In honor of the Jubilee Year of Mercy, I would like to share with you some reflections on the Holy Doors at St Peter’s Basilica. Since each scenes on the doors brings to light an aspect of God’s mercy, meditating on them can help us better live this year—especially if you will be going through them! (There won’t be much chance of seeing what you are passing through when you’re actually there.) Don’t forget, by going on pilgrimage to any of the appointed holy doors and fulfilling the other conditions, you can get a plenary indulgence.
The tradition of jubilee years in the Catholic Church goes back to the jubilee God commands Israel to celebrate every fifty years (see Leviticus 25). Slaves are to be freed, debts forgiven, and any land sold is returned (because the land is an inheritance received from God—the result being that you sell the number of crops and not the land itself). The whole point of the jubilee is mercy—freedom, forgiveness and reconciliation with God. The Catholic Church began the tradition of a jubilee in the Middle Ages, every 25 or 50 years, as a time of special grace and mercy.
The Holy Doors in St Peter’s tell the story of salvation history: of sin, and God’s loving response. What does God want to tell us about his love and mercy? What kind of person can pass through these doors and into the Church? In each of the following segments, I have put first an image of each scene and then the Latin text found in each scene (and its translation) followed by a reflection.
Quod Heva tristis abstulit, (What sad Eve took,)
So here in this first top-left section of the doors we are given a Latin phrase from an old hymn, only completed in the second section (below). Eve sees, fails to trust in God and takes the fruit for herself. Yet the sin of Adam and Eve does not fulfill their ambitions, but brings sorrow into the world. They are cast forth from paradise and it seems that all hope is lost, that God’s masterpiece of creation has been irreparably marred at its beginning. This first sin is God’s motivation to bring us back to himself, the reason he calls out to us so we can see that true happiness only lies in him. Mankind has fallen—two panels compared to the other fourteen—yet where sin abounded, grace did much more abound!
tu reddidis almo germine (…you have made a life-giving blossom.)
This second half of the phrase started above is directed to Mary. Eve takes the fruit and brings sin into the world; Mary brings us salvation in the fruit of her womb. We see the Annunciation scene, where the angel offers Mary a flower as symbol of her purity and sinlessness and the Holy Spirit hovers over her at the moment of Christ’s incarnation. Through her God will bring mercy into the world and renew our hope for salvation. God’s becoming man is his answer to our sin.
Tu venis ad me? (You come to me?)
John is baptizing sinners in the Jordan, and Christ comes up to receive the immersion. John is amazed! This man is sinless and there’s no way he should publically identify himself with sinners. John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” (Matthew 3:14) How is it possible that God himself could take on our sin? Yet he does. This is what he has come for.
Salvare quod perierat (to save what was lost)
Jesus says that he has come to save what was lost (Luke 19:10) and this image is of the parable of the lost sheep: the sinner who has abandoned the flock and care of the shepherd to do what he thinks best, what he feels like. But Jesus is the good shepherd, and he will go after that sheep into the cold night, scaling mountains, slipping down gorges. The shepherd calls each of his sheep by name—if the sheep were just a number, the shepherd would simply buy another one and not risk his life. But each sheep matters the world to him, and for each of us the Good Shepherd is willing to give everything. No one is indifferent.
Pater, peccavi coelom et coram te. (Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you.)
The tale of the prodigal son in Luke 15 presents us with a broken child on his knees before his father. The son has no other option left than to swallow his pride and ask if his father will take him in again. So he starts his prepared speech, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you…” But before he can suggest that he work for his food as a servant, the father interrupts him in a huge embrace. He gives his son not only the food he needed, but all his heart and all the love that had been painfully waiting for the son’s return. God doesn’t care what we’ve done—he just wants us to come back to him.
Tolle crabatum tuum et ambula… (Take up your mat and walk…)
Jesus sees a man who’s been lame, waiting for a cure, for over thirty-eight years. Is there any hope left? No matter how long we’ve been struggling in our sin, Jesus has planned this moment for all eternity. When Jesus saw him lying there and knew that he had already been there a long time, he said to him, “Do you want to be healed?” (John 5:6) He wants to heal me more than I could ever imagine, yet sometimes it’s more comfortable to stay where we are. A cure means we will have to change, that we can’t be the same. The lame man will have to find work and stop depending on handouts, will have to reenter a world much larger than his little mat. But Jesus respects our freedom and waits for us to accept his love and mercy.
Remittuntur ei peccata multa. (Her many sins are forgiven her.)
Sorrow for our sins—because we have hurt someone who loves us—can be a way to draw closer to Jesus’ Heart. Luke 7 tells the story of the sinful woman who draws near to Jesus to bathe his feet with her tears and dry them with her hair. Amid the scoffs of others who say she can never be clean, can never start again in purity and innocence, she dares to show her love because she knows how much she his loved. Jesus will not reject her, and while acknowledging her many sins, he wipes them all away and with a word breathes new life and new hope into her.
Septuagies septies. (Seventy-seven.)
Peter thinks himself generous to forgive someone seven times, yet there are reasonable limits. But Jesus will have none of that. We need to forgive seventy seven times (and more). Why? Jesus continues with the parable of the unforgiving servant (Matthew 18:21-35) who has been forgiven so much by his master and yet refuses to forgive a fellow servant a debt that in comparison to what’s he’s been forgiven is almost nothing. God will never refuse us his mercy if we ask him for it, yet he asks us in turn to imitate his merciful Heart.
Conversus Dominus, respexit Petrum. (The Lord turned, and looked at Peter.)
Jesus looks at Peter (Luke 22:61) immediately after Peter has denied him three times. Peter said he would give his life for Jesus, yet he is so weak. Christ makes him head of his Church, yet the apostle who should be strongest fails when put to the test. That should comfort us a lot! No follower of Jesus is perfect—we all fall. Yet at the instant of our fall, Jesus looks at us. And in his eyes we see that we are still loved and that he will never give up on us.
Hodie mecum eris in paradiso. (Today you shall be with me in paradise.)
This is Christ’s promise to the good thief, who hangs beside Our Lord on the cross. He has lived a life of crime, yet somehow receives the grace to recognize the God hidden behind the torture and the shame. He recognizes his sin for the evil it is and in one last desperate attempt flings himself on Jesus’ mercy. His prayer doesn’t even ask for forgiveness, or entry into paradise—just that Jesus remember him. But Jesus goes beyond all his hopes: And he said to him, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” (Luke 23:43)
Beati qui… crediderunt. (Blessed are those who have believed.)
Thomas won’t believe that Jesus is risen until he places his hand in Jesus’ wounds. Jesus could have said, “Well, too bad for Thomas—we’ll just let him sulk until he’s willing to believe.” No. Jesus reaches out to him and gives him the grace he needs to believe. Yet, Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe (John 20:29)
Accipite Spiritum Sanctum. (Receive the Holy Spirit.)
And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld.” (John 20:22-23) This scene is Jesus granting the apostles the power to forgive sins in his name. Jesus’ words, “Your sins are forgiven,” will not be confined to a period of 33 years over 2000 years ago. Just as the apostles and their successors make present his Eucharistic sacrifice, so too they repeat these words to countless sinners. Through Confession, Jesus can reach out and touch you today.
Sum Jesus quem tu persequeris. (I am Jesus whom you are persecuting.)
These are Christ’s words to Saul after he is thrown from his horse on the road to Damascus. While respecting our liberty, Jesus will do everything possible to help us see the truth, to bring us to him—even knocking us off our horse! God knows best how to reach our hearts, and if he allows us suffering, it can only be a chance to bring us nearer to him. When he is physically blind, Paul learns to truly see.
Sto ad ostium et pulso. (I stand at the door and knock.)
The picture here shows a pope knocking on the Holy Doors to inaugurate a Jubilee Year. What does it mean to pass through the door? It means that just as Christ has opened his doors fully to us, so he asks us to do for him. The full verse goes like this: Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me. (Revelation 3:20) Christ uses the image of sharing a meal with someone to show the kind of relationship he’s looking for: he wants to share everything with you, to enter into a deep and intimate relationship with you. Christ knocks on the door of your heart, if you hear his voice and open the door…