An emergency Jubilee

There were seven jubilees, including three extraordinary ones, in the 20th century. The pope has declared an extraordinary jubilee dedicated to mercy set to begin in December.


The Jubilee of Mercy, which begins on 8 December, is not the first extraordinary jubilee to have been proclaimed by the Roman Catholic Church. Since their inception in 1300, jubilee celebrations have been less about the completion of a standard period of time (at some point set at 25 years) and more a manifestation of a pope’s will. For instance, the 1800 Jubilee was not celebrated during the French occupation of Rome; nor the 1850 Jubilee, as the papacy had been only recently restored in Rome following the Roman Republic. Whereas in the 20th century, besides the standard holy years, three extraordinary jubilees were held (in 1933, 1966 and 1983), each of which was deeply significant.

This year, the opening of the Holy Door will mark the 50th anniversary of the conclusion of the Second Vatican Council. And Pope Francis is looking to Vatican II for answers to a changing world.

In Asia, Africa and Latin America, populations are abandoning traditional lifestyles en masse and moving from rural to urban centres, subsequently joining the process of modernisation and asking new questions of religion. The Catholic Church wants to address these masses. And it wants to tackle new policy issues: the relationships between the state and the Church in China, and between Christianity and other religions in India; the role of Eastern Christians in the warfare taking place in the Arab world; and the migratory exodus to wealthier countries. 

The Bull of Indiction of the Jubilee (entitled Misericordiae vultus, dated 11 of April 2015) examines our changing world, one that harbours both hope and suffering. It recalls the parable of the prodigal son and calls for 'opening our hearts to those living on the fringes of society: fringes which modern society itself creates'. The proclimation speaks of 'those who have no voice because their cry is muffled and drowned out by the indifference of the rich!' and exhorts followers to 'overcome the ignorance in which millions of people live, especially children deprived of the necessary means to free themselves from the bonds of poverty'. It goes on to call for 'liberty...(to be proclaimed) for those bound by new forms of slavery in modern society, sight (to be) restored to those who can no longer see because they are caught up in themselves, and dignity (to be) restored to all those from whom it has been robbed'.
The Papal Bull also clearly announced an indulgence for pilgrims that cross the threshold of the Holy Door. But this indulgence poses a great risk of being misunderstood. Some observers have viewed the increase in Jubilee years since the end of the Papal State with suspicion because they represent a considerable source of income for the Vatican, otherwise devoid of great means. Thus, following the proclamation of the new holy year, a few voices have recalled the internal conflicts raging in the Curia that came to light with Benedict XVI's resignation and the complex business of reviewing the Holy See's finances undertaken by the new Pope. They link the decision to proclaim a new Jubilee to the need for extraordinary funds to manage the Vatican's organisational and economic crises.
In Europe, the new Catholic indulgences risk rekindling old conflicts. Europe has gone largely untouched by the sweeping changes taking place during this period of world history. But in the past few years, Europeans have been forced to reshape their existential prospects and have developed a general mistrust of the future. In this climate, the indifference of the rich has entrenched itself, to use the pontifical terminology. And the old fault lines among the continent's various confessions have started to reappear: in the Europe of the Reformations, Catholics and Orthodox now eye each other with suspicion. The two sides fighting each other in Ukraine are the Catholic and Orthodox factions of the country. And Greece, the EU country that most clearly represents Orthodox Christianity, was close to being expelled from the Euro over the summer.
Where Catholic countries are concerned – Italy, France, Spain, Portugal and Ireland – Northern European countries are beginning to use expressions that call to mind issues raised during the Protestant polemic of the 16th and 17th centuries: accusing Catholic countries of being corrupt, vice ridden, incapable of ruling their instincts, and governed by greedy politicians as well as inefficient administrations. Moreover, the current pontiff's image, so popular in Mediterranean Europe, is much less so further north, where the word 'Papist' is still a grave insult.
Conversely, Southern Europeans remind us that the countries now calling for administrative rigour are those that brought about the great crisis of 2007: the United Kingdom, Holland, the Scandinavian countries and the Baltic states. As in an earlier era, today's European traders of the north appear to be hiding their own material interests behind a moralistic polemic about virtue and rectitude.
The crux of the matter once again lies in the meaning of indulgence. The indulgence promised by Pope Clement VII with his Inter sollicitudines proclamation in 1525 became a target of countless popular publications inspired by Lutheranism in which pilgrimage and the sale of sacred offices was ridiculed. Those distant events, in which a Holy Year was proclaimed amid general disbelief and at a time when the confessional rift was at its worst, may help Europeans not to repeat the mistakes of the past.

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