December 8 marks the beginning of the Holy Year of Mercy, an Extraordinary Jubilee Year called for by Pope Francis.

But what exactly does that mean?

You’ve got questions, we’ve got answers.

What is a Holy Year? 

The Catholic tradition of practicing a Holy Year (Jubilee Year) began with Pope Boniface VIII in 1300, and since 1475 an Ordinary Jubilee has been celebrated every 25 years in order to allow each generation to experience at least one during their lifetime.

The Holy Year is traditionally a year of forgiveness of sins and also the punishment merited by one’s sins. It is also a year for reconciliation between enemies, conversion and receiving the Sacrament of Reconciliation.

Until now there have only been 26 ordinary Jubilee celebrations, the last of which was the Jubilee of 2000.

What is an Extraordinary Jubilee Year? 

Pope John Paul II opens the Holy Doors in St. Peter's Basilica on March 25, 1983. Credit: L'Osservatore Romano

Pope John Paul II opens the Holy Doors in St. Peter’s Basilica on March 25, 1983. Credit: L’Osservatore Romano

An Extraordinary Jubilee can be called for a special occasion or for an event that has a particular importance, as is the case with Pope Francis’ 2016 Holy Year of Mercy.

The first extraordinary Jubilee was called in the 16th century, and the most recent were in 1933, when Pope Pius XI called one to celebrate 1,900 years of Redemption, and in 1983 when St. John Paul II proclaimed one to honor 1,950 years of redemption after Christ’s death and resurrection.

What is a Holy Door? 

If you kept up with the Pope during his recent trip to Africa, you probably caught the early opening of the Holy Door for the Year of Mercy in Bangui, Central African Republic.

Although the Holy Year still officially kicks off on December 8, it marked the first time in history that a Pope has opened a Holy Door outside of Rome.

Each of the four papal basilicas in Rome has a holy door, which are normally sealed shut from the inside so that they cannot be opened. The doors are only opened during Jubilee years so that pilgrims can enter through them in order to gain the plenary indulgence that is connected with the Jubilee.

The rite of the opening of the Holy Door is intended to symbolically illustrate the idea that the Church’s faithful are offered an “extraordinary path” toward salvation during the time of Jubilee. It symbolizes a person’s leaving behind of the world and entering into the presence of God, similar to the way the High Priests in the Old Testament would pass through the veiled entrance of the Holy of Holies on Yom Kippur to enter the presence of God and offer sacrifices.

After the Holy Door opens in St. Peter’s Basilica, those of the other three Roman basilicas, St. John Lateran, St. Paul Outside the Walls and St. Mary Major, will be opened. During the Holy Year of Mercy, Pope Francis has also given diocesan bishops permission to designate specific Holy Doors in their dioceses.

What is a Plenary Indulgence: 

A Holy Year brings with it the chance for the faithful to gain a plenary indulgence. According to para. 1471, an indulgence is:

“…a remission before God of the temporal punishment due to sins whose guilt has already been forgiven, which the faithful Christian who is duly disposed gains under certain prescribed conditions through the action of the Church which, as the minister of redemption, dispenses and applies with authority the treasury of the satisfactions of Christ and the saints”.

In the case of a plenary indulgence, it is a full remission of sins.

How to obtain an indulgence during a Holy Year: 

According to the Apostolic Penitentiary, to gain indulgences (plenary or partial) it is necessary that the faithful be in the state of grace at least at the time the indulgenced work is completed.

In order to obtain a plenary indulgence, the faithful must, in addition to being in the state of grace:

— have the interior disposition of complete detachment from sin, even venial sin;
— have sacramentally confessed their sins;
— receive the Holy Eucharist (preferably but not necessarily within the context of Mass)
— pray for the intentions of the Pope

Ideally, one would go to confession, receive Communion and perform the indulgence works all on the same day, but it is sufficient that these sacraments and prayers be carried out within several days (about 20) before or after the indulgenced act.

Prayers for the Pope’s intentions is left to the choice of the faithful, but an “Our Father” and a “Hail Mary” are customary. One sacramental Confession suffices for several plenary indulgences, but a separate Holy Communion and a separate prayer for the Holy Father’s intentions are required for each plenary indulgence.

Exceptions can be made by confessors for the sick and the homebound.

Indulgences can always be applied either to oneself or to the souls of the deceased, but they cannot be applied to other persons living on earth.

How often can I obtain a plenary indulgence: 

Once daily.

Where to obtain an indulgence during the Holy Year of Mercy: 

During a Holy Year, the Pope designates specific locations of pilgrimage at which to obtain indulgences besides the four Holy Doors in Rome. For the Holy Year of Mercy, Holy Doors in the Cathedrals of each diocese as well as in other churches designated by diocesan bishops are places of pilgrimage for the lay faithful to walk through as part of obtaining the plenary indulgence. As Pope Francis wrote in his letter regarding the Holy Year indulgence:

To experience and obtain the Indulgence, the faithful are called to make a brief pilgrimage to the Holy Door, open in every Cathedral or in the churches designated by the Diocesan Bishop, and in the four Papal Basilicas in Rome, as a sign of the deep desire for true conversion. Likewise, I dispose that the Indulgence may be obtained in the Shrines in which the Door of Mercy is open and in the churches which traditionally are identified as Jubilee Churches. It is important that this moment be linked, first and foremost, to the Sacrament of Reconciliation and to the celebration of the Holy Eucharist with a reflection on mercy. It will be necessary to accompany these celebrations with the profession of faith and with prayer for me and for the intentions that I bear in my heart for the good of the Church and of the entire world.

Check with your diocese to see where the Holy Doors in your area can be found.