Apr 15, 2000

Jubilee Rome – Heart of the Church, Soul of a Pilgrimage

Online Edition – Vol. VI, No. 2: April 2000

Jubilee Rome-

Heart of the Church, Soul of a Pilgrimage

(Part I of V)


by Sheila Gribben Liaugminas

Editor’s Note: We introduce in this issue a special series for the Jubilee Year on principal pilgrimage sites in Rome. Whether or not we are able to go to Rome during this Jubilee year, all Catholics are pilgrims of the Church of Rome. We hope this "visit" to great Roman churches will be useful to those who make a pilgrimage as well as to the many who cannot.

Sheila Gribben Liaugminas is a journalist a member of Women for Faith & Family’s Voices editorial board. She lives in Chicago with her husband and sons and writes regularly for Time magazine. This is her first contribution to AB.


"In the same reign of Claudius (A.D. 41-54), the all-good and gracious providence which watches over all things guided Peter, the great and mighty one among the Apostles, who, because of his virtue, was the spokesman for all the others, to Rome."

– Eusebius, History of the Church, AD 300-325

"Peter, the first chosen of the Apostles, having been apprehended often and thrown into prison and treated with ignominy, at last was crucified in Rome. And the renowned Paul, oftentimes having been delivered up and put in peril of death, having endured many evils, and boasting of his numerous persecutions and afflictions, was even himself put to the sword and beheaded in the same city."

– Saint Peter of Alexandria, Canonical Letter, AD 306

"It was God’s good pleasure, by means of this city, to subdue the whole world, to bring it into the single society of a republic under law, and to bestow upon it a widespread and enduring peace."

– Saint Augustine, The City of God, AD 413-426


From the time of the Apostles and the earliest Church Fathers to our own, Rome has been a keystone of the divine plan. God sent the Apostles Peter and Paul here to spread the faith to the west, and to establish what would become the Holy Roman Catholic Church. That same divine providence has been calling disciples and pilgrims to Rome ever since, in an unbroken procession. They came to venerate the martyred Apostles at the sites of their tombs, and to honor the saints and martyrs who followed. They came to do penance, when the journey was long, arduous and fraught with danger. They came to seek indulgences by praying at the holy places of this eternal city, and by taking part in Church ceremonies marking the Holy Years. The saints were called, the sinners compelled, to journey to Rome as they made their way through this earthly journey to the Father. You are here, called or compelled by God, to participate in this living history of the Church, following an age-old tradition.

"Why does God seek man out?" asks Pope John Paul II in his Apostolic Letter Tertio Millennio Adveniente. He answers, "God goes in search of man … moved by his fatherly heart." He draws us to himself through the footsteps of the Redeemer. By following those steps, man goes in search of God. As Christians, we are all on a lifelong pilgrimage.

"From birth to death, the condition of each individual is that of the homo viator [traveling man]," observes Pope John Paul II in his Bull of Indiction, The Mystery of the Incarnation. "Sacred Scripture, for its part, often attests to the special significance of setting out to go to sacred places. There was a tradition that the Israelite go on pilgrimage to the city where the Ark of the Covenant was kept, or visit the shrine at Bethel (cf. Jg 20:18), or the one at Shiloh where the prayer of Samuel’s mother, Hannah, was heard (cf. 1 Sam 1:3). Willingly subjecting himself to the Law, Jesus too went with Mary and Joseph as a pilgrim to the Holy City of Jerusalem (cf. Lk 2:41). The history of the Church is the living account of an unfinished pilgrimage."

St. Paul refers to this pilgrimage as an act of faith. In his letter to the Hebrews he recalls the great trust of Abel, Enoch, Noah, and Abraham in answering God’s call. "These all died in faith … having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth. For people who speak thus make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. If they had been thinking of that land from which they had gone out, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared for them a city." (Heb. 11:13-16)

The "Heavenly Jerusalem" is a metaphor for the Catholic Church. And in Rome, St. Augustine saw a metaphor for God’s society of goodness and order and peace in the world based on its role as the heart of Christ’s Church. The singular authority this Church has maintained over two millennia of changing civilizations makes that truth abundantly clear. Amid the ruins of the former empire and its pagan temples, the Church of Rome stands as the living and unfolding history of the Christian legacy. It is only natural that the pilgrim’s journey should lead here.

The Law’s Jubilee

Exceptionally blessed are they whose journey falls within a time of jubilee. For centuries, pilgrims had no such opportunity.

The earliest who did were the Old Testament Jews, who celebrated a year of repose, or a sabbatical year, every seven years to symbolize the seventh day of Creation on which God rested. In that year, they freed slaves and cancelled debts and generally observed a year of great release. Now, when seven times seven years had passed, the symbolism was intensified, and the following year, the 50th, was called as a special year of repose.

"And you shall hallow the fiftieth year, and proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants; it shall be a jubilee for you, when each of you shall return to his property and each of you shall return to his family… For it is a jubilee; it shall be holy to you…" (Leviticus 25:10,12)

Blueprint for reconciliation

The requirements for this holy jubilee observance were extensive, and were spelled out by God through Moses in all of Leviticus chapter 25. Taken together, these instructions were a blueprint for liberation and reconciliation, charity and social justice. This was God’s prescription for the ideal society, and it would be kept in mind by its periodic observance. "One of the most significant consequences of the jubilee year," explains Pope John Paul II in Tertio Millennio Adveniente, "was the general ’emancipation’ of all the dwellers on the land in need of being freed… The prescriptions for the jubilee year … foretold the freedom which would be won by the coming Messiah." The Holy Father explains that from these conditions of release and forgiveness "a kind of social doctrine began to emerge, which would then more clearly develop beginning with the New Testament."

Then the prophet Isaiah later revealed God’s foretelling of the Messiah and how his coming would bring about these same conditions which had formerly been required for the jubilee.

The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me to bring good tidings to the afflicted; he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor… (Isaiah 61:1-2)

The "year of the Lord" he refers to here is the arrival of the Messiah, and with him, the great liberation and release that had been marked in earlier times by observance of the jubilee. Only this liberation would be more profound and complete, his words symbolizing that slaves to sin and captives to guilt would be granted salvation with the coming of the Messiah.

Jesus – God’s Jubilee

With Jesus, this true Jubilee arrived. When he visited the synagogue in his home town of Nazareth, Jesus took the book of the Prophet Isaiah and read that passage from chapter 61. He then announced to those gathered that this Scripture prophecy was fulfilled that day with his presence, "thus indicating that he himself was the Messiah foretold by the Prophet, and that the long-expected ‘time’ was beginning in him," the Holy Father continues in his Apostolic Letter. "The day of salvation had come, the ‘fullness of time.’ All Jubilees point to this ‘time’ and refer to the Messianic mission of Christ… It is he who proclaims the good news to the poor. It is he who brings liberty to those deprived of it, who frees the oppressed… In this way he ushers in ‘a year of the Lord’s favor,’ which he proclaims not only with his words but above all by his actions. The Jubilee, ‘a year of the Lord’s favor,’ characterizes all the activity of Jesus; it is not merely the recurrence of an anniversary in time."

Jesus’ presence fulfills Old Testament symbolism

In other words, once Jesus read the Isaiah passage in that synagogue and revealed himself as the Messiah sent to fulfill it, all his actions and words carried out and recorded in Scripture became the very presence of "the Lord’s favor" that had, to that point, only been symbolized in the marking of the jubilee throughout Old Testament times. From that time on – essentially the beginning of time as we know it – all jubilees would serve to restore this new order established in Jesus Christ. Instead of merely marking the date of the event of Christ’s birth with a special celebration, the jubilee calls us to re-live the very activities and characteristics of his life in terms of healing and reconciliation and conversion. For this, the Church sets special conditions for which she grants special indulgences, continuing the ages old connection between the jubilee and the joy of release from various forms of bondage and debt.

In 1300, the Church first officially called a Holy Year to celebrate the jubilee in response to a mysterious groundswell of expectation from the Roman faithful. Pope John Paul has written: "In the Church’s history every jubilee is prepared for by Divine Providence." (TMA no.17) That is clear from the beginning, since the roots of that first Holy Year are traceable to no person or event. On the evening of January 1, 1300, after a day of palpable, almost mystical anticipation, people literally poured forth upon St. Peter’s Basilica, believing that something extraordinary would accompany the arrival of the new century. These crowds were summoned by no one but most certainly led by the Spirit, all seeking special graces they felt were to be gained there. The people virtually implored Pope Boniface VIII to grant them his papal blessing. Cardinal Jacopo Stefaneschi later described this astonishing event in his chronicle of the first Holy Year: "They began coming in droves towards St. Peter’s basilica and pressed against the altar, blocking each other, making it difficult to get near at all. It seemed as if, when this day had passed, this blessing would disappear or at least the greater part of it. We do not know if they came on account of a sermon about the hundredth year, or jubilee, which most likely had been given that morning in the basilica, or out of their own free will, or because they had been attracted by some heavenly sign, which is more likely…" (Jacopo Stefaneschi, De Centesimo seu Jubileo anno liber).

Pope Boniface VIII gave this folk movement his blessing by proclaiming this the first jubilee year in his papal bull Antiquorum habet fida relatio, in which he granted "full, complete and extraordinary pardon" of sins to all the faithful who visited the basilicas of St. Peter and St. Paul with the proper spiritual attitude, having both confessed and repented of their sins. From then on, pilgrims from all corners of Christendom flocked to Rome.

Although Boniface had decreed that the jubilee be celebrated every 100 years, the next Holy Year was actually called in 1350, resurrecting the Old Testament practice of observing a year of favor every 50 years. That practice soon gave way to a celebration every 33 years (for the number of years Christ lived), and then to every 25. That was declared by Pope Paul II in 1475 so that each generation would have the opportunity to participate in a Holy Year and obtain the extraordinary jubilee indulgence. The requirements for receiving that indulgence changed as well. For the second jubilee, pilgrims were expected to visit the basilica of St. John Lateran, as well as those of St. Peter and St. Paul, to receive the special pardon. By the third jubilee, the basilica of St. Mary Major was added as a site of pilgrimage. Thus the four Patriarchal Basilicas, those belonging to the Holy See, came to be established as destinations for pilgrims journeying to Rome to celebrate the Holy Year.

Today’s pilgrimages are easier, gain more

In modern times, pilgrimages to those sites have become dramatically easier and more comfortable, granted, perhaps softening the original spirit of sacrifice and penance once involved in making this journey. But pilgrims in this century have also been called upon to consider a broader scope of benefits from it. In the Jubilee year of 1900, Pope Leo XIII turned the church’s attention to reconciliation on social issues for the first time, and in an effort at ecumenism he invited non-Roman Catholic Churches to take part in the Holy Year. They did not.

The Jubilee Year of 1925 was celebrated by Pope Pius XI with the joy of seeing all countries represented with the exception of Russia. In this Holy Year, Pius XI established the feast of Christ the King, focused attention on the foreign missions and launched the excavation of the catacombs, adding them to the sites of prayer for future pilgrims. Then, to celebrate the Lateran Treaty which established the new Vatican State, Pius XI called an extraordinary Holy Year in 1933, which was also declared to mark the 1900th anniversary of Christ’s death and the "fulfillment of our redemption," as he stated in his Bull Quod nuper that year.

The Holy Year of 1950 was one of jubilation after the end of World War II and all of its ravages. Pope Pius XII made history by proclaiming a new dogma in a Holy Year, that of the Assumption of Mary into Heaven. In 1975, greater social awareness focused the purposes of that Holy Year on reconciliation of men with each other as much as man with God, and this was a more ecumenical celebration. Events were held throughout the year with many Protestant and Orthodox churches. Also, Pope Paul VI intended this jubilee to serve the purposes of the Second Vatican Council by following its spiritual guidelines, and he openly embraced the missionaries and the pentecostal movement, among others, as works of the Spirit recognized by that Council.

Pope John Paul II has twice proclaimed an extraordinary Holy Year: in 1983 he called a Holy Year of Redemption to commemorate the 1950th anniversary of the death of Christ, and in 1987 he proclaimed a Marian Year to begin to prepare for the approaching millennium. Just as Mary had preceeded Christ in the story of our salvation, the pope explained at the time, so should meditation on her precede the Jubilee Year of his nativity.

Great Jubilee

This has been declared the Great one. "…(T)he two thousand years which have passed since the birth of Christ … represent an extraordinarily great Jubilee, not only for Christians but indirectly for the whole of humanity, given the prominent role played by Christianity during these two millennia." With these words in Tertio Millennio Adveniente, the Holy Father explains that the very calendar used by most of the world to mark time is dated from the year of Christ’s birth, which is evidence of his unparalleled effect on the history of mankind. While other Holy Years in the modern era became more ecumenical in their celebration than those before this century, this one is planned and prepared to embrace all people in the world in some way, and call them to an unprecedented peace and unity.

Pope John Paul II has said that preparing for the Great Jubilee of the Year 2000 has become the very key to his pontificate.

He has studied salvation history intensely and has woven it together through all of his writings with the story of modern civilization, finding the intersection of this jubilee at the point where man is searching for traces of God’s presence in this secular age. He has stressed that the Church has those signs and that presence, and urged us to see the Second Vatican Council as the action of the Holy Spirit to rekindle our missionary task of carrying God’s presence into this world. And he believes that the new millennium will be a new springtime for Christianity, nothing less than a transformation of mankind, if we are docile to the Holy Spirit.

How do we do that? The Church has a treasure trove of resources and paths to direct us. The Catechism of the Catholic Church is the best guide, and great reading. It covers our beliefs in detail, the meaning and celebration of the sacraments, and the very deep and rich practice of Christian prayer. And this is all interspersed with writings and quotes from Scripture, early Church fathers (it can be astounding how current their words seem), many great saints, a number of popes and documents of the different Church Councils.

Do you know what the Second Vatican Council actually did and said? Or do you just hear a lot about the "spirit" of that Council from people who may not actually know themselves? To "hear" the Holy Spirit speaking, read the documents of Vatican II. They are fascinating. They contain beautiful teachings on the riches of Catholic Christianity and instructions for living them out in our own unique times. They do not merely echo past doctrine nor ignore it, but enliven the sacred deposit of our faith with the fresh language of our day.

Pope John Paul has placed monumental importance on the Council, calling it the constant reference point of every pastoral action he has taken. He also calls it the beginning of a new era in the Church. "The best preparation for the new millennium, therefore, can only be expressed in a renewed commitment to apply, as faithfully as possible, the teachings of Vatican II to the life of every individual and of the whole Church." (TMA no. 20)

One could not meet the millennium better prepared for what it promises and what it asks than with the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the writings of Vatican II, and a good pilgrimage.

Conditions for pilgrimage

When Boniface VIII revived the ancient tradition of indulgences with the first Jubilee of 1300, he announced in his Papal Bull Antiquorum habet fida relatio the conditions for granting such pardons, conditions necessary for any good pilgrimage. Pope John Paul II makes the same call for a proper spiritual attitude of reverence and contrition in his Bull Incarnationis Mysterium, ("The Mystery of the Incarnation"). "A pilgrimage evokes the believer’s personal journey in the footsteps of the Redeemer;" he writes, "it is an exercise of practical asceticism, of repentance for human weaknesses, of constant vigilance over one’s own frailty, of interior preparation for a change of heart." It is a call to conversion.

Notice that the message throughout the New Testament is "repent and be forgiven" (Lk 3:3) or "repent and believe" (Mk 1:15). It always starts with repentance, looking inside ourselves in what the Holy Father refers to as "the purification of memory" to discover the wrongs we have done that offend God. "Examination of conscience is therefore one of the most decisive moments of life," the Pope continues. "It places each individual before the truth of his own life. Thus he discovers the distance which separates his deeds from the ideal which he had set himself."

The Jubilee is the time to make a good confession, a complete accounting of all sins still plaguing us. Many Catholics today do not know (or remember) how to prepare a good confession, but it really comes down to a review – a complete one – of the commandments. That doesn’t mean a quick overview, leaving you relieved that you can skip over the fifth commandment if you haven’t killed anyone. You can break that one in many other ways, along with the other nine.

These considerations should prompt a good examination of conscience to prepare for the Sacrament of Penance. But for that "purification of memory" the Holy Father calls us to, we need to look for further offenses against God that we may have permitted, even – and especially – those we may not think much about.

Pope John Paul suggests some questions that touch upon our roles and responsibilities in the larger community. He leads us to ask ourselves how we can remain silent about religious indifference all around us by those who deny God’s existence, and the confusion over fundamental values such as respect for life and the family. "The sons and daughters of the Church too need to examine themselves in this regard," instructs the Pope. "To what extent have they been shaped by the climate of secularism and ethical relativism? And what responsibility do they bear, in view of the increasing lack of religion, for not having shown the true face of God…?" And in these spiritually challenging times, how do we respond, he asks, to the crisis of obedience to the Church’s Magisterium?

Look back at the quotes at the beginning of this article. Those words, from some of the earliest Christian writers, tell the story of our Church. It is one of continuity from the time of Christ. Jesus established this Church and placed Peter at its head, giving him all authority over it (Mt 16:18-19). He taught the Apostles and then instituted them as the original bishops of the Church under Peter. Before he left them to return to the Father, Jesus told the Apostles: "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age." (Mk 28: 18-20)

From that time, in an unbroken succession – administered by the laying on of hands, from the Apostles on down – the office of Peter and the Apostolic college united with him have continued to teach what those Apostles taught, what Jesus taught them.

This is a tremendous treasure, this deposit of the faith. Only one of the reasons why it is precious is that it cannot be compromised and altered to fit the times. "In a cultural climate dominated by subjective thought and moral relativism, the transmission of the faith and the presentation of the Church’s teaching and discipline has to be a matter of grave concern to the successors of the apostles," Pope John Paul II said in an address to the Australian bishops in December 1998.

"Unfortunately, the teaching of the Magisterium is sometimes met with reservation and questioning", leading to an effort, he stated, "to force the Church into changes she cannot make. The bishops’ task is not to win arguments but to win souls for Christ, to engage not in ideological bickering but in a spiritual struggle on behalf of truth, to be concerned not with vindicating or promoting themselves but with proclaiming and spreading the Gospel."

You follow here not only in the footsteps of the Redeemer, not only of Peter and Paul, or all the saints who journeyed to Rome and left a great mark here, but also those of the faithful from the earliest days of the Church.

One of the first known pilgrims who answered this call was Bishop Abercius of Hierapolis in Phrygia Salutaris, Asia Minor, who visited Rome sometime between 180 and 200 A.D. Abercius was so stirred by his encounter with this heart of the Church that he composed his own epitaph here to memorialize his pilgrimage. He wrote, in part:

The citizen of a prominent city, I erected this
While I lived, that I might have a resting place for my body.
Abercius is my name, a disciple of the chaste shepherd
Who feeds His sheep on the mountains and in the fields,
Who has great eyes surveying everywhere,
Who taught me the faithful writings of life.
He sent me to Rome to contemplate a kingdom,
And to behold a queen in a golden robe and golden sandals.
There I saw a people who had the resplendent seal…
And everywhere I had associates,
Having Paul as a companion. Everywhere faith led the way…"

Christ is the shepherd, the kingdom God’s, and the seal that of the Christian. You can still see Abercius’ tombstone in the Vatican’s Museo Pio Cristiano and come in contact – as you will in all the pilgrim sites in this city – with your own history as a Catholic. As you visit the holy places of Rome, the great basilicas, the humble churches, the memorials and shrines, and the sites of martyrdom, go – as Bishop Abercius did – with the saints as your associates and faith as your guide.


Go to Sheila Gribben Liaugminas’ page on the Women for Faith and Family website



Sheila Gribben Liaugminas