Altar servers walk in procession at the conclusion of a Lenten penance service during which Pope Francis announced a Holy Year of Mercy to run from Dec. 8, 2015 to Nov. 20, 2016.


Altar servers walk in procession at the conclusion of a Lenten penance service during which Pope Francis announced a Holy Year of Mercy to run from Dec. 8, 2015 to Nov. 20, 2016.

March 23, 2015

Pope Francis announced an extraordinary jubilee, a Holy Year of Mercy, to highlight the Catholic Church's "mission to be a witness of mercy."

"No one can be excluded from God's mercy," the pope said March 13, marking the second anniversary of his pontificate by leading a Lenten penance service in St. Peter's Basilica.

"I frequently have thought about how the Church can make more evident its mission to be a witness of mercy," he said during his homily.

So he decided to call a special holy year, which will be celebrated from Dec. 8, 2015, until Nov. 20, 2016.

The biblical theme of the year, he said, will be "Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful," an admonition that applies "especially to confessors," the pope said with a smile.

Traditionally, every 25 years the popes proclaim a holy year, which features special celebrations and pilgrimages, strong calls for conversion and repentance, and the offer of special opportunities to experience God's grace through the sacraments, especially Confession.

Extraordinary holy years, like the Holy Year of Mercy, are less frequent, but offer the same opportunities for spiritual growth.

The doors of the Church "are wide open so that all those who are touched by grace can find the certainty of forgiveness," Pope Francis said at the penance service.

The pope removed his liturgical vestments and went to confession before putting on a purple stole and hearing the confessions of others.

"God never ceases to demonstrate the richness of his mercy over the course of centuries," the pope said in his homily. God touches people's hearts with his grace, filling them with repentance and a desire to "experience his love."

"Being touched by the tenderness of his hand," people should not be afraid to approach a priest and confess their sins, he said.

"The greater the sin, the greater the love, which the Church must express toward those who convert," the pope said.

A holy year as a time of spiritual renewal has its biblical roots in the jubilees observed by the Jewish people at 50-year intervals, when debts were pardoned and slaves were freed.

The term "jubilee" itself comes from the Hebrew word "yobel," meaning a ram's horn, which was used to make the trumpet that signaled the beginning of this time of forgiveness.

The jubilee is called a holy year because it aims to encourage holiness, strengthen faith in Christ and inspire greater communion within the Church and society.


The first Holy Year was proclaimed by Pope Boniface VIII in 1300, when thousands of Christians from throughout Europe came on pilgrimage to Rome.

In the 15th century, Pope Paul II set a 25-year timetable for holy years, which has been the norm since, in order to allow each generation the possibility of experiencing at least one holy year.

As a way to stress the importance of forgiveness and renewing one's relationship with God, plenary indulgences are offered during holy years.

The Holy Door, symbolizing the doorway of salvation, marks the "extraordinary" spiritual passage offered the faithful during a jubilee year.

In addition to an "ordinary" holy year set at 25-year intervals, occasionally a special jubilee is proclaimed to mark some outstanding event.

There have been two extraordinary jubilees in the last century: 1933, to mark the 1,900th anniversary of Christ's redemption, and 1983, proclaimed by St. John Paul II to mark 1,950 years since the redemption.