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Understanding the Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy

Fr. Alexander Castillo
The Catholic Voice
January 18, 2016

"Pope Francis, who never ceases to amaze us with simple gestures of familiarity, has invited all Catholics to live an Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy, from Dec. 8, 2015 to Nov. 20, 2016.

But what is a jubilee? Why is this jubilee called 'extraordinary?' What is special about this time? Why it is called 'Jubilee of Mercy? Why are they important?

I hope to answer these and other questions, so that we would be ready to embrace this beautiful celebration and we can get the most of it for our spiritual life.

What is a Jubilee? Where did they originate?

When we hear the word jubilee, we realize the word seems close to joy. The word comes from the Latin 'jubilaeus' which refers to a feast or celebration time. The word also has a more ancient origin: the Hebrew 'yobhel,' meaning 'ram's horn.'

Why is the word jubilee associated with a ram's horn? Because these horns were used as trumpets to announce the beginning of special celebrations. When they heard the 'yobhel,' they knew a special time of joy was about to begin. (Leviticus 25: 9).

Jubilees are rooted in the Old Testament. In the book of Leviticus (25: 8-17; 23-25) we see how the Lord asks the people of Israel to celebrate this special time each 50 years. This was a time in which the earth was left to rest (those who know agriculture refers to this as leaving fields to fallow), but it was above all an occasion for forgiveness, reconciliation and freedom.

We do not know how faithfully jubilees were held in the Old Testament times, but it was clearly an ideal of a celebration like would bring joy, heal wounds and return peace. Here today we find the origin of the jubilees in the Catholic Church.

It should be noted that the purpose of jubilee festivities was not only 'food and dance,' but there were times of strong reconciliation with the Creator and with each other.

'The Jubilee year is characterized by four social provisions ... the rest of the land (Lev 25: 11-12), the liberation of slaves (Lev 25: 10 and Deuteronomy 15: 12-14), forgiveness of debts (Deuteronomy 15: 1-4) and redemption (repayment) of property (Lev 25, 13.23-24). These provisions, from the Law of Moses were certainly revolutionary, founded on faith in God the creator and liberator, who is the only master of everything, and therefore on the incomparable dignity of man and his rights. '(Joan Galtés, 'Live the Jubilee,' from 'Celebrate,' vol. 57 (fourth edition) Barcelona: Center of Pastoral Liturgy, 1999. pp 7-9).

This beautiful tradition of celebrating jubilees was reborn in the Church by Pope Boniface VIII in the 14th century. Later on, several popes defined the most appropriate periods in which to have celebrations. It was Pope Paul II in the 15th century who finally set them every 25 years.

Since then, every 25 years we have an 'ordinary' jubilee. As in our Liturgy, when we speak of Ordinary Time, the word 'ordinary' does not mean 'unimportant' or 'common.' It actually refers to 'order,' to something 'regular' or 'consistent.' Every 25 years then, is the 'normal time' for the Church to have a celebration of joy, grace.

But the Church also has other jubilees, called 'extraordinary,' those that are called by a Pope in special moments and for exceptional reasons, even if has not been a 25 year interval.

For example: The last ordinary jubilee the Church was the Jubilee Year 2000, under the guidance of Pope St. John Paul II. At that time, we had three years of preparation. I'm sure some still remember them: one year dedicated to the Father, one to the Son and another to the Holy Spirit. Even more: at the end of the jubilee, the pope wrote a letter, 'Novo Millennio Ineunte ' ('At the beginning of the new millenium') in which he invited all Christians to 'put out in to the deep,' firm in faith, hope and love.

The last extraordinary jubilee was also called by Pope St. John Paul II in 1983, celebrating 1950 years of redemption. How was that date calculated? Using as the point of reference the Year 33 as the moment of our Redemption (the year our Lord Jesus Christ died and rose from the dead). Pope Pius XI had called for an Extraordinary Jubilee of Redemption 50 years earlier, in 1933, with the same theme.

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Rev. Alexander Castillo is episcopal secretary to Bishop Michael C. Barber, SJ, master of the liturgical ceremonies of the bishop and Academic Dean of the School of Pastoral Ministries of the Diocese of Oakland. He is also a member of the Committee for the Jubilee celebration of Mercy in the Diocese of Oakland.