Holy Doors of Mercy

I wonder what experiences people are having with the opened Holy Doors during this extraordinary Jubilee Year?  The website of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops describes these doors as “one of the central components of the Jubilee of Mercy.” Every diocese can designate and open such a holy door, with the expectation that the faithful will walk through these doors as in pilgrimage, as a sign of the desire to walk more closely with God, and in order to experience and then themselves become signs of God’s mercy.

In case you are curious whether you are close to a Holy Door: The Vatican provides an interactive Google map that shows all the Holy Doors around the world, at least all those that have been registered with the Vatican.  And in case you are home-bound or otherwise unable to travel, there is also a virtual pilgrimage available, created by Australian Catholics, that will take you to and through the Holy Door of Mercy at Holy Cross, Kincumber.

Not counting the virtual pilgrimage, I have now walked through four Holy Doors, on two continents, and was struck by the diversity of how these doors are marked — or not.  To me, the depth of attention to how these doors function visually, that is, as signs or symbols, corresponds closely to the depth of experience one has in walking through them.

Here are my experiences:

Example 1:  the Holy Door at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, which I visited on a late Saturday afternoon. I had to ask an usher to help me find the door designated as the Holy Door; it ended up being the left side door into the Cathedral. A small, unadorned label identified the door as the Holy Door — and that was it. People hurried in and out, without taking notice. There certainly was no sense of people walking through this door deliberately, attentive to the symbolic nature of this entrance and the kind of experience and commitments it supposedly signified.

Example 2:  the Holy Door of the Cathedral in Mainz, Germany.  I visited on a normal week-day, while an open farmers’ market was taking place outside the cathedral.  Inside, a beautiful Romanesque portal, leading into the side-chapel that houses the Blessed Sacrament, had been designated as the Holy Door.  The door was richly decorated with flowers, and bathed in ambient light.  To the left was a stand that provided a prayer leaflet, offering resources specifically for walking through these doors (biblical texts, prayers, questions for meditation), and a leaflet with information about the specific history of this medieval door and its iconography (it was built into the city walls and allowed late-night travelers searching for shelter to enter the city even after the official city gates were closed; the door was moved into the Cathedral only in the 19th century). While I was in the Cathedral, not a single person hurried through these doors — they did not lead anywhere, after all, but into the early-twelfth-century Chapel that now houses the Blessed Sacrament. People walked through the doors slowly, and into an ancient, silent space of prayer. It was not hard to experience oneself on pilgrimage here, in search of shelter and mercy as people had done for centuries when they passed through this door.

Example 3: the Holy Door at the Cathedral of Hartford, CT. I visited on a Sunday morning in conjunction with Mass. The left door into the sanctuary itself had been designated as the Holy Door. It was richly adorned, with flowers and lights. Interestingly, one was instructed to walk through  the door in one direction only, namely to enter the sanctuary. Exiting the Cathedral through the holy door was actively discouraged, through a sign on the other side. Information was provided on what constituted a full pilgrimage path through these Holy Doors (to which is attached a plenary indulgence), inter alia: prayer, an act of faith made in the sanctuary, reception of communion, and confession. Whether one did all of these on the same day, or only walked through the doors, it was clear that no one would walk through this door during the Jubilee year just to hurry into the Cathedral.

Example 4:  the Holy Door at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels in L.A.  I visited the Cathedral over several week-days, but not on a Sunday.  A massive entrance door, the one with the contemporary statue of Our Lady of the Angels, had been designated as the Holy Door. People, including tourists, walked in and out throughout the day. Interestingly, a much smaller (metal?) silhouette or frame of a door had been placed on the walkway up to the cathedral door. It was crowned with the word “Mercy.”  In fact, when I had first come to the Cathedral and asked the usher where the designated door of mercy was, he had gestured to that small metal frame, not the massive Cathedral door itself. Initially puzzled, I later thought this doubling held promise for pilgrims: it gave people who intentionally wanted to walk through the Holy Door an option to choose to walk through the metal frame, when the designated Cathedral door simply was the access door for (almost) everybody coming and going.

There would have been a fifth example in my list of Holy Doors walked through, namely the one at St. Peter’s in Rome (I had a ticket already and had begun to stand in line), but the length of the line all the way down the whole square (just for the Holy Door!) together with some additional complications in my life that day made this pilgrim and her weary feet decide to seek mercy elsewhere.

So much for my experiences. I wonder what your experiences have been? And what can we glean about the power of signs and symbols from all this?


  1. Dallas – token reply via the cathedral. Think that other parishes can also do Holy Doors – to my knowledge, none in Dallas nor have they been encouraged.
    Our adult education committee cited this and encouraged our pastor to think about doing this – no response at all.

  2. I haven’t done it yet.

    I am waiting for the cleaning work on the exterior of the Cathedral of the Holy Cross in Boston to be finished (which should be shortly). The first time it has been properly cleaned since it was dedicated (St Pat’s in NYC was cleaned in 1979 before the most recently completed cleaning – I have fond memories from 1979 of the (not very visibly dirty) water spraying out from the gargoyles). There are no Bostonians alive who would remember a lovely golden and rosy puddingstone exterior with pale quoining stones. And the cathedral now has a set of five operating (steel) bells (from old Holy Trinity Church which is now being turned into hideous condominiums; formerly from Civil War contraband in New Orleans….)


  3. To designate a “holy door” in a place that does not normally designate one is an odd request in the first place. Like many liturgical symbols, this symbolic action does not seem to have any connection or referent in modern society.

    Walking through a door that is commonly traversed requires such a reorientation of expectations and intention that the effort outweighs the benefit. A pilgrimage is a intended to have some degree of difficulty or challenge associated with it. Hopping in the car and driving to the archdiocesan cathedral seems, for most Americans at least, a relatively easy journey. I’m sure more edifying practices could have been encouraged.

    Good liturgy is not good floral or lighting design.

    If you have to explain a symbol, it isn’t a symbol.

  4. While with a group in the Holy Land this February, we encountered three Holy Doors: Church of the Annunciation (Nazareth) St. Catherine’s next to the Church of the Nativity (Bethlehem) and the Church of All Nations (Gethsemane).
    The Holy Door in Gethsemane WAS the main door. In Bethlehem it was a side door into the church which did not appear to be marked. In Nazareth, it was a marked plain door on the side of the Church, right next to a pair of beautiful doors with Biblical scenes that looked like a proper Holy Door. (So much so that when they were open about 10 minutes later, I went back and walked through them, ‘just in case’).

    So while I like the concept of making it widely available (and our parish will be having a pilgrimage day to 3 of our 4 diocesan holy doors in September), even in the Holy Land, it gets confusing!

  5. We’ve had regular groups of pilgrims come to the Cathedral of Phoenix to walk through the Holy Doors. Ours are marked with ‘leafy greens’ as are suggested, though being in the desert these are of the artificial variety (I know, I know…), but were the nicest artificial ones we could find. Being that we are not in a touristy part of town, the only people regularly walking through these doors are people coming to walk through the doors. There is an explanation of the requirements for the indulgence in English and Spanish on each side of the door in nice picture frames. The doors and indulgence is regularly mentioned in homilies, especially when a celebrant/homilist can tell there are many visitors.

    There is another set of holy doors at a shrine in the north part of the diocese – I haven’t been yet, but hope to go before the end of the year.

    1. @Matthew J. Meloche:
      Thank you for describing these doors. You seem to have taken great care with them. And if it is any comfort, the beautiful door at the Cathedral of Mainz also donned garlands of *artifical* flowers (although they seemed so real that I had to touch them in order to know).
      Your comment has raised two additional questions for me, namely:
      1. I wonder how many dioceses are posting images of their Holy Doo/s on the diocesan website (that only makes sense of course if the door/s are highghted somehow, in the offline real).
      2. I wonder what kinds of inculturation to the local realities are taking place? What, instead of flowers or leafy greens, would be appropriate to a desert context???

  6. There was some discussion about the Holy Door for our diocese: it is 120 miles away by sea from Jersey so not easy to get to. For my housebound father this is impossible. I hope to go in Lourdes later and note that this door is not marked on the Vatican map.
    Still, if you live in the Falklands the only way to get to a Holy Door would be to fly to England, many thousand miles each way. So I can’t complain.

  7. “If you have to explain a symbol, it isn’t a symbol.”

    On the contrary, some symbols require an act on our part if they’re to be realized. Certainly the symbolic act of entering through a door–in our consciousness, for example; in our prayer life, or in our loving response to others around us whom we may have walled off–requires the acceptance of grace which is also an act on our part. In Christian life a symbol is itself always a door that more often than not we fail to open.

    Sorry, I know that all of this is a given, and obvious. But to my mind symbols ARE symbols because of their richness, and invite exploration. Symbols are our best way into true mystery. To claim that they must be obvious at first glance, and so banal, is to miss the point.

  8. After going to Mass in the Notre Dame of Paris cathedral, I wanted to walk through the doors of Mercy and, not seeing them, asked where they were located. The person we asked said he didn’t know and directed us to the sacristy; the priest who was there said he would call the sacristan; the sacristan came by and explained to us that the Cathedral was a place to experience God’s mercy, so every door into the Cathedral was a door of Mercy, and so we had already walked through them without knowing it, he said.

  9. In recent travels since December 8 (Texas, St Louis, Florida, California, England, Wales, and most recently Sicily) I have encountered a great variety of holy doors: some adorned with vegetation or fabric swags, some completely bare; some with signs, some without, some main doors, some side doors; most with a single door, some with a multiplicity of doors in the same building, some open, some firmly shut! I’ve also encountered a lot of churches with the Year of Mercy logo displayed on a banner hanging down the front of a pillar or on a large poster, which is encouraging.

    I’ve also encountered more than a few people (including some nuns) who had never heard of the Year of Mercy at all.

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