(Vatican Radio) On the 8th of December, Feast of the Immaculate Conception, Pope Francis pushed open the Holy Door of Saint Peter's Basilica. A symbolic gesture to mark the opening of the Extraordinary Holy Year dedicated to Mercy.
This Holy Year came as a surprise when the Pope first called for it on the 13th of March during a Penitential service in Saint Peter’s Basilica.
Veronica Scarisbrick looks at some of the rituals regarding Jubilee Years over the centuries and shares an eye witness account of the opening of the Holy Door for the Jubilee of 1950, an occasion during which frenzied crowds came along armed with scissors to snip at the cassock of Pius XII.
Once upon a time the Holy Doors of the Major Basilicas here in Rome were not as magnificent to look at as they are today. Simplicity was the name of the game and rather than elaborate with bronze decorations they were in plain wood and bricked in on both sides. That’s to say from the years that go from 1500 to 1950.
The knocking down of any such door, even after that date, was a worrisome affair as masons had to be make sure rubble did not reach anywhere near those standing by. Something not always avoided or anyway not at Saint Peter’s Basilica on Christmas eve 1964 when cement fragments fell near Blessed Paul VI.
After these masons, or ‘San Pietrini’, as the Basilica’s masons are known, had accomplished their task, the Pope took a hammer and in a symbolic gesture tapped on the Holy Door and pushed it open. Hammers of which we have many an example this present day, precious objects made of gold, gilded silver or even ivory
Point of fact silver and gold were also used for a couple of the bricks to be symbolically placed within the walls as reported in a Chronicle of the Jubilee Year of 1423: “ people show such devotion to the bricks and cement fragments that as soon as the door is uncovered they are carried away in a general frenzy”.
And it seems at a later date during the opening of the Holy Door by Pope Pius XII to mark the Holy Year of 1950 this rather surprising frenzy astonished someone who attended this event. He’s the late Father John Charles– Roux who, somewhat horrified, recounts what he himself witnessed on this occasion.
His story begins with the practice of the exchanging of skull caps between the pope and the people: “In the last years of his reign he used to give his skull cap to people. Yes…you went to a special shop where they had the exact measurements for the circumference of his head and you bought one there…the direct result of what I saw happened at the opening of the Holy Door. The people especially Spaniards and South Americans used to come with scissors and when he passed by tried to cut something of his cassock. Of course they didn’t always get hold of his cassock so the pope used to come back bleeding”.
That’s why, Father Charles- Roux says in this archive interview, in an effort to persuade people to put their scissors away a member of the ‘anticamera’ suggested fuelling the enthusiasm of those present by encouraging them to take away the pope’s skull cap instead. A practice already in vogue anyway during the pontificate of Pius X.
Our Rosminian’s eye witness account also relates to Pius XII and his papal throne: “At the opening of the Holy Door his throne covered in white damask was quite decent during the first part of the ceremony but when we came out of Saint Peter’s hardly anything remained of the chair, wood- worms could not have done a better job than the pilgrims. The chair had been destroyed”.
Getting back to the Holy Doors, as you probably know there are four of them here in Rome, one at each of the Major Roman Basilicas, that’s to say of Saint John Lateran, Saint Mary Major, Saint Paul’s Outside- the-Walls and of course Saint Peter’s..
But in Saint Peter’s while the last wooden door was installed during the pontificate of Benedict XIV in 1748, the one we see today was placed there in 1950. Like most of the doors to the Basilica this bronze one is relatively modern. It was designed by Vico Consorti during the pontificate of Pius XII who drew attention to the symbolic significance attached to the Holy Door from a biblical, theological, liturgical and pastoral point of view in terms of salvation history. I once went to take a closer look at it. This is what I saw:
“The panels represent scenes which have as theme that of every ‘Holy Year’. That’s to say reconciliation, reconciliation between God and man. For example there’s the representation of Our Lord telling the Apostle’s you must forgive your brother seventy times seven not just seven times. There is the representation of the Crucifixion, here another has the representation of the Resurrection. Pilgrims come here to cross the threshold of Saint Peter’s and are meant to repent while they do so they may gain access to grace and reconciliation.
To note that the concept of the Holy Door was only introduced in the year 1500 by Alexander VI the Borgia pope.
And to note too that Pope Francis has added his personal stamp on the traditional ritual for a Jubilee year. Let's recall how during his first Apostolic journey to Africa, while in Bangui, capital of the Central African Republic breaking with tradition he symbolically opened the first Holy Door of this Jubilee Year of Mercy away from Rome. A large plain wooden door, simple as holy doors once were centuries ago and as many still are right across the world today.