Pope Francis recently declared a Jubilee Year, which officially began on Tuesday, with the timely theme of Mercy. In doing so, he follows a tradition nearly a millennium old of encouraging pilgrimage to Rome. For the Catholic who is able to make the journey, and make the official circuit of worship there, a heavenly reward awaits: remission of sins. Nice!
The tradition goes back to the Judaic roots of Christianity, with the celebration when all of the twelve tribes could return to Israel. Let’s just say that one hasn’t been celebrated in the modern era. The first official Catholic Jubilee year was held by Pope Boniface VIII in 1300, with the intention that they should be held every hundred years. In the era of my research, the poet Petrarch, eager to convince the papal court to return to Rome from Avignon (a situation which he termed the Babylonian Captivity), talked Clement VI into declaring 1350 to be a Jubilee year–in the hopes that the city would pull itself together, and the pope would come home to Italy to stay.
In the run-up to 1350, let’s just say, Rome was a bit of a mess. It was the battleground of two warring families, the Colonna and the Orsini, together with their allies, and was briefly run by the fascinating madman, Cola di Rienzo. Cola was a good friend of Petrarch’s, and they worked on the Jubilee plan together. In 1350, in order to earn the indulgence (the remission of sin), the pilgrim had to visit the seven great churches of Rome, some of which lay outside the walls (San Lorenzo and San Paolo fuori le Mura, which means “outside the wall”), and were thus in more dangerous territory. Others, like San Giovanni and Santa Maria Maggiore, were claimed by the Colonna, while Saint Peter’s belonged to the Orsini.
The plans of populists and poets do not always run smoothly. Aside from overcoming the reluctance of the papal court to return to the chaos of Rome, the plan suffered another set-back in the winter of 1348, when an earthquake centered in Friuli (in the Alps) damaged several of the churches and shattered an already broken city. By then, Cola had been expelled–with the backing of the pope, his one-time supporter. And, oh, right, there was the plague.
The Great Pestilence, as it was then called, swept through Europe starting late in 1347 and continuing through the following year. It ravaged the countryside and the cities, killing peasant and lord alike, as was then observed. Some people received this as the sign of God’s displeasure, and suggested that atonement was even more necessary, like the Swedish mystic, Saint Bridgit, who traveled to Rome for the Holy Year, and urged others to do likewise, and remained there for the rest of her life, doing good works. (as an aside to those who have read my books, was I tempted by this coincidence of name, absolutely. But my Brigit has her own work to do, and it may not be “good”. . .)
Alas, Pope Clement VI did not return to Rome, in spite of the Jubilee. His successor, Urban V did go there briefly, but did not stay. The permanent return fell to Pope Gregory XI, who is claimed as the nephew of Clement VI, but was often rumored to be his son. Gregory XI had a long history with Rome, where he was, during the time of the Great Pestilence, a priest named Pierre Roger, and the archpriest of San Giovanni.
This Jubilee year takes place without plague, at least, and Rome itself is a bastion of stability compared with so much of the world. If Pope Francis and this ancient tradition can encourage some people to focus on mercy, that sounds like a great plan to me. I can only wish that some other leaders would do the same.