A Holy Door (Latin: Porta Sancta) refers to an entrance portal located in the Papal Major basilicas in Rome. The doors are normally sealed by mortar and cement from the inside so that they cannot be opened. They are ceremoniously opened during Jubilee years designated by the Pope, for pilgrims who enter through those doors may piously gain the plenary indulgences attached with the duration of the Jubilee year.
The earliest account dates back to the Spanish pilgrim Pero Tafur circa 1437 as he connects the Jubilee indulgence with the right of sanctuary, he claims as existed in pagan times for all who crossed the threshold of the Puerta Tarpea upon the site of the Lateran. Accordingly, at the request of Emperor Constantine I, Pope Sylvester I published a Papal Bull proclaiming the same immunity from punishment for Christian sinners who took sanctuary there. The privilege however, was grossly abuse and the Popes consequently ordered the door to be walled up at all seasons except during certain times of special grace. Formerly the door was unwalled only once in a hundred years, this was afterwards reduced to fifty, and now it is said to be "opened at the will of the Pope." A number of witnesses allude to the unwalling of the holy door in connection with the Jubilee Year of 1450. The Florentine merchant Giovanni Rucellai who lived at the time also speaks of the five doors of the Lateran basilica:
"One of which is always walled up except during the Jubilee year, when it is broken down at Christmas when the Jubilee commences. The devotion which the populace has for the bricks and mortar of which it is composed is such that at the unwalling, the fragments are immediately carried off by the crowd, and the foreigners (gli oltremontani) take them home as so many sacred relics… Out of devotion every one who gains the indulgence passes through that door, which is walled up again as soon as the Jubilee is ended."
Common beliefs claim that Pope Alexander VI instituted the rite of the Jubilee year of 1500, but this is certainly a mistake. Not to speak of a supposed vision of Pope Clement VI as early as 1350, who is said to have been supernaturally admonished to "open the door", there are several references to the "holy door" or the "golden gate" in connection with the Jubilee long before the year 1475.
All this describes a rite which has lasted unchanged to the present day, and which has nearly always supplied the principal subject depicted upon the long series of Jubilee medals issued by the various Popes who have opened and closed the holy door at the beginning and end of each Jubilee year. Each of the four basilicas has its holy door. That of St. Peter's is opened on the Christmas Eve preceding the anno santo by the pontiff in person, and it is closed by him on the Christmas Eve following, using a special ornamental trowel to put the first bit of concrete. Until the Great Jubilee of 2000, the Pope knocked upon the door three times with a silver hammer, singing the versicle "Open unto me the gates of justice". The masonry, which had been loosened beforehand, was made to fall in at the third blow. After the threshold was swept and washed by the Jubilee penitentiaries, the Pope entered first. Each of the holy doors at the other basilicas is similarly opened by a cardinal specially deputed for the purpose. The symbolism of this ceremony is probably closely connected with the idea of the exclusion of Adam and Eve from Paradise, and the expulsion and reconciliation of penitents according to the ritual provided in the Pontifical. But it may also have been influenced by the old idea of seeking sanctuary, as Tafur and Rucellai suggest.
Pope John Paul II simplified the ceremony for the Great Jubilee of 2000 for safety reasons; previously, debris had fallen on Pope Paul VI while striking down the door. Workers had removed the concrete before the ceremony of the opening of the door so that the Pope only had to push on the doors with his hands. The holy door of St. Peter's Basilica was opened by the Pope on 24 December 1999 while the doors of St. John Lateran and St. Mary Major were opened on 25 December and 1 January, respectively. Breaking with tradition, the Pope opened both of these personally, rather than delegating this to a cardinal. The doors of Basilica of Saint Paul Outside the Walls were opened in an ecumenical ceremony on 18 January, first day of the World Week of Prayer for Christian Unity by the Pope, the Archbishop of Canterbury and a representative of the Ecumenical Patriarch. The door in St. Peter's was closed on 6 January 2001, with the others being closed one day earlier.
Above the holy door in St. Peter's are marble memorial plates commemorating the last two times that the door has been opened. Since John Paul II held the last two Jubilees, both plates indicate that he opened and closed the door.
Other major pilgrimage churches, such as the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, also have holy doors with similar functions. Notre-Dame Basilica-Cathedral in Quebec City was granted the right to open a Holy Door in 2013 for its Jubilee Year. It was closed on December 28, 2014.
Holy Doors of the World
The following list enumerates the official list of Holy Doors in perpetuity as designated by the Holy See for the privilege of being opened. In October 2015, a temporal privilege was extended by Pope Francis through the Papal bull of Indiction, "Misericordiae Vultus" for an ordinary Bishop to designate his own Holy Door for the purpose of the "Jubilee Year of Mercy".
|Saint Peter's Basilica||Vatican City|
|Archbasilica of St. John Lateran||Rome|
|Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore||Rome|
|Basilica of Saint Paul Outside the Walls||Rome|
|Santiago de Compostela Cathedral||Galicia (Spain)|
|Sanctuary of the Cure of Ars||Ars-sur-Formans|
|Notre-Dame Basilica-Cathedral||Quebec City|