Now that the Extraordinary Jubilee Year of Mercy is approaching, to begin on December 8, many people are wondering exactly what a jubilee year is and what the difference is between an ordinary jubilee year and an extraordinary one. Here is an answer.
Jubilee years have their origin in the Old Testament when, at the end of each cycle of seven years times seven, sometimes referred to as a “Sabbath’s Sabbath”, a special year of rest was proclaimed in which the land would be left fallow without being cultivated, slaves and prisoners would be set free, debts would be forgiven and the mercy of God would be particularly evident.
The jubilee year is described in the book of Leviticus: “And you shall count seven weeks of years, seven times seven years, so that the time of the seven weeks of years shall be to you forty-nine years. Then you shall send abroad the loud trumpet on the tenth day of the seventh month; on the day of atonement you shall send abroad the trumpet throughout all your land. And you shall hallow the fiftieth year, and proclaim liberty through the land to all its inhabitants; it shall be a jubilee for you, when each of you shall return to his property and each of you shall return to his family. A jubilee shall that fiftieth year be to you; in it you shall neither sow, nor reap what grows of itself, nor gather the grapes from the undressed vines. For it is a jubilee; it shall be holy to you; you shall eat what it yields out of the field” (Lev 25:8-12).
The very name jubilee in English seems to derive from the Hebrew word yobel, which in turn derives from yobhel, meaning ram, since the trumpet referred to in the book of Leviticus, the shofar, was made from a ram’s horn.
In the Church the jubilee year was first observed in the year 1300, when Pope Boniface VIII called for a holy year to mark 1300 years since the birth of Christ. On that occasion the Pope published a Bull in which he granted special indulgences for those who would go to Rome, confess their sins and visit the basilicas of St Peter and St Paul. Residents of Rome were to make the visits each day for thirty days, and visitors to the city for fifteen days.
Interestingly, Pope Boniface did not use the word jubilee in that Bull and he indicated that such a special year was to be celebrated every one hundred years thereafter. Nonetheless, before the middle of the fourteenth century St Bridget of Sweden and the poet Petrarch, among others, urged Pope Clement VI, who was then residing in Avignon, to celebrate a jubilee sooner. The Pope agreed and so the next jubilee year was held in 1350.
Rome and its major basilicas remained the focus of the jubilee, even though the Pope did not return to the city for it. Daily visits to the Basilica of St John the Lateran were added to visits to the basilicas of St Peter and St Paul in order to gain the indulgence. In the next jubilee, held in 1390, the Basilica of St Mary Major was added and since then visits to the four major basilicas have been one of the conditions for gaining the jubilee year indulgence. One of the features of jubilee years is the opening of a special door in the Roman basilicas, through which pilgrims pass by way of symbolising their greater access to God’s grace and mercy.
In 1470 Pope Paul II decreed that the jubilee should be celebrated every twenty-five years and this has been the practice ever since, even though in some years the jubilee was not held due to wars and other circumstances. Pope Paul also allowed people from other countries to gain the indulgence by visiting some designated church in their own country, especially the cathedral of each diocese, and this too has remained the custom.
In addition to these ordinary jubilee years there have been several extraordinary ones for special occasions, one of which is the present Jubilee Year of Mercy. Others were held in 1628 and 1629 to pray for peace, 1933 on the occasion of the two thousandth anniversary of Christ’s death, 1966 to celebrate the conclusion of the Second Vatican Council, and 1983 as a Holy Year of Redemption.
So the present Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy, which will begin on December 8, has a long history. It is a splendid opportunity to receive the mercy of God, especially through the sacrament of mercy, the sacrament of Penance, and to show mercy to others.