How did the tradition of Jubilees begin in the Catholic Church?

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Before each Jubilee Year, the Pope makes a special proclamation.

Today, on the vigil of the second Sunday of Easter in front of the Holy Door of St. Peter's Basilica, I hand over the bull, Misericordia Vultus, to the archpriests of the papal basilicas, some representatives of the Church scattered around the world and the apostolic protonotaries.

This announcement is known as a Papal Bull of Indiction. It comes with an official document, typically written in Latin. Bull refers to the ball used to bind Vatican documents. It uses a papal seal made from wax, lead or gold. The document officially proclaims the upcoming Jubilee, stating the start and end dates of the year.

But the Catholic Church did not invent the idea of jubilees. Rather they built upon the tradition of the Jewish people. Every 50 years, the Jubilee was a year meant to help re-establish better relationships with God and others. During this time, debts would be forgiven, slaves freed and land taken returned to its owners.

It wasn't until the year 1300 AD that the first recorded Catholic Jubilee occured. And it began in a very unlikely way.

Institute of History and Art of Southern Latium

Boniface and the Roman Curia were confronted on Christmas Eve of the year 1299 with a strong presence of people asking for the centenary celebration: both citizens and non-citizens were present. They were surprised. It was an unusual request. But the Pope did not want to waste the opportunity of the great centenary—the centenary year of the birth of Christ.

But popular piety was not the only motivation behind this special year. Another theory is that Boniface VIII declared this Jubilee to solidify his claim to the papacy following the resignation of Celestine V in 1294. This was the first time a pope had resigned and it led some to think that Boniface was not a legitimate successor. To protect himself, Boniface imprisoned his predecessor in a castle outside of Rome.

Descendent of the Family of Pope Celestino V

Celestine V had been promised that he would be able to return to doing what he did before he was pontiff, that is to be a hermit, to be able to live alone in the mountains in complete freedom. But this was not possible because the enemies of the Church would take advantage of him and use him as a tool.

At the same time, organizing a religious event such as the Jubilee also had political consequences because it would mean reinforcing the authority of the pope in the eyes of the European kings.

With both the popular piety and the political motivation, Pope Boniface VIII inaugurated the first Jubilee in history in 1300 with these words:

I grant complete indulgence to all Christianswho travel to Rome to visit the grand sanctuaries of Saint Peter and Saint Paul.

And with this coming year dedicated to hope, Francis will celebrate the second Jubilee of his pontificate 725 years after Pope Boniface VIII.


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