Pope Francis launched the jubilee of mercy on Dec. 8 with the opening of the Vatican’s holy door, joined by his predecessor Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, and thousands of pilgrims gathered in St. Peter’s Square, surrounded by heavy security.
“This extraordinary year is itself a gift of grace,” Francis told the faithful gathered at the Vatican.
“To pass through the holy door means to rediscover the infinite mercy of the Father who welcomes everyone and goes out personally to encounter each of them.”
After addressing the crowds he embraced a frail-looking Benedict XVI, who resigned from the papacy in 2013 and was invited by his successor to attend the jubilee ceremony.
The opening of the holy door by the pontiff was met with Francis’ prayers, before he walked through St. Peter’s Basilica. Benedict XVI followed and thereafter cardinals, bishops, representatives of priests, men and women religious, and laity.
In doing so they marked the start of a pilgrimage which is expected to see millions pass through the Vatican’s holy door, which is opened only during jubilee years. Meanwhile, for the first time Catholics globally are invited to walk through other designated holy doors in cathedrals around the world.
A holy year usually occurs every 25 years although Francis chose to call an “extraordinary” jubilee just 15 years after the previous one. While the idea of a jubilee dates to the Bible, the Vatican tradition began in 1300 when Pope Boniface VIII announced the first Christian jubilee.
Before opening the current jubilee year, Francis highlighted the 50th anniversary of the Second Vatican Council, a turning point which sought to make the Catholic Church relevant to the modern world.
“Before all else, the Council was an encounter,” the pope said.
“It was the resumption of a journey of encountering people where they live: in their cities and homes, in their workplace.” The pontiff then encouraged Catholics to adopt the same enthusiasm and openness during the jubilee year, which runs until Nov. 20, 2016.
After declaring the jubilee open, Francis appeared from his window overlooking St. Peter’s Square to deliver the Angelus, during which he called on Catholics to celebrate the Dec. 8 Feast of the Immaculate Conception in two ways.
“First: fully welcome God and His merciful grace into our lives. Second: become in our time creators of mercy through an evangelical path,” he said, before asking the crowds to greet Benedict XVI.
Tens of thousands of pilgrims underwent tight security checks, including metal detectors, in order to attend the ceremony. There was a strong police presence around the Vatican and a no-fly zone imposed, which also saw drones banned from the skies.
The day’s events will conclude on the evening of Dec. 8 with a projection of photographs onto the facade and cupola of St. Peter’s Basilica, depicting the jubilee’s theme of mercy as well as humanity, the natural world, and climate change. The latter reflects Francis’ concern for the environment, which he voiced in his June encyclical on the topic, and come as world leaders gather in Paris to negotiate a deal to tackle climate change.