Amidst unprecedented security measures, tens of thousands of pilgrims flocked to Saint Peter’s Square in Vatican City early Tuesday for Pope Francis’ inauguration of the Jubilee Year of Mercy and the opening of the Holy Door.
The crowds started arriving before dawn, and began filling the large square under a light rain hours before the papal Mass was scheduled to begin. Organizers estimate the participation of between 50 and 100 thousand pilgrims in the day’s ceremonies, and visitors have been steadily pouring into Rome on foot, by car, train and plane.
Visibly fatigued and slow of speech, the Pope preached on the mercy of God, linking it to the day’s feast of the Immaculate Conception, which celebrates the Catholic doctrine that the Virgin Mary was conceived without original sin.
“The feast of the Immaculate Conception expresses the grandeur of God’s love,” Francis said. “Not only does he forgive sin, but in Mary he even averts the original sin present in every man and woman who comes into this world. This is the love of God which precedes, anticipates and saves.”
Pope called the opening of the Holy Door a “highly symbolic act” that underscores the primacy of grace in human life.
“To pass through the Holy Door means to rediscover the infinite mercy of the Father who welcomes everyone and goes out personally to encounter each of them. This will be a year in which we grow ever more convinced of God’s mercy,” he said.
Though all human beings sin and are tempted to live their lives independently from God, Francis said, grace is always more powerful than human wickedness.
Francis said that “the history of sin can only be understood in the light of God’s love and forgiveness. Were sin the only thing that mattered, we would be the most desperate of creatures. But the promised triumph of Christ’s love enfolds everything in the Father’s mercy,” he said.
The Pope has called mercy “the bridge that connects God and man, opening our hearts to the hope of being loved forever despite our sinfulness.”
Security was exceptionally tight around the Vatican Tuesday, with a no-fly zone declared over the city of Rome, as well as 2,100 military on the scene plus another 1,000 police. Police crews checked bags and passed metal-detecting wands over each of the tens of thousands of people attending the Mass.
Airport-like scanners were added to all the entrances to St. Peter’s Square and must be used by anyone wishing to attend a papal event. Beyond the usual forbidden items, such as weapons or scissors, other objects were added to the list, including thermoses, selfie-sticks, and umbrellas.
In past weeks, the city of Rome has added dozens of security cameras all over Rome, and particularly in the vicinity of the Vatican, where there are now 2,000 video cameras.
Jubilees or “Holy Years” are generally celebrated every 25 years, and feature a call to conversion and repentance. They offer the possibility of special occasions to experience God’s grace through the sacraments, especially confession, and to obtain indulgences.
According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, an indulgence is “a remission before God of the temporal punishment due to sins whose guilt has already been forgiven,” and can be obtained under certain prescribed conditions.
Francis launched the 12-month jubilee to emphasize one of the central messages of his papacy: the mercy of God and his desire that all reach salvation.
At the end of the Mass, Francis pushed open the basilica’s Holy Door and walked through it to symbolize the pilgrimage of life’s journey, after embracing the frail-looking Emeritus Pope Benedict XVI, who went through the Holy Door after Francis.
Follow Thomas D. Williams on Twitter @tdwilliamsrome