All you need to know about the Door of Mercy in the Sanctuary of Lourdes
The Holy Door
The beginning of the Jubilee Year is always solemnly marked by the opening of a Holy Door by the Pope in St. Peter's Basilica in the Vatican. However, for this Jubilee of Mercy Pope Francis also wanted a Door of Mercy in each diocese so that everyone throughout the world may be able to celebrate the Jubilee. In Lourdes, this door is at Saint Michael’s gate entrance to the Sanctuary.
The tradition of a holy door during a jubilee dates back to the fifteenth century: according to the description given in 1450 by a certain Giovanni Rucellai of Viterbo, it was Pope Martin V who in 1423, at the Basilica of Saint John Lateran, opened the Holy Door for the first time in the history of the Jubilee. His successors, especially Pope Alexander VI in 1499, maintained this tradition and extended it to the four major Basilicas, namely, in addition to Saint John Lateran, the Basilica of Saint Peter in the Vatican, Saint Mary Major and Saint Paul Outside the Walls.
Before the jubilee of 2000, it was customary for the Sovereign Pontiff to open the Holy Door of Saint Peter's Basilica, and then delegate this power to a Cardinal for opening doors in the other three Basilicas. Pope John Paul II broke with that tradition by performing the opening and closing of each of these doors himself. Saint Peter's Basilica is still the first to be opened and the last to be closed
In 1975, the ritual of closing and opening of the Holy Door was changed to better highlight the symbol of the door. In a way, until 1975, the rite emphasized the wall that prevented access, in normal times, to the Holy Door. The opening ceremony consisted of the demolition of the wall, which further emphasized the exceptional side of the Jubilee. Thus, the symbolism attached to the rite used masonry tools: a hammer to knock the wall, a trowel for building, bricks bearing inscriptions and marks of the pontificate, holy water to bless the stones and bricks, coins bearing the effigy of the Pope to allow us to date the construction of the wall of the Holy Door. The door itself consisted of two simple unadorned planks of wood.
At Christmas 1975 modifications were made to the rite of closing of the Holy Door. The Pope no longer used the trowel and bricks to begin the rebuilding of the wall, but simply closed the two sides of the bronze door. Even though the wall which enclosed the door was later rebuilt inside the Basilica, the symbolism was changed by drawing attention to the Door and away from the wall.
A door in everyday life has several functions, all repeated by the symbol of the Holy Door:
- it marks the separation between inside and outside, between sin and the order of grace (Mi 7:18-19);
- it permits entry to a new place, in showing mercy and not condemnation (Mt 9:13);
- it provides protection, it provides salvation (Jn 10:7).
Jesus said: “I am the gate” (Jn 10:7). There is only one way that opens wide the entrance into the life of communion with God: this is Jesus, the one and absolute way to salvation. To him alone can the words of the Psalmist be applied in full truth: “This is the Lord’s own gate: where the just may enter” (Ps 117:20).
The Holy Door reminds the faithful of their responsibility when crossing the threshold:
- It is a decision which implies the freedom to choose, and at the same time the courage to abandon something, to leave something behind (cf. Mt 13, 44-46)
- Passing through this door means professing that Jesus Christ is Lord, in strengthening our faith in Him to embrace the new life He has given us. This is what Pope John Paul II had announced to the world on the day of his election: “Open wide the doors to Christ”.
The Mystery of the Cross
At the beginning of the Bible, Adam and Eve are banished, through their own fault, from the Garden of Eden, and the Lord God “posted the cherubs, and the flame of a flashing sword, to guard the way” (Gn 3:24). On the other hand, at the end of the last book of the Bible, He says that from now on in the heavenly Jerusalem “the ban will be lifted. It will never be night again”. Between these two moments of human history and the biblical account, between the closing of the gates of the earthly paradise and the permanent opening of the gates of the heavenly Jerusalem, there is Jesus Christ who comes to bring Redemption to mankind (Dives in Misericordia, §7).
Indeed, “God loved the world so much that he gave his only Son” (Jn 3:16). Therefore, far from condemning man, God unceasingly comes to him. He had said, as we can read in the book of Genesis, that “it was good” (Gn 1:18-25). God does not renege on his word: despite the sin of man, he sends his Son to “the sons of Adam to restore the divine likeness which had been disfigured from the first sin onward” (Gaudium et Spes 22:2), so that mankind may rediscover his goodness.
It is on the Cross, as Saint John Paul II says in his first encyclical Redemptor Hominis, §9, that:
The God of creation is revealed as the God of redemption, as the God who is "faithful to himself"(1 Th 5: 24), and faithful to his love for man and the world, which he revealed on the day of creation. His is a love that does not draw back before anything that justice requires in him. Therefore "for our sake (God) made him (the Son) to be sin who knew no sin"(2 Cor 5: 21; cf Gal 3: 13). If he "made to be sin" him who was without any sin whatever, it was to reveal the love that is always greater than the whole of creation, the love that is he himself, since "God is love"(1 Jn 4: 8,16). Above all, love is greater than sin, than weakness, than the "futility of creation” (Rm 8: 20), it is stronger than death; it is a love always ready to raise up and forgive, always ready to go to meet the prodigal son (Lk 15: 11-32), always looking for "the revealing of the sons of God", who are called to the glory that is to be revealed"(Rm 8:18-19). This revelation of love is also described as mercy (Summa Theol. III, q. 46, a. 1, ad 3); and in man's history this revelation of love and mercy has taken a form and a name: that of Jesus Christ.
It is therefore by his love and resurrection that Jesus raises man from sin. He then “fully reveals man to man himself and makes his supreme calling clear” (Gaudium et Spes 22:1). Indeed, by his death, Jesus not only brings justice to bear upon sin but “also restores to love that creative power in man, thanks also to which he once more has access to the fullness of life and holiness that come from God. In this way, redemption involves the revelation of mercy in its fullness” (Dives in Misericordia, §7).
In this plan of salvation Mary occupies an eminent place: “But when the appointed time came, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born a subject of the Law, to redeem the subjects of the Law and to enable us to be adopted as sons” (Ga 4:4-5). If this divine plan is then fully revealed and accomplished by the death and resurrection of Christ (cf. Col 1:12-14; Rm 3:24; Gal 3:13; 2 Co 5:18-29), then it reserves the place and consecrates the unique role of Mary (Lumen Gentium, 63).
At the Annunciation, she is hailed as “full of grace” by the angel (Lk 1:28), she is chosen by God, that is to say, she participates in the eternal will of God to save mankind by participating in his own life (2 P 1:4). Naturally this is beyond her human nature, and Mary asks herself “How can this come about?” (Lk 1:34). She accepts, however, the grace that is bestowed upon her, she consents to receive the Mercy of God (Lk 1:38). Also, some time later, during the Visitation, on the threshold of her cousin Elizabeth’s house, Mary proclaims the wonders of God and declares: “His mercy reaches from age to age”.
Mary is the one who, in a special and exceptional way - more than any other - has experienced the mercy of God, and at the same time is associated with the revelation of God's mercy. (Redemptor hominis, §9)
Not only is Mary the one “who believed that the promise made her by the Lord would be fulfilled” (Lk 1:45), but she is also the one who says to us of Jesus “Do whatever He tells you” (Jn 2:5).
It is at the foot of the Cross then that the work of Mercy is accomplished, the eminent role of Mary is clearly seen. The account of John the Evangelist is particularly concise: “Near the cross of Jesus stood his mother and his mother's sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary of Magdala. Seeing his mother and the disciple he loved standing near her, Jesus said to his mother, ‘Woman, this is your son.’ Then to the disciple he said, ‘this is your mother.’ And from that moment the disciple made a place for her in his home”. (Jn 19:25-27) She, who was the Mother of our Saviour, was given to us by Him as our own mother at the hour of His death. The words that Jesus spoke from the Cross therefore mean that the motherhood of the Mother of God continues for us (Redemptoris Mater, §9): on the Cross, Christ gives us Mary as Mother of Mercy.
On 11 February 1858, Bernadette goes to Massabielle, beside the Gave, to collect dead wood. She sees a lady dressed in white. Her first reflex is to make a gesture. She wants to make the Sign of the Cross: “I wanted to make the Sign of the Cross”. The strange thing is that she could not do it: “I could not lift my hand to my forehead. It just fell back”. Bernadette continues: “The lady took the rosary beads which she held in her hands and made the Sign of the Cross. I then tried a second time and I could. As soon as I made the Sign of the Cross, the great agitation that came over me disappeared”.
Thus the first thing that Mary reveals to Bernadette is how to make the Sign of the Cross, to enter into Mercy, and Bernadette confirms this: by this sign the fear leaves her.
When she was a Religious Sister, Bernadette was questioned by one of her fellow Sisters: “What must one do to be sure to go to Heaven?” Bernadette immediately replied: “Make the Sign of the Cross well, that’s already quite a lot”. A few moments before her death, Bernadette summons her last strength and accomplishes a final Sign of the Cross. Shortly afterwards she passes away.
In this way, during the days of the apparitions of the Blessed Virgin, it is by the Sign of the Cross that Bernadette enters into the “other world” present on this earth. And, on her last day, it is again by the Sign of the Cross that she enters God’s heaven, into eternity. The Cross is thus the Gate which opens us to Life.
In fact, it is significant that, during the first apparition to Bernadette, Mary begins the encounter with the sign of the Cross. More than a simple sign, it is an initiation into the mysteries of the faith that Bernadette receives from Mary.
The sign of the Cross is a kind of synthesis of our faith, for it tells how much God loves us; it tells us that there is a love in this world that is stronger than death, stronger than our weaknesses and sins.
The power of love is stronger than the evil which threatens us.
It is this mystery of the universality of God’s love for men that Mary came to reveal here, in Lourdes. She invites all people of good will, all those who suffer in heart or body, to raise their eyes towards the Cross of Jesus, so as to discover there the source of life, the source of salvation.
The Church has received the mission of showing all people this loving face of God, manifested in Jesus Christ. Are we able to understand that in the Crucified One of Golgotha, our dignity as children of God, tarnished by sin, is restored to us?
Let us turn our gaze towards Christ. It is he who will make us free to love as he loves us, and to build a reconciled world. For on this Cross, Jesus took upon himself the weight of all the sufferings and injustices of our humanity.
He bore the humiliation and the discrimination, the torture suffered in many parts of the world by so many of our brothers and sisters for love of Christ. We entrust all this to Mary, mother of Jesus and our mother, present at the foot of the Cross.
Extract from his homily of Sunday 14 September 2008