Pope Francis opens the Holy Door of St. Peter's Basilica to inaugurate the Jubilee Year of Mercy at the Vatican Dec 8.

CNS PHOTO | L'OSSERVATORE ROMANO, HANDOUT

Pope Francis opens the Holy Door of St. Peter's Basilica to inaugurate the Jubilee Year of Mercy at the Vatican Dec 8.

December 21, 2015
CATHOLIC NEWS SERVICE

With five strong thrusts, the pope pushed open the Holy Door in St. Peter's Basilica, declaring, "Open the gates of justice."

As the sun broke through on a cloudy, damp morning, the pope bowed his head and remained still for several minutes in silent prayer as he launched the Holy Year of Mercy.

The rite of the opening of the Holy Door was preceded by a Mass with 70,000 pilgrims packed in St. Peter's Square Dec. 8, the feast of the Immaculate Conception.

Amid a crowd of dignitaries and pilgrims, a familiar face was also present at the historic event: retired Pope Benedict XVI, who followed Pope Francis through the Holy Door into St. Peter's Basilica.

During his homily, Pope Francis emphasized the "simple, yet highly symbolic" act of opening the Holy Door, which "highlights the primacy of grace;" the same grace that made Mary "worthy of becoming the mother of Christ."

"The fullness of grace can transform the human heart and enable it to do something so great as to change the course of human history," he said.

The feast of the Immaculate Conception, he continued, serves as a reminder of the grandeur of God's love in allowing Mary to "avert the original sin present in every man and woman who comes into this world."

"This is the love of God which precedes, anticipates and saves," he said.

"Were sin the only thing that mattered, we would be the most desperate of creatures. But the promised triumph of Christ's love enfolds everything in the Father's mercy."

The Year of Mercy, the pope stressed, is a gift of grace that allows Christians to experience the joy of encountering the transforming power of grace and rediscovering God's infinite mercy toward sinners.

"How much wrong we do to God and his grace when we speak of sins being punished by his judgment before we speak of their being forgiven by his mercy," he said.

"We have to put mercy before judgment, and in any event God's judgment will always be in the light of his mercy. In passing through the Holy Door, then, may we feel that we ourselves are part of this mystery of love."

Fifty years ago, he said, the Church celebrated the "opening of another door," with the Second Vatican Council urging the Church to come out from self-enclosure and "set out once again with enthusiasm on her missionary journey."

The council closed Dec. 8, 1965.

Later, Pope Francis led the midday Angelus prayer.

The feast of the Immaculate Conception has a special connection to the start of the Year of Mercy, he said, because "it reminds us that everything in our lives is a gift, everything is mercy."

Like Mary, the pope continued, Christians are called to "let ourselves be embraced by the mercy of God who waits for us and forgives everything.

"Nothing is sweeter than his mercy. Let us allow ourselves to be caressed by God. The Lord is so good and he forgives everything."

Then, on Dec. 13, the third Sunday of Advent, Pope Francis went to the Basilica of St. John Lateran to open the Holy Door there.

On that day holy doors were opened around the world at cathedrals, major churches and sanctuaries. The pope said this simple gesture of opening God's house to the world serves as "an invitation to joy.

"The time of great pardon begins. It is the Jubilee of Mercy."

Dressed in rose vestments on Gaudete Sunday, marking the joyful expectation of Christmas, the pope began the ceremony outside the basilica in front of the bronze holy door.

The door depicts a bas relief of the crucified Christ looking down on Mary tenderly holding the baby Jesus, whose small foot shone like bright gold from the countless kisses and touches of visiting pilgrims.

"This is the door of the Lord. Open for me the gates of justice. I will enter your house, Lord, because of your great mercy," the pope read solemnly before climbing two marble steps and pushing open the large door.

The Church and the people of God are called to be joyful, the pope said in his brief homily.

The Holy Year of Mercy is meant to be a time for people to rediscover God's real presence in the world and his tenderness, he said.

"God does not love rigidity. He is father. He is gentle. He does everything with fatherly tenderness."

As Christians are called to cross the threshold of "the door of mercy," they are asked to welcome and experience God's love, which "re-creates, transforms and reforms life," the pope said.

From there, people of faith must then go out and be "instruments of mercy, aware that we will be judged by this," he said.

Being a Christian calls for a lifelong journey and a "more radical commitment" to be merciful like God the Father, he added.

The same morning, U.S. Cardinal James Harvey, archpriest of the Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls, opened that basilica's holy door.

Pope Francis was scheduled to open the fourth and last holy door in Rome at the Basilica of St. Mary Major Jan. 1, the feast of Mary, Mother of God.