WASHINGTON—Church jubilees have always been very popular affairs.

In fact, if history is any guide, their genesis as a form of Christian piety arose, not from the deliberations of bishops and popes, but from the spontaneous demand off the Roman street.

Tradition has it that the first in the Church's series of 27 jubilees was inaugurated by a decree of Pope Boniface VIII in February 1300 after Roman crowds clamored beneath his windows for the granting of special indulgences “for the 100th year.”

According to the account of Jacobus Cardinal Cajetanus, an eyewitness, a rumor spread throughout Rome that everyone who visited the Basilica of St. Peter Jan. 1, 1300, would, on the performance of certain pious duties, receive a full pardon for sins. As a result, huge crowds of pilgrims flooded the city on the appointed day.

Boniface VIII's curia, however, could find no record of such a custom in the papal archives until, writes Cardinal Cajetanus, a 107-year-old Roman peasant was located who testified that his father had received such a benefit at the dawn of the previous century. Boniface then issued the bull Antiquorum habet fida relatio, authorizing a solemn jubilee for that year to the great joy of the Eternal City's swelling throngs of pilgrims.

Numbered among the nearly 2 million visitors to Rome that year were such luminaries as the poet Dante Alighieri and the Franciscan painters Giotto and Cimabue.

“Certain of the mercy of Almighty God,” the bull declared, “and founded on the authority of the holy Apostles Peter and Paul, upon the advice of our brothers and in fullness of apostolic authority … we grant this year 1300 and all future centuries, not only the full and broadest but the most complete forgiveness of sins.”

Seven hundred years later, plans for jubilee 2000 already outstrip anything medieval Rome possibly could have conceived.

Marking the border between Christ-ianity's second and third millennia, Pope John Paul II has proposed an ambitious spiritual program of renewal and reconciliation in preparation for an occasion he has called “the Great Jubilee,” an event to be crowned with simultaneous celebrations in the Holy Land, Rome, and local churches throughout the world.

As he wrote in his 1994 apostolic letter Tertio Millennio Adveniente (As the Third Millennium Draws Near): “One thing is certain. Everyone is asked to do as much as possible to ensure that the great challenge of the year 2000 is not overlooked, for this challenge involves a special grace of the Lord for the Church and for the whole of humanity.”

If hotel reservations, tourist agency bookings, and distraught urban planners are any indication, then Jubilee 2000 is already an unprecedented success.

According to Italian officials, about 23.8 million visitors are expected to descend on Rome during the jubilee year. Recent visitors to the Eternal City can attest that its famous fountains not only work, but look as fresh as they did when Bernini and other Renaissance and Baroque architects designed them. Virtually every historic building in sight is being treated to a face lift.

Popular hotels are reporting full bookings for the new millennium's first peak travel season.

In Israel, El Al, the country's national airline, has ordered new planes to accommodate record numbers of pilgrims in the year 2000, the first time that a Pope has designated the Holy Land as a jubilee year destination, and Catholic tourist agencies that cater to Holy Land-bound pilgrims report that year 2000 schedules are already filling up.

Even major European cities such as Paris that are off the usual pilgrimage routes are in the midst of costly spruce-up campaigns in anticipation of record millennial crowds.

But in all the bustle of external preparations for the 2000th anniversary of the birth of Christ, it would be easy for Pope John Paul's sense of the spiritual “challenge” of the Great Jubilee to be missed altogether.

Decades of Preparation

This despite the fact that the Pope has been articulating his vision of the event for nearly 20 years, since his first encyclical Redemptor Hominis (The Redeemer of Man) in 1979 where he called the time leading up to the year 2000 “a new Advent,” and in more detail in his 1986 encyclical Dominum et Vivificantem (On the Holy Spirit in the Life of the Church and the World).

And despite the three-year program of preparation that the Pope, in consultation with bishops and the college of cardinals, put into place in 1994.

“Frankly, there is limited interest among U.S. Catholics in preparing for the millennium,” Paul Henderson, executive director of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops'Secretariat for the Third Millennium in the United States, told the Register. “It really depends a lot on the diocese.”

The key, he said, is whether people “get the Holy Father's vision that it's an opportunity, a moment of evangelization,” or whether they see the millennium as “just another program they are supposed to implement.”

In any case, Henderson said, “we are so focused on the immediate as a society,” that, I'm afraid, many Catholics won't “wake up to the millennium until it's six months away.”

But what is the spiritual “opportunity” that the millennium affords?

Drawing on the biblical custom of the yobel, or jubilee year, named after the Hebrew word for the ram's horn that announced it, the Christian jubilee marks a time of redemption, liberation, and pardon.

According to the Old Testament, the biblical jubilee occurred every 50 years and had enormous religious, social, and economic ramifications for the people of Israel (cf. Lv 25:8-55; 27:16-25). During the holy year, fields were left fallow, slaves and prisoners were freed, land disputes and (according to some ancient sources) debts were settled. But the heart of the jubilee was its religious dimension: the opportunity the holy year provided for repentance, forgiveness, conversion, and renewal—a theme taken up by the prophet Isaiah who turned the jubilee into a symbol for the coming messianic age.

“The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me to bring good tidings to the afflicted; he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound; to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor…” (Is 61:1-2).

Plans for the Jubilee

All these themes have traditionally been taken up by the Christian jubilee—even echoes of the Bible's social dimension. For example, in June, there were reports in Italian newspapers that Pope John Paul in his papal bull for the Holy Year, to be issued next November, will call on world governments to honor the millennium with “acts of clemency, indulgence, and amnesty.”

In addition, said Henderson, the American bishops are spearheading jubilee-inspired efforts in areas like ecumenism, ecology, world debt, the rediscovery of Vatican II, and year 2000 out-reaches to inactive Catholics.

But, like the Jewish jubilee, pardon and reconciliation stand at the heart of the challenge of the year 2000.

Defining the Great Jubilee as a year of the Lord's favor, the Pope writes that it is, “[A] year of the remission of sins and of the punishments due to them, a year of reconciliation between disputing parties, a year of manifold conversions and of sacramental and extra-sacramental penance.”

Hearkening back to the very first jubilee, he underlines that “the tradition of jubilee years involves the granting of indulgences on a larger scale than at other times.”

It's safe to say that the penance part of the jubilee package tends to be less attractive to the faithful at the end of the 20th century than it was to medieval Catholics whose realism about sin and confidence in the Church's power to pardon them inspired the jubilee tradition in the first place.

The traditional jubilee's focus on gaining indulgences—a practice widely, though wrongly, assumed by some Catholics to have disappeared from Church life along with the Latin missal—doesn't make it any easier.

“One of the key things,” said Henderson, “is to help people understand that the jubilee's call for repentance and reconciliation is linked to the opportunity it provides for making a new start—a new start personally and in the relationships we have, for having a new life. If that's going to happen, the Pope is saying, you'll need to make some changes.”

Indulgences 2000

On the indulgences issue, Henderson was circumspect.

“We're waiting to see what the Holy See does about indulgences,” he said.

Traditionally, before holy years begin, Popes issue a papal bull of indulgences, which gives specific conditions under which Catholics can receive a plenary indulgence—conditions that frequently include going on pilgrimage to designated holy places as well as faithfully receiving the Sacrament of Penance and taking Communion.

Pope Paul VI's 1967 apostolic constitution Indulgentiarum doctrina defines an indulgence as “the remission in the sight of God of the temporal punishment due to sins which have already been blotted out as far as guilt is concerned.” Consequences of sin remain to be purified, in other words, even after the sin has been forgiven, either here on earth or in the state called Purgatory. Providing the necessary conditions are met, the plenary indulgence granted during a jubilee year removes all temporal punishment due to sins that have already been forgiven.

With an eye to ecumenical sensitivities, “Rome,” said Henderson, “wants to study how indulgences are going to be presented.” Abuses related to the so-called “sale” of indulgences in 16th century Europe figure as one of the causes of the Protestant Reformation launched by Martin Luther.

Henderson indicated that a “reflection paper on indulgences,” commissioned by the bishops' subcommittee on the jubilee, will be circulated later this summer among the U.S. bishops.

“It's not an official document,” Henderson said, but it will attempt to address “some of the real misconceptions out there about indulgences,” and what they might mean for us today.

But the Pope's vision for the Great Jubilee embraces not only the reality of personal conversion, but the corporate one as well.

Referring to the “holy door,” the opening of which traditionally signals the start of the holy year, Pope John Paul writes: “The holy door of the Jubilee of the Year 2000 should be symbolically wider than those of previous jubilees, because humanity, on reaching this goal, will leave behind not just a century but a millennium.”

Urging that the Church cross the threshold of a new age conscious not only of the achievements of the past 10 centuries, but of its failures, the Pope encourages Catholics “to purify themselves, through repentance, of past errors and instances of infidelity, inconsistency, and slowness to act.”

John Paul II has highlighted this whole dimension of corporate sinfulness, of corporate responsibility for the past, Henderson said. “Needless to say, we have not always been effective transformers of society, and we have to come to terms with that.”

However, said Henderson, “only a strong organization can admit that it has made mistakes and move forward. If we do this right,” if we can properly address historic failures and omissions, “even on the local level, it could be very powerful.”

Henderson indicated that, according to the latest jubilee calendar, Pope John Paul has identified two key days in the year 2000 in which the Church will publicly ask pardon for the sins of its members—Ash Wednesday and Tuesday of Holy Week.

But despite the tough challenges the Pope has set before the Church in the jubilee, Henderson remarked, “there's a wonderful spiritual synergy he's set up, a wonderful movement from repentance to Eucharist, from passion and death to resurrection.”

Gabriel Meyer writes from Los Angeles.