Marriage or Priesthood, known as "silver", the fiftieth, known as "golden", or the sixtieth, known as "diamond"—is a particular year of favor for the individual who has received one or other of the Sacraments.

Aren’t you glad you asked?

This is cherries jubilee. Credit: Shutterstock.

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