THE WORLD IN 2016  -  The  Economist  magazine



Let's have a Jubilee



The mercy-spreader


John Hooper ROME


A mix of tradition and change will mark Pope Francis's Holy Year


This is already sure to be the most inclusive Jubilee so far


On January 1st, Pope Francis—or perhaps one of his cardinals—will open a bronze door in St Mary Major, thus completing the ceremonies required for the initiation of a Jubilee, or Holy Year, in the Catholic church. St Mary Major is one of Rome's four "major basilicas". By tradition, each of their Holy Doors is opened to usher in a Jubilee, starting with that of St Peter's (historically, it was bricked up and then smashed open by the pope with a hammer, until the year when some of the debris just missed Paul VI). It is also traditional to begin the process on the preceding Christmas Eve. But Pope Francis opted for December 8th, the 50th anniversary of the end of the modernizing second Vatican Council—a clear sign of the values he seeks to propagate in what he has declared a Jubilee year of mercy.


There are two sorts of Jubilees: ordinary ones, which nowadays come around every 25 years, and extraordinary Jubilees, which a pope can proclaim whenever he likes, as Pope Francis did last April. The concept dates from biblical times and was associated from the outset with pardon and forgiveness. To gain remission of their sins, Catholics had to make a pilgrimage to Rome, walk through each of the four Holy Doors, confess to a priest and take communion.


But this pope has loosened the conditions for wiping clean the slate. Plenary indulgences, which involve total absolution, will also be available to anyone who performs one of the traditional "works of mercy". There are 14. They include feeding the hungry and comforting the afflicted. Will Francis himself seek forgiveness on behalf of his troubled church? Probably. Saint John Paul used the 2000 Jubilee to make a sweeping apology to Jews, Roma, heretics, women and native peoples. But he said nothing about homosexuals or the victims of clerical sex abuse.


This is already sure to be the most inclusive Jubilee so far. Francis has decreed that ordinary priests can absolve women who repent of abortions, a faculty usually reserved for bishops. And, in a gesture of reconciliation to followers of the late, ultra-conservative Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, he has said he will recognize as valid absolution granted by ordained members of their schismatic fellowship, the Society of St Pius X.


Holy Doors will be designated and opened in every Catholic cathedral and some of the bigger pilgrimage shrines. On February 10th, moreover, the pope will send out into the world's dioceses "Missionaries of Mercy": priests specially tasked with hearing confessions and giving absolution. Prisoners will be able to join the Jubilee by praying in the chapels of their jails. And there will be special provisions for the sick and disabled.


The Holy Year will end on November 20th. By then, Francis will no doubt have spread widely what he calls "the balm of mercy". He may also have made it a lot trickier for his internal critics to restore the more severe, rule-based Catholicism favoured by his predecessors. ■