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.
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.
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.
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:
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.)
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:
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).
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.
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!
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:”
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.
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.
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.
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.”