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?