Under grudging gray skies and with the tightest security that journalists could remember, Pope Francis launched the Jubilee Year of Mercy on the Feast of the Immaculate Conception in St. Peter’s Square.
In a country where every line risks becoming a scrum, a crowd began forming before 7 a.m. at check points near the beginning of Via della Conciliazione, the main street leading to St. Peter’s Square.
Concern for possible terrorist threats was the reason for a heavy blanket of security thrown over the entire area surrounding the square. After an initial bag search and pat down, pilgrims then lined up again for an airport metal detector close to the square itself. A no fly zone overhead was interrupted only by a circling helicopter that appeared to be keeping watch from above.
Yet all the security did nothing to thwart the mood of the crowd. Priests, seminarians, women Religious and lay people streamed into the square hours ahead of the Mass and the ceremonial opening of the door. The square itself (which can hold more than 100,000 people) slowly became standing room only by the time Mass started at 9:30 in the morning.
Those lucky enough to have seats first listened to appropriate readings from various Vatican II documents. By 9 a.m. the crowd was reciting the Glorious Mysteries of the Rosary. Those closer to the papal altar jostled for views of various political and Church dignitaries who filled in the rows closest to the altar itself while ubiquitous security personnel and attentive ushers kept watch.
Before the Mass, a soft rain occasionally fell, and a forest of umbrellas would open, then close again as the rain ceased.
Once Pope Francis began the Mass, it was a forest of camera phones and tablets that rose in the air.
When celebrating Mass, Pope Francis has what is probably best described as a severe demeanor, particularly when one contrasts it with the countless images of the smiling pontiff with the twinkling eyes. Only once during the Mass did we see this more famous visage: when he received the Eucharistic gifts from a family with two young children and a baby. Francis stroke the children’s heads, smiling and talking with the parents.
The readings for the day were read in Spanish, English and Italian, while the prayers of the Faithful were in Chinese, French, Arabic, Swahili and Malay.
For the distribution of Communion, priests fanned out into the square, identifiable by large umbrellas in the papal colors while in various languages the crowd was asked to keep a respectful silence.
It was before the concluding rite that Pope Francis opened the Holy Door – situated on the right side of the portico entering into the basilica. The door was festooned with garlands, and above it were plaques proclaiming the times that Pope John Paul II had declared Holy Years.
The ceremony itself was surprisingly simple. After a prayer of praise and thanksgiving, the Holy Father proclaimed that “this is the door of the Lord. Open to me the doors of justice. Through your great mercy I will enter your house, Lord.”
The door itself, which has not been opened since the Holy Year in 2000, swung open, and the Pope stood in prayer in its entrance as the crowd applauded.
The crowd applauded again when they noticed that Pope Emeritus Benedict was the second person through the door. The pope and his predecessor embraced within St. Peter’s.
After the Pope, the crowd in attendance at the Mass was allowed to process through the door. Some people touched the frame of the doorway or kissed it, a few knelt, but ushers quickly moved them on. Inside the basilica was a festive atmosphere. Bishops, Religious and other pilgrims took photos and selfies with the door in the background.
Another line formed in front of the papal altar to venerate the Crucifix that had been placed there. People knelt on the marble in prayer, and pilgrims in wheel chairs bowed their heads before it.
Thus begins the Year of Mercy. Pope Francis clearly intends this to be about much more than gaining a plenary indulgence for entering the Holy Door. At the end of his homily, he reminded the pilgrims that the Holy Year coincides with the close of the Second Vatican Council. The council, he said, “was a genuine encounter between the Church and the men and women of our time.”
This encounter set the Church on a missionary journey, he said, to encounter people where they live. “The Jubilee challenges us to this openness, and demands that we not neglect the spirit which emerged from Vatican II, the spirit of the Samaritan, as Blessed Paul VI expressed it at the conclusion of the Council. May our passing through the Holy Door today commit us to making our own the mercy of the Good Samaritan.”
Greg Erlandson is publisher of Our Sunday Visitor.