On Gaudete Sunday (the third in Advent and one of only two days a year liturgical vestments and settings are rose-colored), Pope Francis opened the Holy Door at the Basilica of St. John Lateran in Rome. Around the world, other Catholic sites of significance did the same. In our home diocese, Camden, Glassboro, Atlantic City, Vineland and Cape May all have designated “Jubilee Churches.” I visited two others this week, Holy Name Cathedral in downtown Chicago, and the Basilica of the Sacred Heart on the campus of Notre Dame University in South Bend, Ind., where I spent a few days meeting with Father Dan Groody, the director of their Center for Latino Spirituality and Culture. Both had thrown wide their own Doors of Mercy at the pope’s request.
These Holy Doors will remain open until just before the closing of the liturgical Year of Mercy on the feast of Christ the King in November 2016.
The tradition of plenary indulgences associated with Holy Doors dates back to the 1300s when regular jubilee years were founded. The current one is outside the normal 25 year cycle of these events, and so is an extraordinary Holy Year. Pope John Paul II made clear in his writing that passing through a Holy Door in one of these marked occasions evokes the passage from sin to redemption that constitutes the central movement of every Christian life. If one fulfills certain spiritual works and is rightly disposed, the church teaches that this provides an opportunity to alleviate the temporal punishment that is due to forgiven sin in the afterlife in Purgatory. It also inspires the pilgrim church to emulate the mercy-ing (misericordiando) quality that it always sees in the Lord, whose Body and Bride the church always remains.
In the opening of the Holy Door, the pope made the following somewhat startling remarks in his homily: “This simple sign [of opening the Holy Doors] is an invitation to joy. It begins a time of great forgiveness. It is the Jubilee of Mercy. It is a time to rediscover the presence of God and his Fatherly tenderness. God does not love rigidity. He is Father. He is tenderness … [St. John the Baptist] invites us to act justly and to look after the needs of those in distress … Before the Holy Door we are called to cross, we are asked to be instruments of mercy, knowing that we will be judged on this … The joy of crossing through the Door of Mercy is accompanied by a commitment to welcome and witness to a love that goes beyond justice, a love that knows no boundaries. It is from this infinite love that we are responsible, in spite of our contradictions.”
These are undoubtedly difficult times: politically, socially, economically. There is unrest in our city streets, our electoral landscape, our world and within our own hearts. Fear, hatred, intolerance and their resultant shadows obscure the human community and its common home, as well as our ability to celebrate with authenticity and exultation the crowning season of the year which both remembers and anticipates the coming of Christ in our midst.
The doors of our own interior “upper rooms” in so many instances remain barred, with quarreling sentiments (many the result of legitimate concerns, as were those of the disciples after the execution of their Master) roiling within. But when the Prince of Peace, he who once claimed alone to be the “door,” and the “gate” and the “way,” appeared within their bolted fortress of despair and uncertainty, he commanded and graced his followers to open the doors of their hearts to a world in need of Good News and saving love.
This year provides an opportunity for us to do the same. Let us take advantage of such a sacred moment pregnant with potential, hope, and life-giving nourishment, and to open ourselves to welcome the coming of the Light of the World through passageways, frontiers and perhaps even chinks in the spiritual and material walls we have erected, where we do not always recognize his Real Presence. “And the key to the House of David I will lay upon His shoulder. What he opens, no one will shut” (Is 22:22).
Collingswood native Michael M. Canaris, PhD, Loyola University Chicago.