Celebrating the jubilee year a personal mission for Pope
Martin Luther, eat your heart out - the plenary indulgence is alive and well and valid for the Holy Year 2000. With his Bull of Indiction of the Great Jubilee of the Year 2000, issued on November 29th, Pope John Paul II not only announced jubilee indulgences but again underlined the special importance that he as Pope and the Catholic Church as an institution attach to the year 2000.
When the Augustinian friar Martin Luther hammered his 95 theses into the door of the Schlosskirche in Wittenberg in 1517 he was protesting against the spiritual laxity and moral decline of the papacy, a decline epitomised for him by the practice of granting indulgences in return for payment towards the building of St Peter's Basilica in Rome. Even Luther, however, might find it hard to object to indulgences in the context of a holy year.
Pope John Paul believes fervently the year represents an opportunity to make the world a better, safer and more just place: "There is also a need to create a new culture of international solidarity and co-operation, where all - particularly the wealthy nations and the private sector - accept responsibility for an economic model which serves everyone. "There should be no more postponement of the time when the poor Lazarus can sit beside the rich man to share the same banquet and be forced no more to feed on the scraps that fall from the table (cf. Luke 16:19-31). Extreme poverty is a source of violence, bitterness and scandal; and to eradicate it is to do the work of justice and therefore the work of peace."
At first glance, the lay reader might be tempted to suspect that the Pope's insistence on jubilee year celebrations merely reflects his canny old eye for a good PR opportunity. "If everyone else around the world is going to have a millennium party, we'll have one too" would go the reasoning.
To the Christian, however, 2000 means something more, and not only for the obvious reason that in many countries around the world time is counted as before and after Christ's birth. Even in biblical times, the law of Moses prescribed a special year of celebration every 50 years:
And ye shall hallow the 50th year and proclaim liberty throughout all of the land unto all the inhabitants thereof; it shall be a jubilee unto you (Leviticus 25, 10).
The trumpet with which the 50th-year celebration was announced was a goat's horn, called Yobel in Hebrew, from which derives the word jubilee, which in turn explains why the Vatican uses the term jubilee rather than millennium in reference to 2000.
In Tertio Millennio Adveniente the Pope has explained how, with the Incarnation, the word made flesh via Jesus Christ, God entered human history, entered a human time-scale. I So dates matter and the Christian must sanctify time by celebrations and jubilees.
All of this may seem straightforward, but it does not explain the particular significance of 2000 for 78-year-old Karol Wojtyla. His 20-year reign now quite clearly in an end-of-pontificate phase. All too obviously frail, enfeebled by a series of past medical problems - ranging from the bullets fired by Turkish gunman Mehmet Ali Agca in his 1981 assassination attempt through to colon cancer - and probably now suffering from Parkinson's Disease, Pope John Paul's imminent demise has been pronounced with misplaced regularity for at least six years.
Within the Vatican and among the Vatican press corps, the myth has developed that one thing has kept him going throughout those difficult years. That is his desire to lead the church over the threshold of 2000 and his fervent belief that the jubilee year represents a unique occasion not only for forgiveness and reconciliation, but also for the church to examine its own past sins and thus move forward more confidently.
"The Holy Door of the Jubilee of the Year 2000 should be symbolically wider than those of previous jubilees because humanity, upon reaching this goal, will leave behind not just a century but a millennium. It is fitting that the church should make this passage with a clear awareness of what has happened to her during the last 10 centuries. She cannot cross this threshold of the new millennium without encouraging her children to purify themselves through repentance for past errors and instances of infidelity, inconsistency and slowness to act" (Tertio Millennio Adveniente).
In this context, preparations for the jubilee year have been marked by a church mea culpa, expressed in last January's document on anti-Semitism, by the opening up of Inquisition files and underlined by a series of special synods, the last of which, on the Oceania region, concluded in mid-December.
In practice, the Pope wants the church (and not everyone in the curia was reportedly happy about his insistence) to admit that perhaps it was not such a noble or religious deed to have burned poor old Giordano Bruno at the Campo di Fiori back in 1600.
Nor has the church reason to be proud of the way hundreds of thousands of Catholics failed to live up to the tenets of their faith during the Holocaust or, more recently, during the tribal genocide in Rwanda, for example. All of this and more will be recalled on Ash Wednesday, 2000.
But the jubilee year will not be interpreted exclusively in terms of Catholic self-flagellation. One of the many important liturgical dates for the year is May 7th, when the church will recall all those modern martyrs who died for the faith during the havoc caused by two world wars, by Nazism, communism and all the other conflicts of the 20th century.
Inevitably, too, not all the Pope's aspirations will be realised in 2000. In the recent jubilee message, he wrote: "May the jubilee serve to advance mutual dialogue until the day when all of us together - Jews, Christians and Muslims - will exchange the greeting of peace in Jerusalem."