VATICAN CITY—“The birth of Jesus at Bethlehem is not an event which can be consigned to the past. The whole of human history in fact stands in reference to him: our own time and the future of the world are illumined by his presence.”
So reads the papal bull, Incarnationis Mysterium, promulgated Nov. 29, the First Sunday of Advent. In this bull, Pope John Paul II declares that the Great Jubilee of the Year 2000 will begin with the opening of the holy door at St. Peter's Basilica on Christmas Eve 1999, and will continue until the Epiphany of the Lord, Jan. 6, 2001. The bull invites all to focus on the mystery of Jesus Christ, the Incarnate Son of God, who “is the true criterion for all that happens in time.”
According to the bull, the Jubilee will be celebrated with “equal dignity Land, the latter site hopefully serving “to advance mutual dialogue until the day that all of us together — Jews, Christians, and Muslims — will exchange the greeting of peace in Jerusalem.”
The Jubilee of 2000 will also be celebrated throughout all the local Churches in the world — a new development that makes the spiritual riches of the Jubilee available to the whole world. Local bishops have been asked to designate pilgrimage sites in each diocese where the faithful may participate in the Jubilee pilgrimages and gain the Jubilee indulgences. And for the millions who will travel to Rome for the Great Jubilee, the Holy Father has recommended to Romans the example of St. Philip Neri, who welcomed pilgrims to the Eternal City for the Jubilee of 1550.
Signs of Jubilee
The bull recognizes three “signs” that mark the celebration of Jubilees: pilgrimages, the holy door, and indulgences.
Pilgrimages are encouraged to the seven major basilicas of Rome, as well as to the principal basilicas of the Holy Land. In addition, diocesan bishops are asked to designate the local cathedral or co-cathedral, local shrines, especially Marian shrines, and other places of devotion, as sites whereby the faithful can go on Jubilee pilgrimages.
“To pass through that door means to confess that Jesus Christ is Lord,” writes the Holy Father of the holy door. The opening of the holy door, principally an event in Rome, also symbolizes the opening of hearts and minds to Christ. Though not mentioned in the bull, the words of the Holy Father's first homily as Pope in 1978 apply here: “Open wide the doors to Christ!”
“When they gain indulgences, the faithful understand that by their own strength they would not be able to make good the evil which by sinning they have done to themselves and to the entire community, and therefore they are stirred to saving deeds of humility,” writes John Paul, quoting Pope Paul VI.
The bull deals at some length with the granting of indulgences — the remission of the temporal punishment due to sin given by the Church to those who perform specified pious actions — which are often misunderstood. A brief and simple catechesis is provided on the validity and need for indulgences, which have marked the Christian life, and in particular, the celebration of holy years, for centuries.
That having been explained, the appendix to the bull makes it clear that the Church is throwing open her treasury of merit for the Great Jubilee, making indulgences readily available to all who “express true conversion of heart” and meet the specified conditions and the usual requirements of sacramental confession, reception of Holy Communion, prayers for the intentions of the Roman pontiff, and the renunciation of all attachments to serious sin. As usual, only one plenary indulgence can be gained per day, and it can be applied either to the person himself, or to the dead.
Indulgences can be gained during the Great Jubilee for making a pious pilgrimage to one of the seven major basilicas of Rome or the catacombs; to the basilicas of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem, of the Nativity in Bethlehem, or of the Annunciation in Nazareth; or to the local site designated by the diocesan bishop. Such pilgrimages, in order to meet the conditions for the indulgence, must include devout participation in Mass or another liturgical celebration such as Lauds or Vespers, or some pious exercise (e.g., Stations of the Cross, the rosary); or alternately, the conditions include time spent in Eucharistic adoration, ending with the “Our Father,” the profession of faith (creed) in any approved form, and prayer to the Blessed Virgin Mary.
In addition, the indulgence can be gained in any place for visits to “brothers or sisters in need or difficulty (the sick, the imprisoned, the elderly living alone, the handicapped, etc.), as if making a pilgrimage to Christ present in them.”
Lastly, the indulgence can also be gained “through actions which express in a practical and generous way the penitential spirit which is, as it were, the heart of the Jubilee.” Among such “personal sacrifices” are fasting or practicing abstinence according to the general rules of the Church, abstaining for “at least one whole day from unnecessary consumption (e.g., from smoking or alcohol),” donating money to the poor, supporting by a “significant contribution works of a religious or social nature,” or devoting a “suitable portion of personal free time to activities benefiting the community.”
The breadth of the plenary indulgence for the Great Jubilee is an attempt to mark the threshold of the new millennium with special solemnity and with the greatest possible participation of the faithful in every part of the world. Such practices also underscore that the Jubilee is not intended to be a mere anniversary, but an occasion for repentance and conversion.
“The history of the Church is a history of holiness,” writes the Holy Father. Nevertheless, he mentions again the need for a “purification of memory” which “calls everyone to make an act of courage and humility in recognizing the wrongs done by those who bear the name of Christian.
“As the Successor of Peter, I ask that in this year of mercy the Church, strong in the holiness which she receives from her Lord, should kneel before God and implore forgiveness for the past and present sins of her sons and daughters,” writes the Holy Father, encouraging all to join with him in his project of humbly expressing contrition for the shadows in the Church's history: “Let it be said once more without fear: ‘We have sinned’ (Jeremiah 3:25), but let us keep alive the certainty that ‘where sin increased, grace abounded even more’(Romans 5:20).”
Raymond de Souza is a seminarian for the Diocese of Kingston, Ontario.