LA PORTA SANTA – THE HOLY DOOR: THE CONFINE BETWEEN THE PHYSICAL WORLD AND THE DIVINE MYSTERY
The meaning of the Holy Door
The Holy Door is the sealed door of a basilica that is opened during Holy Years, more commonly known as Jubilee years. It symbolizes the journey towards conversion and consolidates the mediation of the Church in the salvation of the faithful. It is founded upon the words of Jesus, who spoke of himself: “I am the gate: Whoever enters through me will be saved.” (John’s Gospel).
How long has the Holy Door existed?
The Holy Door is linked to the Jubilee: an important event in the Catholic tradition, introduced in 1300 as a year in which a pilgrimage to Rome was to be made and charitable works performed. But no Holy Door was crossed on that occasion: the first documented crossing dates back to the 1423 Jubilee, when the Holy Door at the Archbasilica of St. John Lateran was opened. Only after 1500 Holy Doors in the Roman Basilicas of Saint Peter, Saint Paul outside the Walls and Saint Mary Major were installed, as well as in Santa Maria di Collemaggio and Assunta di Atri in Italy, the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Spain and the Cathedral of Notre-Dame in the city of Quebec, Canada.
The quintessential Holy Door is that of the Basilica of Saint Peter.
The Holy Door can be found in the atrium, the last one on the right of the five entrance doors.
Created in bronze by Vico Consorti for the Jubilee in 1950, it has a fifteenth century ancestral style. It has a series of 16 panels depicting biblical stories, and 36 plates with pontifical crests. Twenty-nine of these depict the crests of the popes who have celebrated ordinary jubilees from 1300 until today, three remember the three extraordinary jubilees after 1900 and 7 are empty for future jubilees.
Above the door, two epigraphs are crowned with a shell – symbol of the pilgrim – and the papal coat of arms with the keys: the first Jubilee was proclaimed on 22 February, the feast of the Chair of St. Peter, guardian of the keys of the Kingdom of Heaven.
A solemn ritual: the opening and closing of the Holy Door
The opening ceremony was instituted by Pope Alexander VI Borgia in the 1500 Jubilee (for which the Pietà was realized). Using a hammer made of precious metal, the Pope knocked three times on the protective wall in front of him and crossed the threshold.
At the end of the Jubilee the door was barricaded and remained so until 1975, when Pope Paul VI decided to remove the barricade, leaving the door for all to see.
Saint John Paul II and the new millennium
For the Jubilee of 2000, an unprecedented number of pilgrims crossed the Holy Door: 25 million (in 1983 the number was 10 million). A curious fact: the twentieth century was tangibly left in the past when the former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev appeared in St. Peter’s Square during a Jubilee event.
Pope Francis and the “global’ Holy Door
In the Jubilee called by Pope Francis, cathedrals and shrines throughout the world had Holy Doors, allowing 900 million pilgrims to obtain indulgence without having to come to Rome. However, more than 20 million people came to Rome, including tourists who were enthusiastic about being part of this collective spiritual event.