Everything you ever wanted to know about Holy Doors -- what are they, when they are, and why you should walk through one
What is a Holy Door?
A Porta Sancta (Holy Door) is a special door in a cathedral or basilica that is only opened during Jubilee Years. Traditionally, the Holy Door is the one in St. Peter’s Basilica. Following a Jubilee Year, it is sealed with brick and mortar and not opened until the next Jubilee Year. Workers have already begun the process of Unwalling the Holy Door at Saint Peter’s Basilica for next week’s ceremony.
When is a Holy Door opened?
Usually, this should be every 25 years. Pius XII opened the door in 1950 and Paul VI in 1975, but St. John Paul II opened it in early, in 1983, and again in 2000. It may also be opened during “extraordinary” years, as was the case in 1983 and again this year. Pope Francis will inaugurate the 2016 Jubilee Year of Mercy by opening the door on December 8th, 2015. It will remain open for the entire Year, closing again on November 20, 2016. The date of December 8th was chosen because it is the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception, and marks the fiftieth anniversary of closing of the Second Vatican Council.
Where are the other doors?
The other major Roman basilicas each have a Holy Door, which will be opened in the following weeks. St. John Lateran will be opened on December 13th, Third Sunday of Advent, while the doors of St. Mary Major and Saint Paul Outside the Walls will be opened on subsequent Sundays.
In Misericordiae Vultus, the bull announcing the Year of Mercy, Pope Francis offers something new: a bishop has permission to designate a door in his diocese as a Holy Door.
“Every local church,” Pope Francis declares, “at the cathedral – the mother church of the faithful in any particular area – or, alternatively, at the co-cathedral or another church of special significance, a Door of Mercy will be opened for the duration of the Holy Year. At the discretion of the local ordinary, a similar door may be opened at any shrine frequented by large groups of pilgrims, since visits to these holy sites are so often grace-filled moments, as people discover a path to conversion. Every Particular Church, therefore, will be directly involved in living out this Holy Year as an extraordinary moment of grace and spiritual renewal. Thus the Jubilee will be celebrated both in Rome and in the Particular Churches as a visible sign of the Church’s universal communion.”
How is a Holy Door sealed?
The entire entryway is covered with bricks, and a thin later of mortar is spread over the top. A large cross is embedded in the mortar. A zinc box is sealed and built into the wall of bricks.
What’s in the box?
Various items associated with the year are inside, including the formal bull proclaiming the Jubilee year. In preparation for the opening of the doors, the walls are being dismantled and the boxes and from 2000 removed. Some of the things inside include 41 medals from St. John Paul’s papacy: one gold, for the the Jubilee year; 23 silver, from each year of his pontificate; and 17 bronze, for each year since the last Jubilee. Also included is the key to open the doors, which is given to Pope Francis.
How are the doors opened?
Until recently, the pope would strike the wall three times with a hammer, and then it would be dismantled and the door opened. In later years, the mortar would be removed and the bricks loosened, so the wall would crumble when the pope tapped on it. This caused problems in 1975 when some debris struck Pope Paul VI, so since the time of St. John Paul II, the wall is removed and the pope just pushes open the big doors.
On Christmas Eve, 1999, St. John Paul II knocked three times on the door while praying, “Oh God, grant your Church the grace to live this propitious moment with joy, when you have willed to open this door to your faithful, so they will come in and raise their prayers to you; and, after asking for forgiveness, indulgence and total remission of sins, will walk decisively in life according to your Son’s Gospel.”
What are these doors?
The doors are massive bronze works of art made in 1949 by Ludovico Consorti and cast by Ferdinando Marinelli Artistic Foundry (Florence) They, were first opened for the Jubilee of 1950. There are 16 panels in the door (four by four) depicting the story of salvation history, from the fall of man to the resurrection of the body. It is one of five monumental doors made by Consorti, leading him to be nicknamed Vico of the Door.
In The Holy Door of Saint Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican, Paul VI’s Master of Liturgical Ceremonies Cardinal Virgilio Noe compares the panels to the “verses of a hymn, which sing of God’s infinite mercy. They start from the reality of sin, which degrades man, and move to penance which rehabilitates him. They enlighten every moment of any situation with the certainty of divine forgiveness.”
What do I get if I make a pilgrimage to Rome and walk through the doors?
A plenary indulgence! Take that, Martin Luther! The remission of temporal punishment for sins forgiven in confession is offered to those who walk through the doors, receive Eucharist and reconciliation, pray for the intention of the popes, and perform an act of mercy.
Okay, so what’s this all about?
Pope Francis says, “On that day, the Holy Door will become a Door of Mercy through which anyone who enters will experience the love of God who consoles, pardons, and instils hope.”
Doors are very symbolic. They can represent passage: sin to redemption, life to death, disbelief to faith, and so on. Jesus describes himself as The Door. People have to enter through Christ to get to the Father. The door is the path to salvation.
There is also Marian symbolism, since The Blessed Mother is the door through which salvation entered the world. Thus, opening the doors on the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception has double meaning.
The doors of a Church mark the boundary between the sacred and the profane. By throwing them open (and on the anniversary of the Council, no less), Pope Francis is emphasizing his desire to throw open to the doors of the faith to the world.
In Revelation 3:20, Jesus says “Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if any one hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me.”
In Jerusalem, the Golden Gate is the eastern gate of the Temple Mount. In Hebrew is is called Sha’ar HaRachamim, the Gate of Mercy. In ancient Jewish tradition, it is where the Shekhinah would appear, and will appear again when the messiah comes. Jesus is supposed to have passed through it on Palm Sunday. Apocryphal texts say it is where Mary met Joseph after the Annunciation, and thus represents the incarnation. It was walled up in the Middle Ages. Some medieval texts suggest a link between the Golden Gate and the Holy Door.
Who started it?
Not Alexander VI, although that was the story for a long time. Supposedly, he inaugurated the practice in 1500, but according to Herbert Thurston in The Holy Year of Jubilee “it is certain that the central idea of the throwing open of the gates, as symbolical of the outpouring of God’s mercy…did not originate in a pontificate of such evil name as that of Alexander VI.” The connection to Alexander VI probably comes from references in the widely read Diarium of Johann Burchard, who was Master of Ceremonies for five popes, including Alexander.
Thurston traces the idea backwards in time to find references at least 200 years prior to Alexander, and suggests event earlier roots.
Medals from 25 years earlier, during the reign of Sixtus IV, show the pope at the door.
In the mid-15th century, traveller William Wey, returning from the Holy Land, wrote: “In the vestibule of the church of St. Peter’s are six doors, one of which is closed, and this is the true Golden Door.”
There’s also a suggestion that Clement VI (1342 to 1352) had a dream ordering him to the open a door, but this is sketchy and some of the documents spurious.
In 1437, Pedro Tafur ties the Jubilee indulgence to the right of sanctuary in passing through the door of the Lateran Basilica.
This suggests an early root for the practice, going all the way back to Constantine, who requested that Pope Sylvester publish a bill proclaiming sanctuary for Christians who enter the basilica. Allegedly, the privilege was abused, and the door walled up, only to be open during Jubilee years.
All right then, who really started it?
We don’t know. Please stop asking.
Thomas L. McDonald @ThomasLMcDonald is a writer and church historian.