Jubilee Year 2016: What You Need to Know About the Holy Year of Mercy

As you may have heard, Pope Francis has declared that 2016 will be the Holy Year of Mercy. A Holy Year is often known as a Jubilee Year, and it can make visiting Rome and Vatican City a little different than it might be during any other year. Let’s see what this Holy Year means for your upcoming visit to Italy.

Note that you can get tickets for all Jubilee-related events through this official Vatican website. Tickets for all events are free, but certainly aren’t unlimited.

Personal Update: My Vatican City Visit During the Jubilee

Rome Isn’t As Busy As Anticipated

Vatican volunteers at the barriers around St. Peter's Square || photo by Jessica Spiegel : all rights reserved : may not be used without permission

Vatican volunteers at the barriers around St. Peter’s Square || photo by Jessica Spiegel : all rights reserved : may not be used without permission

Everyone I talked to in Rome during my trip said that tourist numbers were lower than expected for this time of year – especially during a Jubilee. After the Paris attacks, they all said, tourism slowed. And then Brussels happened while I was in Italy. Security at many places – airports, train stations, major churches – is much more evident.

I heard from hoteliers about vacancies over Easter weekend, almost unheard of in Italy, and one tour guide I spoke with said she had Easter Sunday off for the first time in the many years she had lived in Rome.

On one Wednesday morning before a tour of the Vatican Museums, my family and I happened to catch Pope Francis wheeling through the crowd in St. Peter’s Square before his weekly address. I noticed how much smaller that crowd was than the one I had seen in 2001 when Pope John Paul II was making the same pre-talk rounds.

Pope Francis before his weekly address zips through St. Peter's Square || photo by Jessica Spiegel : all rights reserved : may not be used without permission

Pope Francis before his weekly address zips through St. Peter’s Square || photo by Jessica Spiegel : all rights reserved : may not be used without permission

I was not in Rome over Easter itself, so I can’t say how crowded or busy Vatican City was then, but I will say that it felt far less crowded than I was expecting for the period around Easter during a Holy Year.

Jubilee Crowd Control in St. Peter’s Square

Here's a rough approximation of where the three entries listed below are located || public domain image

Here’s a rough approximation of where the three entries listed below are located || public domain image

Although the volume of people isn’t as great as many thought it might be, the Vatican is prepared for crowds. St. Peter’s Square has been divided into sections with only a few entry and exit points, funneling people to exactly where they intend to go. Let’s say you’re approaching the square from the river along Via della Conciliazione, staring straight ahead at the Basilica. Here are your entry points:

  • General Visitors: The entry for visitors who just want to wander into the square but not into the Basilica or through the Holy Door is to the left, very close to the left arm of the double-colonnaded wall encircling the sides of the square. This is both an entry and an exit point, so you’ll come back out this same way when you’re done snapping photos.
  • General Basilica: The entry for people who want to go into the Basilica but not through the Holy Door is to the right. Walk around the outside of the colonnades to the right and you’ll see the entry point (complete with its own airport-style security checkpoints) in the walkway between the two rows of columns. When you leave the Basilica, you’ll exit through the general visitor point listed above.
  • Holy Door: The entry for visitors who are going through the Holy Door (after which, of course, you’re in the Basilica) is in the center. If you kept walking more or less straight from your starting point on Via della Conciliazione you’d basically walk right into it – look for the signs pointing you toward the “Porta Santa.” Again, the exit after you’re done visiting the Basilica is the same one used by general visitors listed above.

There are volunteers stationed at strategic points in and around the square, all of them wearing blue or yellow jackets or smocks, and everyone I spoke with was incredibly helpful and nice (and spoke English). I even found a few volunteers along the Via della Conciliazione, helping point pilgrims in the right direction. (There are also lots of people selling tours in the same exact areas, so be sure the person you’re asking for information is wearing one of those volunteer jackets/smocks.)

Going Through the Holy Door: Reservations or No?

Before my March visit to Italy, knowing I would be spending time in Vatican City, I went through the Jubilee pilgrim registration process just in case the line for the Holy Door was outrageous. Even though I’m not religious, I was curious about the process and about walking through a door that’s so rarely open. The two-step online registration was simple, but here’s what I’d suggest if you plan to reserve a time to go through the Holy Door:

  • The registration form asks you how you’re arriving in Rome and how long you’re staying. It also asks when you want to go through the Holy Door, but I think it basically gives you a time within your Rome stay regardless of whether it matches your desired time or not (mine did not).
  • In other words, if you want to reserve a time, I suggest being much more specific about when you’ll be in Vatican City rather than in Rome overall. If you’ll be in Rome for three days and know you’re touring Vatican City on the second day, list only that second day on the registration form.

Having said all of that, I’m not sure making a reservation to go through the Holy Door is necessary, unless you’re going to be at the Vatican during a major holiday or, perhaps, near the end of the Jubilee.

Knowing I wouldn’t be able to keep the appointment I had been given, I wandered into St. Peter’s Square on a different day and asked the volunteers at the Holy Door access point whether a reservation was needed. They shook their heads and waved me through. The only real line was at the airport-style security checkpoint, a feature that every visitor to the Basilica must go through before entering (and that’s been true for years).

Signs pointing toward different entrances on St. Peter's Basilica || photo by Jessica Spiegel : all rights reserved : may not be used without permission

Signs pointing toward different entrances on St. Peter’s Basilica || photo by Jessica Spiegel : all rights reserved : may not be used without permission

Vatican guards on either side of the Holy Door || photo by Jessica Spiegel : all rights reserved : may not be used without permission

Vatican guards on either side of the Holy Door || photo by Jessica Spiegel : all rights reserved : may not be used without permission

Past the security checkpoint, it was just a walk across the piazza and up the steps of the Basilica to get to the Holy Door. You’ll know which is the Holy Door by the dark-overcoat-wearing guys standing on either side of it. I’m not sure what or who they’re guarding, but they appear to be guards of some kind.

So, yes – I walked through the Holy Door. Again, I mention that I’m not religious, so for me it was sort of underwhelming – the door itself isn’t any more special or beautiful than any other door on the Basilica. The only difference about it is how infrequently it’s open.

If you’re Catholic, then clearly the door holds much greater significance.

Either way, I think walking through the Holy Door of St. Peter’s Basilica during this Jubilee Year won’t require a reservation except, as I said before, during religious holidays or nearing the end of the Holy Year when there may be a greater influx of pilgrims.

Vatican Post Office: And Then There Were Two

Vatican post office trailer on left side of St. Peter's Square || photo by Jessica Spiegel : all rights reserved : may not be used without permission

Vatican post office trailer on left side of St. Peter’s Square || photo by Jessica Spiegel : all rights reserved : may not be used without permission

You may already know that there’s a separate post office in Vatican City (and that the Vatican’s postal system is notoriously more efficient than Italy’s), but there’s now a second post office at the Vatican – it’s a temporary-looking trailer set up inside St. Peter’s Square. I thought it might just be set up for the Jubilee, but it appears in photographs from a couple years ago, too, so I’m not sure how long it’ll be there… But hey, anything that helps reduce lines at the post office is a good thing, so take advantage of these two Vatican post office locations for all your postcard-mailing needs this year!

News Updates: The Holy Year of Mercy is Underway

Now that the Holy Year has started, I’ll keep this section updated with information about events and any other tidbits I think you might find interesting.

Here’s video of Pope Francis opening the Holy Doors of St. Peter’s Basilica to officially start the Jubilee Year on December 8th:

This was the stunning illumination of the front of the Basilica on the night of December 8th, called “Fiat Lux: Illuminating Our Common Home:”

How will the 2016 Jubilee Year impact my Italy trip?

World Youth Day 2000 during Jubilee || creative commons photo by Sporki

World Youth Day 2000 during Jubilee || creative commons photo by Sporki

My first visit to Italy was in 2001, just after the last Jubilee Year, which was called by Pope John Paul II. I had been warned – by friends who had been to Rome and basically every guidebook on the city – that the historic center would be crawling with beggars and bands of children who would distract me while swiping my valuables. I saw exactly zero of either during my stay, and reports chalked that up to Rome having cleaned up its act in anticipation of the influx of pilgrims for the Holy Year.

Rome takes Jubilee Years very, very seriously.

Inside Rome, and more specifically Vatican City, you can expect to see bigger crowds – especially on important dates during the Jubilee Year (listed below) – and find hotels booked up further in advance as pilgrims have already made travel plans. During any other year, ordinary visitors can book tickets to a papal audience (you don’t have to be Catholic, or even religious, for those), but there’s every reason to suspect that this pope’s plate is going to be very, very full throughout the Jubilee Year. If you know you’re going to be in Vatican City and you really want to see the pope, you’d better make your plans (and secure your spot) ASAP.

Note that tickets for Jubilee events can be booked directly on the official website, including specific days in which to walk through the Holy Door of St. Peter’s Basilica. The pope has emphasized that the Jubilee is for everyone, and that “you don’t pay for salvation, you don’t buy it.” You can book papal audience tickets via third-party websites to let someone else deal with the logistics for you, but be aware that the Vatican isn’t charging for the Jubilee at all.

In terms of more lasting changes, I’ve seen news that there will be more biking and walking routes created that lead to the holy places pilgrims visit, in keeping with Pope Francis’ desire that pilgrims make their way at least partly on foot (like all pilgrims used to). That’s good news for anyone who prefers walking or cycling as a tourist rather than hopping into a bus or taxi.

I also suspect that Rome will make the same clean-up efforts it made in 2000. That cleaned-up city lasted well after the Jubilee was over, too, so even if your Italy travel plans don’t begin until 2017 or after, you’ll probably see the newer version of Rome that was polished in time for the Holy Year.

Outside of Rome and Vatican City, however, you may not see much of a difference in Italy at all. Yes, some of the pilgrims will undoubtedly take advantage of the opportunity to extend their stay and see other parts of the country, but you’re unlikely to notice. Italy is, after all, pretty touristy year-round.

But in addition to more bike lanes, what else is going in Vatican City and Rome for the Jubilee Year in 2016? Keep reading to find out.

Learn more about what to do in Rome, read my Rome city guide, and find out about the best day trips from Rome

Jubilee: Holy Year of Mercy 2016 Events

Pope Francis in St. Peter's Square || creative commons photo by Alfredo Borba

Pope Francis in St. Peter’s Square || creative commons photo by Alfredo Borba

Despite the 2016 date in the name, the Holy Year of Mercy actually begins on December 8, 2015, on the feast of the Immaculate Conception. It concludes on November 20, 2016, on the feast of Christ the King. The major events on the calendar are listed below.

2015 Jubilee Events

  • December 8: Pope Francis opens the holy door at St. Peter’s Basilica after a 09:30 Mass
  • December 13: The holy doors of the ArchBasilica of St. John Lateran and the Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls are opened, as are the holy doors of cathedrals around the world
  • December 27: “Jubilee for the Family” in St. Peter’s Square

2016 Jubilee Events

  • January 1: The holy door of the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore is opened
  • January 30: Some special Jubilee papal audiences, St. Peter’s Square
  • February 13: Jubilee for Padre Pio prayer groups, St. Peter’s Square
  • February 20: Some special Jubilee papal audiences, St. Peter’s Square
  • March 4: Penitential liturgy in St. Peter’s Basilica, “24 Hours for the Lord”
  • April 2: Pope Francis leads a prayer vigil in St. Peter’s Square
  • April 3: Pope Francis says Mass for Divine Mercy Sunday
  • April 9: Some special Jubilee papal audiences, St. Peter’s Square
  • April 23-25: Jubilee for teenagers, ages 13-16, who are confirmed; confessions at select Jubilee churches, youth rally in Rome’s Olympic Stadium on evening of 23rd, Holy Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica on the 24th
  • April 30: Some special Jubilee papal audiences, St. Peter’s Square
  • May 5: Pope Francis leads “Vigil to Dry Tears,” St. Peter’s Basilica
  • May 14: Some special Jubilee papal audiences, St. Peter’s Square
  • June 10: Jubilee for the ill and disabled and their caretakers/helpers in St. Peter’s Square
  • June 18: Some special Jubilee papal audiences, St. Peter’s Square
  • June 30: Some special Jubilee papal audiences, St. Peter’s Square
  • July 26: Jubilee for young people, and World Youth Day (held in Poland in 2016)
  • September 4: Jubilee for volunteers
  • September 10: Some special Jubilee papal audiences, St. Peter’s Square
  • October 1: Some special Jubilee papal audiences, St. Peter’s Square
  • October 22: Some special Jubilee papal audiences, St. Peter’s Square
  • November 1: Pope Francis says Mass for the “faithful departed,” Cimitero Flaminio
  • November 6: Jubilee for prisoners (there will be some prisoners at St. Peter’s Basilica for this)
  • November 12: Some special Jubilee papal audiences, St. Peter’s Square
  • November 13: The holy doors outside St. Peter’s Basilica are closed, as are the holy doors of Rome’s papal Basilicas and cathedrals around the world
  • November 20: The holy door in St. Peter’s Basilica is closed

There are also special jubilees for people who work in pilgrimages around the world, deacons, priests, and the Vatican government. You can see the full calendar on the official Jubilee website.

Note that the “special Jubilee papal audiences” listed on the calendar are primarily to accommodate requests from dioceses around the world, so don’t count on that to be your chance to get a papal audience. Your best bet is to book a ticket in advance.

Wait, what’s a Holy Year, anyway?

Official logo of the Holy Year of Mercy

Official logo of the Holy Year of Mercy

Holy Years in the Catholic Church date back to the beginning of the 14th century. They were originally meant to be called every 25-50 years (at the pope’s discretion), and were a time when all sins could be forgiven. The concept comes from the Biblical reference to a Jubilee when all slaves were to be set free and all debts absolved.

In practice, pilgrims seeking forgiveness had to visit all four of the papal Basilicas in Rome and Vatican City during the Holy Year and walk through the opened holy doors. These doors are only open during a Jubilee Year, but having the slate wiped clean on every single one of your sins? Yeah, that would make the trek to Rome worth it for plenty of the faithful. Eventually, many among the wealthy paid for forgiveness by buying indulgences rather than making a pilgrimage, which is part of what brought about the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century.

For the Great Jubilee of 2000, Pope John Paul II said pilgrims would get a Jubilee indulgence – i.e. their sins would be forgiven – by walking through only one of the holy doors, not all four. For the Holy Year of Mercy, which is an “Extraordinary Jubilee” because it wasn’t planned well in advance (it was only announced in early 2015), Pope Francis is granting indulgences to people who visit the four papal Basilicas or a cathedral where they live; to anyone who “performs just one of the traditional works of mercy;” and also to prisoners, ill, or elderly people who attend Mass or pray wherever they can.

In short, Pope Francis says, “This Jubilee Year excludes no one.”

36 responses to “Jubilee Year 2016: What You Need to Know About the Holy Year of Mercy”

  1. Hi Jessica. I can tell you Roma is already looking cleaner. The city hired 300 more street cleaners and the mayor declared a huge fine for discarding cigarette butts in the street. (People still do it, but I think it is decreased.) Termini is in remodel/fix-up stage until Dec 7, and the new “security gates” are making platform access available only to ticketed passengers.

    I think even the grass roots movement by Alessandro Gassman might be starting to work. . At least I hope so!

    • Jessica says:

      Thanks for these updates, Laurel! I know some parts of Rome were recently spruced up for the filming of the new James Bond movie, which probably gave them a head-start. 😉

  2. tickets for Papal audiences are always for free..!! don’t pay money via Viator or any other website. you have to collect them in person the day before in St.Peters square, or write well in advance. All information here:

    • Jessica says:

      It’s likely that during the Jubilee Year those tickets will be extremely hard to come by, though, so booking a tour or ticket/tour combo at least is another option.

      • I understand convienience is an issue, but the Vatican warns explicitely not to pay for tickets for the papal audiences. tickets are for free. You can always book directly at the vatican through the website I provided.

  3. Bob Donovan says:

    How do my wife and I buy advance tickets that will guarantee a chance to pass thru The Doors at St Peter’s on a particular day?

    • Jessica says:

      Thanks for the question, Bob. To my knowledge, the tickets you can buy for Jubilee Year events aren’t specifically about walking through the Holy Door. Those doors are just open at all times now until the Holy Year ends – and I saw one middle-of-the-day photo from this past week when there was no line, just visitors and pilgrims walking through. I suspect that during the high summer travel season that won’t be the case, but there are often lines to get into St. Peter’s during the summer of a normal non-Jubilee year, too. I hope that helps!

  4. carmen micalle says:

    I would like some literature or videos/powerpoints about the jubilee year of mercy which i can use with 7 yea olds please.

    Many thanks

  5. theodora says:

    we want to join jubilee year, we need invite please

  6. Susanna says:

    just went thru phase one of the registration process to walk thru the holy doors…….lets see what phase two holds. I can’t imagine that you would need a ticket to go thru as an individual. we will see.

    • Jessica says:

      I went through the registration process a few months ago & got a reservation – but it was for a day I couldn’t make it! In the end, there was no real wait to go through the Holy Door when I was there – the only line was to go through the security machines en route to the basilica, which everyone has to go through. No reservations were required.

  7. Mariana says:

    I will be going to Rome on June 30. I see there are papal audiences scheduled for that day. A tour guide told me that St. Peter’s Bascilica is closed that day. Is that true or are tours allowed to go through.

    I am talking about June 30.

    Can you you let me know. It would be appreciated in terms of scheduling my trip.

    • Jessica says:

      Hi, Mariana: Is this the tour guide with whom you’re booking a Vatican tour? I would be surprised if they had the wrong information, in that case. I can’t find anything online about the basilica being closed on the 30th, but the museums look to be closed on the 29th.

      • Mariana says:

        Yes, it is with a tour guide. I couldn’t find anything online about it being closed either. It would just be a shame to miss the bascilica.
        Thanks for your response.

        • Jessica says:

          The basilica is closed in the mornings when the pope has his weekly address in the piazza, but it opens up again in the afternoon. If it is closed on June 30th, it’s unlikely it would be closed all day or for multiple days, so – assuming you’re staying in Rome for more than a day – you’d have time to see the basilica on another day.

  8. Rachael says:

    Hi all, does anyone have any information about current line-up times for the basilica? I’ll be going on 2nd August.

    • Jessica says:

      I don’t know that there’s any way to find out how long the wait will be on a given day; so much depends on who shows up on the day & doesn’t have tickets. If you want to walk through the Holy Door, though, you can reserve a time to do that. Have you tried that? (You get to visit the basilica after you go through the door!)

      • Rachael says:

        Hi Jessica, that’s a very good point.
        I have indeed registered to walk through the door. The webpage says that my request is completa and when I click on the yellow calendario says “Data assegnata al gruppo: 02/08/2016 Mattino (dalle 7:00 alle 13:00)” which is awesome, but am I supposed to receive an email or ticket to print?

        • Jessica says:

          I got an email confirmation with my reservation that, yes, told me to print it. If you don’t get an email, I’d print out the information that you have a date and time assigned.

  9. Gerad says:

    To join year if mercy jubilee is it necessary that we need a group. …can we apply as an individual

    • Jessica says:

      Yes, you can apply as an individual – that’s what I did!

      • Gerad says:

        Thank you Jessica. I just want to know how can I apply for it .I mean registration. Do I need to apply online or from embassy …and what are the expenses of it.
        Its going to be in November do I need to apply first

        • Jessica says:

          There are links to the registration site in the article above, including one at the very beginning. Normally, I’d say that in November you might not need reservations to walk through the Holy Door, but since the Jubilee Year ends on November 20 there may be a last-minute rush. It’s hard to say. And it’s free to register, so there’s no reason not to.

  10. christina marrium says:

    please inform me i am from Pakistan and also participate in this events so please tell me where i get invitation letter and all information.

  11. Haroon Sarfraz Gill says:

    Please send me a link information for register for this event.

    November 13: The holy doors outside St. Peter’s Basilica are closed, as are the holy doors of Rome’s papal Basilicas and cathedrals around the world
    November 20: The holy door in St. Peter’s Basilica is closed

  12. Diane Smith says:

    We have received our vouchers for the afternoon of October 1. It’s a day for “Papal Audience in St Peters Square”. Does that mean we will meet the Pope ? Also are there any liturgies connected with going through the doors? Voucher says our time is from 3:30 to 7:30 pm.

    • Jessica says:

      Thanks for the note, Diane. A “papal audience” doesn’t mean you get to meet the pope, unfortunately. It basically means there’s an address in the square by the pope, and you’ll get to be in the audience. I don’t know the specifics of the voucher you received, of course, but it may entitle you to a specific seat in the audience (which may be close to where the pope-mobile drives through, so you may get to see him up close).

      The only thing I signed up for when I was there was going through the Holy Door, and then I didn’t even need my voucher because there was no line anyway. I have no idea what it’ll be like on October 1st, but anyone can go through the Holy Door – reservations/voucher or no – so I suspect the worst that will happen is that you might need to wait in line.

      I hope that helps! Have a wonderful trip.

    • Rachael says:

      Hi Dianne. A Papal audience usually means the Pope will come out on his balcony and say some prayers to the people sitting in the square. I think you would have to register separately if you want a seat in the audience. However, check the details of that particular audience on the official site.
      Depending on the time of your door ticket, you might walk through the city as he is delivering his sermons and view him!
      However, even though the city will be full, you still have a dedicated pathway to the Door, so it will not be blocked with people trying to see the Pope.
      I hope that helps.

  13. Rachael says:

    Hi all! After reading this post and asking a few Qs, I finally completed my pilgrimage last month. Here are a few bits of info:
    I registered 2 months ahead as an ‘individual group’ (just lay people, not from an organisation) because we would only be in Rome for one specific day.
    I received my confirmation email about a month later. I was worried I wouldn’t receive one (other people said they got theirs a few hours/days later, but maybe they were not registering so far in advance?). I received the date and time I requested- August 2nd, 10am.
    We were four people. The meeting place to start the pilgrimage walk to the Vatican is to the west of the entrance to the Castel Sant’Angelo (put these co-ords into your map: 41.902408, 12.464592). There is a mini marquee and some helpful volunteers all wearing bright yellow, so you can spot them. They will explain where to go and give you a pamphlet with prayers and information about the walk to the Vatican City.
    Keep your pamphlet as this will help you enter the correct area for the holy door once you get to the Vatican City.
    There is a dedicated pathway to walk as a pilgrim along Via della Conciliazione. No cars, no random people, only people on the registered pilgrimage to enter the holy door. When we arrived, there was literally no one else there and we were able to walk the whole way all by ourselves! You have to cross some roads of course, but there are yellow-vest-wearing volunteers to help you on the way and keep you on the path.
    When you arrive inside the City it gets a bit busier, but if you have your pamphlet the volunteers will help you to the right path to go through the door. Having the pamphlet seemed to show them that we were ‘legit’ pilgrims and they let us through quickly.
    There are also some security checks (bag check and scans) as you enter the city limits so be aware that this will take a while.
    Then you are shown how to walk the dedicated path to enter the Holy Door through the Vatican City. Again, just look out for the bright yellow volunteer vests, you will be fine.
    You can then enter the door. Some people stop to pray, you are welcome to touch the door, everyone is welcome to do ‘their thing’ as they need to for their spiritual purposes. We were joined by a school group from USA, some nuns from India and a couple who had literally walked across Europe to get there. It was awesome.
    You can then stay in the Basilica as long as you like. You can attend mass, receive the holy communion, pray, or just view the amazing artwork.
    Although the walk up to the Basilica was very quiet, once we reached the door things got busy (although not badly so, just lots of groups from around the world going through the door etc. Inside was VERY busy and hot, so be aware.
    Be aware there are no bins once you start the pilgrimage, so if you finish your water bottles and want to throw them out (we were told not to bring bags) then you’re out of luck and just have to carry them around your whole visit to the Basilica!
    Although websites said ‘no bags’ loads of people had them, they just went through the xray security. However, people couldn’t take non-see-through water bottles and glass bottles and had them confiscated at security. You could go back and get them later, though.
    Please wear clothes that cover your shoulders and knees, but I had no worries with flipflops.
    ** Oh, and on the pilgrimage there are still jerks who are trying to sell/scalp/force you tickets to the Vatican City or the Basilica. YOU DO NOT NEED TO BUY A TICKET TO ENTER THE CITY LIMITS OR ENTER THE BASILICA. You can buy tickets to enter the Vatican Museums and Sistine Chapel, but the city itself and the Basilica (big church bit) is FREE. The pilgrimage walk is FREE. The Holy Door is FREE. Do not be fooled!

    Sorry about the essay. Any other Qs, I’m happy to help.

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