Danielle M. Peters, S.T.D.
Secular Institute of the Schoenstatt, Sisters of Mary
Post-Doctoral Fellow, Institute for Church Life, University of Notre Dame
The first month of the extraordinary Jubilee Year of Mercy is already completed. According to Vatican statistics more than one million faithful have walked through Rome’s Holy Doors since its inauguration on December 8, 2015. We may wonder: what is the significance of a Holy Door and how can we prepare ourselves to benefit from the extraordinary moment of grace and spiritual renewal connected to it?
Jubilee Years date back to 1300 when Pope Boniface proclaimed a “Year of Forgiveness of all Sins.” The pontiff invited the faithful to partake in a pilgrimage to Rome where they could obtain the plenary jubilee indulgence by walking through the Holy Door after having fulfilled the conditions for obtaining this gift: the sacrament of reconciliation, receiving Holy Communion, praying for the Pope’s intentions and rejecting all attachment to sin. The subsequent Holy Years followed the same pattern. In the Jubilee Year 2000, Pope St. John Paul II extended this jubilee gift universally, requesting that each diocese designate at least one Holy Door. The same favor was again granted by Pope Francis for the extraordinary Holy Year of Mercy. In his bull Misericordiae Vultus—the Face of (the Father’s) Mercy—he wrote: “Thus the Jubilee will be celebrated both in Rome and in the Particular Churches as a visible sign of the Church’s universal communion” (MV §3).
Yet, this extraordinary Year of Mercy is unique, since it was preluded by Pope Francis having already opened the first Holy Door outside of Rome. Never before has this been done! In fact, most of the books, pamphlets, and directives had been printed when Pope Francis announced on November 1, 2015 that he would jump-start the Jubilee of Mercy on November 29 by opening Bangui’s Holy Door as a sign of prayer and solidarity for the war-torn nation. With this astonishing gesture, the Holy Father desired “to manifest the prayerful closeness of the entire Church to this afflicted and tormented nation and to exhort all Central Africans to increasingly be witnesses of mercy and reconciliation.” Thus Bangui, not Rome, became the world’s first spiritual capital of prayer for the Father’s mercy.
The Meaning of the Holy Door
The ritual surrounding the opening a Holy Door can be traced back to 1499. On the Holy Eve of that year Pope Alexander VI officiated at the ceremony by striking the door three times with a silver hammer singing: “Open to me the gates of justice.” The triple knock recalls Moses hitting the rock to bring forth water (Num 20:6–11), God striking the territory in order to free Paul and Silas from prison (Acts 16:25–40), and the thrust of the soldier’s lance into Jesus’ heart (Jn 19:35).
Traditionally, the first Holy Door to be opened at the inauguration of a Holy Year is that of St. Peter Basilica in the Vatican. Located to the right of its main entrance the 16 bronze panels of the portal, created by Vico Consorti and completed in 1949, illustrate highlights of salvation history beginning with the Angel guarding the Gate of Paradise and ending with a depiction of Pope Pius XII launching the Jubilee Year 1950. The seventh panel shows the Merciful Father embracing his prodigal son and thus establishes a special connection to the Year of Mercy.
When opening this Holy Door on December 8, 2015, Pope Francis relinquished the silver hammer and simply pushed three times with both his hands against the door. Then he and his predecessor, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, were the first to walk through the Holy Door followed by throngs of pilgrims from the City of Rome and from abroad.
An Encounter with the Mother of Mercy
Their first encounter after walking through St. Peter’s Holy Door was Michelangelo’s Pietà on the right. Since its creation around 1499, this world renowned sculpture has attracted countless people because of its simple elegance but even more so for its poignant message. The Pietà shows the Blessed Virgin Mary holding the dead body of her Son before it was placed in the tomb. The sculpture was carved from a single slab of marble, reminiscent of the deep union between Mary and Jesus Christ. She birthed Him into life and now surrenders Him to the grave. She who was the first, so to speak, to walk through the Door of Mercy; she was not spared hardships, darkness, and death. Her glance at her dead Son is sad yet transfigured; there is no trace of bitterness or hopelessness. As the purest representative of God’s Mercy, Mary keenly feels the sword in her heart as foretold by Simeon (Lk 2:35). Yet nothing—not even the apparent defeat of her Son—can prevent her from repeating her fiat to God’s will. She is so deeply one with her Son that not even death can separate them. Holding the Father’s supreme Gift of Mercy on her lap, Mary herself becomes a door of God’s Mercy for each Christian.
Be Merciful Like the Father
The icon “Merciful like the Father” by Vivian Imbruglia conveys this message to us. It portrays Jesus the Good Shepherd standing in front of the Holy Door of St. Peter’s and carrying a lost soul around His neck. From His chest appear blue and red rays reaching upon His Mother and from her all those who are enveloped in her widespread cloak. For them, Mary’s mantle becomes an extension of God’s Mercy. Towering above all the others, Our Lady, wearing a crown and red dress, indicative of her royalty and love, is at once archetype and advocate for the Church and each Christian. In the words of Pope Francis, “Mary attests that the mercy of the Son of God knows no bounds and extends to everyone, without exception” (MV §24).
The icon writer has placed the seven biblical figures mentioned in Pope Francis’ Year of Mercy Prayer on the onlooker’s left side. They are: Zaccheaus, the Samaritan woman at the well, Mary Magdalene, the adulteress, Peter after his betrayal, the good thief, Matthew the tax collector, and the prodigal son returning to his Father. The right side of Mary’s mantle enfolds the well-known saints who proclaimed the Father’s mercy including John Paul II, Blessed Mother Teresa, Padre Pio, Faustina, Maximilian Kolbe, and Thérèse of Lisieux, (the Little Flower). Behind these saints are a group of faithful representing all states of life. They implore you and me to join their company by striving to become ourselves doors of God’s mercy.
The Door to our Heart
It is fair to say that the icon by Vivian Imbruglia depicts each one of us twice, in two very different states. We are the lost sheep or the prodigal son in need of the Good Shepherd and God’s mercy. We can also be found with the ambassadors of mercy on the right side of Our Lady’s mantle who have adopted God’s mercy as their lifestyle (cf. MV §13). In other words, we all share at once in the experience of being weak and sinful while also carrying within us the immense treasure of God’s life.
To the extent that we acknowledge our personal misery, the Lord can pick us up and tend to our brokenness by healing us with the balm of God’s mercy. This encounter can change our lives completely! His glance of merciful love accepts us as we truly are: beloved sons and daughters of the Father. It is a dignity that reaches beyond appearances to the core of our being. It moves us to open the doors of our heart and no longer conceal our sinfulness and wounds from Him. Confident that His mercy will always be greater than any sin, we confess, “Lord, I have let myself be deceived; in a thousand ways I have shunned your love, yet here I am once more, to renew my covenant with you. I need you. Save me once again, Lord, take me once more into your redeeming embrace” (Evangelii Gaudium, §3).
Seeking God’s Mercy and becoming ambassadors of this gift are ultimately decisions of the heart. It is relatively easy to walk through a Holy Door and to receive the attached spiritual benefits. Likewise, Our Lady as a personified Holy Door is always ready to receive us when we seek refuge beneath the shelter of her compassion. Pope Francis reminds us of the ultimate purpose of the Holy Year. Each one of us is to become a living holy door! “The Lord is knocking on the door of our hearts.” Are we willing to let Him enter in and thus become doors of mercy ourselves? Or “Have we put a sign on the door saying: ‘Do not disturb?’”