VATICAN CITY — The Holy Year will end as it began, with overflow crowds in St. Peter's Square.

Christmas Eve Midnight Mass this year was celebrated outside, despite the Roman winter, as St. Peter's Basilica could not accommodate the crowds that came. Likewise, after Pope John Paul II closes the Holy Door on the morning of Jan. 6, he will head out to St. Peter's Square to celebrate the Mass of the Epiphany. It will be a fitting end — the Pope together with the crowds one last time to close the Great Jubilee of 2000.

“The role of the shepherds is to assemble the People of God,” said John Paul II some 20 years ago, explaining to the Roman Curia why he intended to travel so much. “Among the different methods of realizing Vatican II, this seems to be fundamental and of particular importance.”

In anticipation of the Great Jubilee, John Paul spoke repeatedly of Vatican II as the Holy Spirit's preparation of the Church for the third millennium.

That was highlighted during the Holy Year, both with a scholars' conference on the implementation of Vatican II in February, and by the re-presentation of the council documents to the laity of the world on the feast of Christ the King. The Great Jubilee has been a yearlong living out of the teaching of Vatican II that the Church is a “pilgrim on earth,” accompanying man through history toward his ultimate destination in the house of the Father.

The great “assembly” of the Holy Year was an invitation to renew — to “realize” once again — the Church as a “sacrament of unity among all men,” as the council called her. The over 24 million pilgrims who came to Rome during the Holy Year were a manifestation of that universal brotherhood only possible in the Church.

“When we were praying together on the threshold of the Holy Door, our communion was real, a real communion of prayer,” observed Bishop John Baycroft, Director of the Anglican Center in Rome and the Archbishop of Canterbury's representative to the Holy See.

Bishop Baycroft, the former Anglican bishop of Ottawa, was present for the opening of the Holy Doors at St. Peter's and at St. Paul's Outside the Walls. “The Holy Father is the only one who could have brought together that collection of Christians. We had a taste of what is meant to be — a fore-taste of unity.”

Cardinal J. Francis Stafford, who organized World Youth Day, spoke of the Pope's “ministry of gathering,” echoing John Paul II's thoughts on assembling the Church. Such “gathering,” indicated the cardinal, was not the measure of celebrity but a real pastoral obligation. The Church was born in the “assembly,” and the ministry of gathering allows Christ to be rediscovered.

The Heavens

The Great Jubilee highlighted this from the Cenacle in Jerusalem, site of the first Pentecost, to St. Peter's Square, which the Holy Father called “another Cenacle” on the occasion of the Jubilee of Bishops in October — the successors of the apostles gathered around Mary under the title of Our Lady of Fatima.

“The Church needs to be a rock that people can come to when they are feeling alone, without spiritual support, and faced with some of the most difficult questions of life,” said 2nd Lt. David Desmond, a U.S. Army chaplain candidate and seminarian from Sioux Falls, S.D., participating in the Jubilee for the Military. The Jubilee provided that opportunity for an almost innumerable list of people — many of whom are barely noticed by the world.

While the great gatherings — World Youth Day, the World Meeting of Families, the International Eucharistic Congress — drew most attention, there were other Jubilees that highlighted various aspects of the Church's life.

From the Jubilee of Children (the first special Jubilee of the year) to the Jubilee of Entertainers (the last), the program emphasized the universal presence of the Church.

The immense arms of St. Peter's Bernini colonnade embraced both the sick, many of whom came on stretchers, and the super-fit, as the Marathon of Rome began there. Both athletes and the disabled had their day, as well as professors and journalists, artists and scientists, migrants and politicians, workers and farmers, and even some who were not included on the official Jubilee calendar but came anyway and were feted: pizza-makers and taxi drivers.

In addition to all those who have their mission in the world, there were the Jubilees for the religious, bishops, the Roman Curia, the diplomats of the Holy See, and perhaps the most festive of all, the Jubilee of Priests, which took place on John Paul II's 80th birthday.

The horizon of the Jubilee panorama was not limited to this world.

Beatifications and canonizations — including those of two Americans, Blessed Francis Xavier Seelos and St. Katharine Drexel — united the Church Triumphant with those rejoicing here below. The first saint of the new millennium, St. Faustina Kowalska, underscored that every Jubilee is intended to be a new experience of divine mercy. The raising to the altars of the first Chinese saints was a consolation to those parts of the Church Militant that are currently suffering persecution.

The beatification of the Fatima children, Francisco and Jacinta — the youngest children ever to be beatified who were not martyrs — emphasized that even the littlest ones share fully in the Church's mission.

Fatima 2000

Their story was overshadowed, though, by the revelation of the “third secret” of Fatima, a moment that captured even the imagination of the secular world. To the eyes of faith, the confluence of events at Fatima rendered almost tangible the workings of Providence.

John Paul II spoke at Fatima of the immense suffering the Church endured during the 20th century. That suffering was brought into stark relief by the ceremony at the Colosseum, which commemorated the many “witnesses to the faith” of the past century, from those imprisoned in communist gulags to those who died in genocidal slaughter in central Africa. That commemoration of the new martyrs was the other Jubilee “bookend” to the request for forgiveness that took place during Lent.

Perhaps the most widely covered Jubilee event, the Pope's dramatic plea for forgiveness presented a new “icon” of the Church to the world — an icon of strength through humility, leadership though service, and healing through sincere repentance.

John Paul insisted on the “day of forgiveness” confident that, despite complaints and attacks, the Church could be generous because — as exemplified by the martyrs — the “history of the Church is the history of holiness,” as he wrote in Incarnationis Mysterium, the papal bull for the Holy Year.

Soon the Great Jubilee of 2000 will also belong to history. The Holy Door will be shut and no longer will there be long lines to pass through it — something done by thousands of people every day, both ordinary and otherwise, as when the King and Queen of Spain came to kneel at its threshold. It will surely be judged as one of the most extraordinary religious events in the history of the world. As for its impact in the hidden history of salvation there is every reason for confidence that this “gathering” — like every gathering of two or three in Christ's name — will not fail to bear fruit.

“For two thousand years the gospel of the Cross has spoken to man,” wrote John Paul II for Good Friday's Via Crucis. He wrote the meditations for the Stations himself, and expressed that the purpose of the great “assembly” of the Jubilee was to allow space for another meeting, the meeting of every pilgrim with the same Jesus Christ who fell and rose on the road to Calvary.

“For 20 centuries Christ, getting up again from his fall, meets those who fall. Throughout these two millennia many people have learned that falling does not mean the end of the road. In meeting the Savior they have heard his reassuring words: ‘My grace is sufficient for you; for my power is made perfect in weakness’” (2 Corinthians 12:9).