Holy door

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The Holy Door is the northernmost entrance of Saint Peter's Basilica in the Vatican. It is cemented shut and only opened for Jubilee Years.
Rear of the Holy Door. Contained inside are several medals and canonical documents from the Pontificate during which the door was last opened. As of 2015, the door is currently open.

A Holy Door (Latin: Porta Sancta) refers to an entrance portal located within 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.

History and significance[edit]

Pope Boniface VIII began the tradition of the Holy Year, known as a Jubilee, in 1300 and the Catholic Church has celebrated them every 25 years or so ever since.[1] A major part of the Holy Year for Catholics is a pilgrimage to Rome and the ritual passing over the threshold of the holy door to symbolise the passing into the presence of God. At the same time, remission of the temporal punishment for the pilgrims' sins is granted, known as an indulgence.[2]

One of the earliest accounts of the Holy Year dates back to a Spanish historian, traveler and pilgrim called Pedro Tafur in 1437. Tafur connects the Jubilee indulgence with the right of sanctuary for those who had escaped persecution. He also noted its existence in pagan times for all who crossed the threshold of the Puerta Tarpea previously upon the site of the Archbasilica of St. John 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 quickly abused and at some point was even commercialised resulting popes consequently ordering the door to be sealed with a wall, only to be unsealed during Jubilee years.[3] The wall was destroyed and the door opened once in a hundred years. This was later reduced to fifty years and now "opened at the will of the Pope."

In 1450, the Florentine merchant Giovanni Rucellai of Viterbo cites that the first Jubilee door was opened in 1423 under the pontificate of Pope Martin V.[4]

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."

Pope Alexander VI expanded the rite of the Jubilee year of 1500 by opening other doors in Saint Peter's Basilica, Basilica of Saint Mary Major and the Basilica of Saint Paul Outside the Walls. This jubilee year began on Christmas day and ended on the Feast of the Epiphany 1501.

At Saint Peter's Basilica, a small chapel of the Blessed Virgin Mary considered at the time to be poorly decorated with mosaics was demolished during the reign of Pope John VII to provide for the construction of the holy door. During this period, the holy doors were opened every 33 years, reflecting the number of years attributed to the lifespan of Jesus Christ. This was later amended to 50 years in commemoration of the Hebrew custom and later still a centenary or at any time at the will of the reigning Pontiff.

Between 1500 and 1974, the entrance portal was barricaded by a solid wall, not an actual door. The popes themselves began the ritual destruction of these walls followed by masons who completed the actual task demolishing it. At its closing rites, the reigning Pope would place the first brick while the same masons reconstructed the wall with help from two cardinals who each placed a brick, one gold coloured and one silver coloured.

All this describes a rite that has remained largely unchanged until the present day and that has nearly always supplied the principal subject depicted upon the long series of Jubilee medals issued by the numerous 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 own holy door. That of Saint Peter's Basilica is opened on the Christmas Eve preceding the Holy Year (Anno Santo) by the pontiff in person and it is closed by him on the following Christmas Eve using a special ornamental trowel to lay the first bit of concrete.

The ceremonial hammer used in 1500 was made of solid gold while the hammer used in 1575 was a gold-plated silver hammer with an ivory inlaid handle. The trowel for closing the holy doors was last used by Pope Pius XII on Christmas day 1950. At the same time, the pontiff replaced the wooden doors installed by Pope Benedict XIV in 1748, which had begun to fall into disrepair, with the 16-panelled bronze doors (carved by Vico Consorti and casted by Ferdinando Marinelli Artistic Foundry) that are seen today.

After the Second Vatican Council[edit]

In 1975, Pope Paul VI, in light of the modernising changes of the Second Vatican Council revised the rite by removing the use of trowel and ornate bricks at the closing rite.

Pope John Paul II further 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.

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. 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 Holy Doors canonically designated by the Holy See[edit]

The Holy Door located at the Basilica of Saint Mary Major.

The following list enumerates the official list of Holy Doors in perpetuity as designated by the Holy See by the expressed privilege of the Apostolic Penitentiary. The following Holy doors are portals upon which the Pope has canonically designated within Church law as a permanent Holy Door.

Holy Doors of the World designated by the Holy See
Designated Location Place Nation
Saint Peter's Basilica Vatican City Vatican City
Archbasilica of St. John Lateran Rome Italy
Basilica of Saint Mary the Great Rome Italy
Basilica of Saint Paul Outside the Walls Rome Italy
Santiago de Compostela Cathedral[6] Galicia, Spain Spain
Pontifical University of Santo Tomas Chapel[7] Manila, Philippines Philippines
Sanctuary of the Curé of Ars[8] Ars-sur-Formans, France France
Notre-Dame Basilica-Cathedral[9] Quebec, Canada Canada

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", most often would be a Cathedral though not necessarily a requirement. Other popular church shrines may be designated by a Bishop as a Holy Door.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ http://stpetersbasilica.info/Interior/HolyDoor/HolyDoor.htm
  2. ^ http://catholicstraightanswers.com/what-is-the-significance-of-the-holy-door/
  3. ^ http://aleteia.org/2015/11/30/when-is-a-door-not-a-door-when-its-a-holy-door/
  4. ^ http://www.vatican.va/news_services/liturgy/documents/ns_lit_doc_14121999_porta-santa_en.html
  5. ^ http://notredamedequebec.org/en/
  6. ^ Granted by Pope Alexander III via the Papal bull Regis Æterni on 25 July 1178
  7. ^ Pope Benedict XVI designated this Holy Door in perpetuity via a Papal bull dated 21 December 2010 - http://varsitarian.net/quadricentennial_supplement/ust_jubilee_year
  8. ^ Designated by Pope Benedict XVI in July 2007 for opening on 8 December 2009 - Holy Year for Priests
  9. ^ Granted by the Apostolic Penitentiary for permanent designation via a Papal bull on 8 February 2013