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Father Richard Kunst: Don’t miss history being made in Holy Year of Mercy

This month will be the start of a pretty big deal. Several months ago, Pope Francis announced the Holy Year of Mercy, starting Dec. 8 and running through 2016.

A Holy Year is very different from other themed years. You may remember the Year of St. Paul or the Year of Consecrated Life just concluding. These and others like them are simply different themes the recent popes have asked the church to focus on in any given year, but a Holy Year is a completely different animal with much greater significance.

 Father Richard Kunst
 Father Richard Kunst


Though the first Catholic Holy Year was established by Pope Boniface VIII for 1300, the concept of the Holy Year goes back to the Old Testament, when every 50th year was a year of “Yobel” (meaning “ram’s horn”), because the special year was proclaimed by the blast of the ram’s horns. In these years, slaves were to go free and debts were to be forgiven. In the Christian era, the word “Yobel” was transliterated to “Jubileus” (“jubilee”), meaning “joyous festivity.”

When Pope Boniface called the first Christian Jubilee in 1300, he intended to keep the same biblical themes of forgiveness and the remission of sins. So too, Pope Francis has called for this to remain the same for the new Holy Year, which we will commence this month.

No ‘ordinary’ year

There are two types of Holy Years, “ordinary” and “extraordinary.” An ordinary Holy Year is one on the regular interval of every 25 years, so the next ordinary Holy Year will be in the year 2025. This 25-year interval was established by Pope Paul II in 1475. Before that, there was no set rule for the frequency.

Then there is the very rare extraordinary Holy Year, which is called outside that normal interval. We have had three previous extraordinary Holy Years in all of church history: 1390, 1933 and 1983 — and now 2016.

As far as the ordinary Holy Years, there have been occasions throughout history in which they were either suspended or greatly curtailed for political reasons in which the church was threatened. For example, 1825 was the only Holy Year of the nineteenth century in which the Holy Door was opened.

The primary symbol of the Holy Year is the Holy Door, which is strictly symbolic, showing that God’s mercy is open to everyone who seeks it. These Holy Doors are in each of the four major basilicas in Rome, and they are always bricked up and closed off except during the Holy Year.

The most significant of the doors is at St. Peter’s Basilica, but the other three major basilicas of St. John Lateran, St. Mary Major and St. Paul Outside the Walls have the same tradition. Each of these churches will have an ancient ritual played out to open the Holy Year. In the case of St. Peter’s, it will be the pope symbolically knocking on the door (often with a hammer) to open it. At each of other three major basilicas, a cardinal will do the same.

Dangerous tradition ended

One of the other ancient traditions associated with the Holy Year is the acquiring of Holy Year bricks. There are approximately 3,000 bricks blocking the Holy Door of St. Peter’s.

In the early years of the celebration, when the pope and his assistants would open the sacred door at the beginning of the year there would be a frenzy by the public, scrambling to acquire full bricks or even portions of bricks relics. Often people would get hurt in this scramble, and at times even the pope got caught up in the crowd. For the opening of the Holy Year of 1575, eight people actually got trampled to death, and several of the pilgrims got through the door before Pope Gregory XIII did!

In recent years the Holy See has chosen different methods of distribution to avoid the unseemly behavior that may seem more like “Black Friday” shopping than an ancient papal ritual.

As a personal aside, I have a brick from every Holy Year since 1775 in my papal collection, as can be seen on

So, early this month we will be able to witness history being made in the truest sense of the term, and although it may be a blip on the screen to the secular media, it is indeed monumental in the life of the church.

May this extraordinary Holy Year of Mercy inspire all of us to give thanks to God for his great mercy shown to us, and then in turn show it to others.

Father Richard Kunst is pastor of St. John the Evangelist in Duluth and St. Joseph in Gnesen. Reach him at [email protected]