A Jubilee Year sounds like 365 days of celebration. And in some sense, that’s just what it is.
After all, participants not only have the chance to gain a plenary indulgence—the remission of all temporal punishment due to sin—but a Jubilee Year is also traditionally a time of reconciliation between enemies and of conversion of heart.
The practice has its origins in Judaism. Just as the seventh day of the week was the Sabbath, a day of rest, the Jews kept every seventh year as a “sabbatical” year—a year of rest. The Jubilee Year took place after seven cycles of seven years, on the fiftieth year. As explained in the book of Leviticus, it was a year of remission and pardon, release of slaves, and forgiveness of debt.
The first definite record of a Christian Jubilee was that declared by Pope Boniface VIII in 1300, but ample evidence shows that events akin to Jubilee Years were observed in prior centuries.
Pope Boniface’s Jubilee included a plenary indulgence for those who confessed their sins and visited the Basilicas of St. Peter and St. Paul Outside the Walls daily for a specified number of days. Over the next century, two other papal basilicas would be added to the pilgrimage as well. The plenary indulgence and the stipulation of visiting the four Roman basilicas has become a defining feature of the Jubilee ever since, with variations according to the directives of the reigning pontiff. The faithful are often able to make a pilgrimage to a designated local destination in lieu of the pilgrimage to Rome.
The opening and closing of the great doors of the basilicas at the beginning and end of the year is a distinctive ceremony of the Jubilee. The Holy Father usually opens and closes St. Peter’s and assigns a delegate to do so at the other basilicas.
Twenty-five years eventually became the regular interval between Jubilees, but special ones can be called for particular reasons.
Pope Francis called a special Jubilee Year of Mercy in 2016 and a Lauretan Jubilee in 2020. This Jubilee—which was extended to the end of this year due to the disruptions of the coronavirus—commemorates the 100th anniversary of the proclamation of Our Lady of Loreto as the patroness of aviation.
In addition to the Jubilee Year, the Church has developed many more traditions over the centuries that enrich our lives as Catholics. Learn more about them in Catholic Traditions and Treasures: An Illustrated Encyclopedia. You’ll discover the history behind many familiar customs—such as praying to St. Anthony for lost items—plus others you may never have heard of before. Pick up your copy here!