In a ceremony rich with symbolism, Pope Francis pushed open today the massive holy door of St. Peter's basilica, marking the start of an extraordinary jubilee on the theme of mercy for the world's 1.2 billion Catholics.
"This is the door of the Lord. Open to me the gates of justice," the pontiff said.
He talked in front of a crowd of an estimated 50,000 who stood in a rain-soaked St. Peter's Square amid tight security measures.
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"We have to put mercy before judgment," Francis said.
Performing a ritual that been handed down in an unbroken five-century tradition, Francis walked through the ornate bronze door.
"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," the pontiff added.
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In entering the door, Francis was followed by his predecessor, the frail 88-year-old Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI. For the first time in history, two popes participated at a jubilee ceremony.
Launching his "revolution of tenderness," Francis also recalled the 50th anniversary of the end of the Second Vatican Council.
"We remember the opening of another door: the Second Vatican Council, a genuine encounter between the Church and the men and women of our time," the pope said during his homily.
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"An encounter marked by the power of the Spirit, who impelled the Church to emerge from the shoals which for years had kept her self-enclosed so as to set out once again, with enthusiasm, on her missionary journey," he added.
Some 10 million pilgrims are estimated to pass through the door through Nov. 20, 2016, when the holy year will end and the door will be bricked up.
This is the 30th jubilee in the history of the Roman Catholic Church. The first was called by Pope Boniface VIII in 1300, and was inspired by a passage in the Jewish Bible calling for period of renewal every 50 years (Leviticus 25).
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Boniface conceded "the most full, pardon of all their sins" to all those who, being truly penitent, visited the basilicas of St. Peter and St. Paul in Rome, at least once a day for a specified time. In the case of the inhabitants of the city, the visit had to be performed for thirty days, in the case of strangers for fifteen.
According to Boniface VIII, the jubilee was to to occur every 100 years, but in 1343 Pope Clement VI changed the interval to 50 years.
In 1470 Pope Paul II again reduced the interval to 25 years, and so it has remained for "ordinary" jubilees. An "extraordinary" jubilee, as the one launched by Pope Francis, can be proclaimed whenever a pope wishes.
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The last extraordinary jubilee year was held in 1983, during the papacy of Pope John Paul II, to celebrate the 1,950th anniversary of the Year of Redemption – the year Jesus died.
John Paul II also called the last ordinary jubilee in 2000, known as "the Great Jubilee."
Holy doors are opened at each of the four major Roman basilicas - St. Peter's, St. John Lateran, St. Mary Major, and St. Paul Outside the Walls – according to a tradition that was first established by Pope Alexander VI in the year 1500.
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Until the Great Jubilee of 2000, popes knocked upon the holy door three times with a silver hammer. The door, which was previously loosened, was made to open at the third blow.
However the ceremony wasn't free from risk, and indeed cement fragments fell on Pope Paul VI when he opened the holy door in 1974. In 2000, John Paul II broke the hammer tradition and strongly pushed the door open.
During the Jubilee of Mercy, holy doors will also be opened for the first time at basilicas around the world.