The Millennium, the Pope and Catholicism Today

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From: The New York Times

December 25, 1999

'Enthralled' Pope Opens Door to Millennium

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Pope Makes Case for Christian Conversions (Nov. 8, 1999)

ROME, Saturday, Dec. 25 -- In a moment he has been waiting for his entire papacy, John Paul II opened wide the Holy Door to Saint Peter's Basilica Friday evening, ushering in a Holy Year that is supposed to set the tone for the entire third millennium.
"At this hour, the word 'today' rings out with a unique sound," the pope said in his midnight Mass homily. "It is not only the commemoration of the birth of the Redeemer, it is the solemn beginning of the Great Jubilee."

Thirty-five minutes before midnight, following a 500-year-old ritual, the 79-year-old Roman Catholic leader, at first unsteady and supported by two aides, used both hands to push open bronze doors that are kept bricked up until a Jubilee, a Holy Year, begins. Then, helped by the two aides, he sank to his knees in prayer.

Christmas Eve is one of the most sacred days on the Roman Catholic calender, but this year's is laden with unparalleled significance, marking the opening of the Holy Year of the new millennium, and traditionally the 2,000th anniversary of the birth of Jesus.

It is also a deeply personal triumph for John Paul, whose failing health has at times put his ability to manage a Holy Year into question. "It is difficult not to be overcome by the eloquence of this event," the pope said in his homily, his voice steady and clear. "We remain enthralled."

Moments after his surprise election in 1978, as the first non-Italian pope in more than four centuries, Cardinal Stefan Wyszynski, a fellow Pole, whispered to him, "If God has chosen you, he has chosen you to lead the church into the next millennium."

John Paul signaled the occasion's importance in his first encyclical in 1979.

Since then, he has repeatedly instructed his followers to use the coming year to conduct a thorough examination of conscience, seeking pardon for personal failings and also for Roman Catholic errors throughout the entire history of the church.

With as many as 20 million pilgrims expected to visit Rome this year, the 2000 Jubilee is the largest ever held by the Vatican, and the first that marks the turn of a millennium. Modern technology -- from live television and Internet coverage to Vatican-issued pilgrim cards equipped with microchips that can be used to book religious services, tour buses and restaurants -- has made it the most widely accessible. Fifty-eight countries, including Cuba, requested a link to broadcast this nighttime event live, for an estimated audience of one billion people.

Some 8,200 people were squeezed inside St. Peter's, which usually holds 7,000, and which was outfitted with television monitors. Outside, in the square, 40,000 invited guests were seated, craning for a glimpse of the pope on four giant TV screens.

And tens of thousands of others, hailing from all over the world, stood crammed around a life-size crèche and a 78-foot Christmas tree on the square. As the doors opened, a symbol of the threshold to salvation, the crowd applauded.

"After 2,000 years we relive this mystery as a unique and unrepeatable event," the frail John Paul said at the main altar of the basilica.

"This is the truth which on this night the church wants to pass on to the third millennium."

The opening of the Holy Door is the main symbol of a Jubilee, the Catholic term derived from the Hebrew word "yobel," a law handed down by Moses requiring that slaves be freed and debts forgiven every 50 years. Because each pope wanted a chance to preside over a Holy Year, starting in 1475 they were scheduled to occur every 25 years.

The first Jubilee was held in 1300 by Pope Boniface VIII, who summoned pilgrims to Rome when the Crusades made travel to the Holy Land too perilous. (Rome, however, also proved to carry risks: In 1450, masses of pilgrims leaving a papal blessing mobbed the only bridge over the Tiber, and 200 people drowned.)

Explaining why he had stood in St. Peter's Square for hours in the cold, Nicola Passariello, 31, an Italian business consultant based in Paris, said: "This is a very particular event, and for me, an important moment. I hope that this will be a sign of a different, better millennium, more humane."

To mark the special quality of this Jubilee, John Paul decided to be the first pope personally to open the holy doors of all four main basilicas in Rome. This Christmas evening he is expected to drive across Rome to open the Holy Door of St. John Lateran, which was the church of the popes before St. Peter's was built and is now the see of the bishop of Rome, an office the Pope occupies.

Since 1300, believers have made the pilgrimage to Rome to seek an indulgence, a remittance of punishment for sins. For the year 2000, the pope has broadened the paths to an indulgence, which he views not as a fast-track to heaven, but as a way of deepening Christian commitment.

Traditionally, pilgrims were required to visit the main basilicas of Rome. This year, they can also visit other holy sites, and can do penance with simple acts like visiting a prison inmate or not smoking for a day.

The St. Peter's Holy Door ceremony was carefully reworked to fuse medieval customs with innovations intended to signal Catholicism's relevance in a modern, multicultural world.

Accompanied by Eastern music, Asian women in native costume placed garlands of flowers on the jamb of the door immediately after the pope opened it. As he sat on a throne before Michelangelo's Pietà, African musicians sounded horns made of elephant tusks. After the Mass, the pope looked elated as he walked down the main aisle, blessing people and patting babies' heads.

The Vatican broke with other traditions, including the ritual of the pope's using a medieval gilded-silver hammer to knock down the brick wall that conceals the Holy Door until a Jubilee begins.

On Christmas Eve 1974, concrete fragments went flying dangerously close to the head of Pope Paul VI. From then on, the Vatican decreed that the brick wall should be torn down a few days early.

In 1983, John Paul II struck the hammer three times as a symbol before he opened the Holy Door for the extraordinary jubilee he proclaimed to mark 1950 years since the death of Jesus, traditionally held to have been in A.D. 33. After that, however, the Vatican decided to do away with a practice seen as obsolete and unnecessarily taxing for the aging pope.

On Friday night, the police swarmed the area, aided by Jubilee volunteers, and as for every event on St. Peter's Square, visitors were screened with hand-held metal detectors. Rome boasts no grandiose new edifice for 2000 along the lines of the Millennium Dome in London. The Italian government took a more conservative approach, choosing to spend most of the $950 million allocated for the capital to restore and clean churches, palaces and historic areas rather than to erect monuments to this epoch. New amenities are few and subtle, like an underpass alongside the Tiber to ease traffic near St. Peter's.

The church, however, has already completed 18 of the 50 new churches it plans to build in the new millennium in the modern suburbs of Rome, a sign of high optimism in an era when church attendance continues to decline. And disregarding the warnings of some outside archaeologists, the Vatican also dug up ancient parts of its own territory to build a six-story underground garage to accommodate 115 buses and 800 cars for pilgrims.

On this Christmas Eve, millennium thrill-seekers mingled with the faithful. "Rome is the center of the world right now," said Avi Perciger, 47, an Israeli who brought his 15-year-old daughter, Noam, on a bat mitzvah tour to St. Peter's Square. "We are on the way to Times Square for the millennium New Year, and this is the appropriate station on the way."