Guest post by Dr. Ed Hogan | Director, Paul VI Institute and professor of theology, Kenrick-Glennon Seminary
To get in the right frame of mind, it might be helpful to begin with John Henry Newman’s definition of the “sacramental principle”: the idea that “material phenomena are the signs and instruments of real things unseen.” That will help us raise the right question: what is the Holy Door a sign and instrument of?
Normally, a door would represent Christ. This follows from John 10:9, where Jesus says “I am the gate [the door]. Whoever enters through me will be safe.” But in this case, that can’t be what the door symbolizes. After all, we would never seal shut the door to salvation!
In this case, the door represents the graces associated with the Jubilee Year. More specifically, you might think of the door as symbolizing the plenary indulgence associated with the JubileeYear. Either way the point is this: these graces are not available at every time, in every place, in the same way. These specific graces, like the door, are only open during a Jubilee Year.
It needs to be said that the use of the Holy Door is not an element of the deposit of faith – what it’s necessary to believe for salvation. Still, the use of the Holy Door can be fitting. So we should ask: What would make it fitting?
To see why the use of the Holy Door – both its opening and its sealing – might be fitting, you have to grasp three underlying points: 1) Symbols matter. 2) Time matters. 3) Place matters. Each of these points calls for some explanation.
Symbols matter: “You bought me a box of paper clips … for Valentine’s day?”
Imagine a man buying his wife a box of paper clips for Valentine’s Day. Why not? After all, can’t paper clips be just as much a sign of love as flowers?
Sure. But this brings us to the crucial difference between signs and symbols. A sign is one thing that stands for another. In that way, a box of paper clips could be just as much a sign of love as flowers.
But a symbol is one thing that stands for another and has a natural relationship with the thing it represents. The beauty (and fragrance) of flowers has a natural relationship with the beauty of the beloved and the beauty of love. So flowers are a better symbol of love than paper clips.
Consider the director who was retiring after 30 years of conducting the chorus at his school. When he came to the last song of his last concert he called up the director who would replace him and introduced her to the audience. She returned to her seat, and he began to conduct his final song. Halfway through the song the new director came and stood beside him, and they directed the choir together. Then three-quarters of the way through, as they were directing together, he handed her his conductor’s baton and took his seat. It was a beautiful symbolic move.
So, in this case, the symbol is a door. Do you have to pass through that door to obtain the graces of the jubilee year or the plenary indulgence? No. Neither does a man have to give a woman a diamond engagement ring when he proposes marriage. Does that mean it doesn’t matter whether he does so or not? Hardly. The ring isn’t strictly necessary, but it’s still a fitting symbol. Likewise: the door isn’t strictly necessary, but it’s a fitting symbol.
Time Matters: “That ship has sailed.”
Most of us have used the phrase “that ship has sailed” at one time or another. It means that time matters – we don’t always get to have a “do over.” There are special moments and seasons in our lives, and we can seize those moments or miss them. The same is true of the graces of the Jubilee Year.
Think about what Jesus said to his apostles in Matthew 13:17 – “Amen, I say to you, many prophets and righteous people longed to see what you see but did not see it, and to hear what you hear but did not hear it.” God has a plan, and that plan unfolds in time.
In salvation history, as with everyday life, every time is not like every other time. As a result, we need to be ready to seize the moment that’s given to us. It’s true of a day, of a week, of a year, and of salvation history. The same point is true of the Jubilee Year – and the Jewish people seemed to anticipate this in their own celebration of the Jubilee every 50 years (See Leviticus 25). You have to observe the times and seasons as prompted by the Spirit. If you miss them, you might find the door of grace sealed. The opening and sealing of the Holy Door teaches that lesson in a very concrete way.
Place Matters: “Et verbum caro factum est – hic.” (Church of the Annunciation)
In the Church of the Annunciation there’s an inscription carved into the floor. It says: “Et verbum caro factum est hic”: and the Word was made flesh – Here. It’s part of our belief in the Incarnation: this happened at a particular time and in a particular place.
I was talking once to a Buddhist while some of my friends were visiting Assisi. I told him I wasn’t sure I believed in “holy places.” He looked me dead in the eye and said “Why? Buddhists believe cities have karma.”
I knew he was a wise and attentive man, so his comment made me think twice. Now, I don’t believe cities have karma. But upon further reflection, I realized that place does matter. People go to the Holy Land because Jesus actually walked there. People visit the beaches of Normandy or the battle fields of Gettysburg because there’s something special about the place. People visit the Nazi concentration camps of World War II because there’s something different about being there. Some places are holy; some places are interesting; some places are horrible. But in every case, place matters.
It’s the same with the Holy Door: place is not irrelevant. These graces are available at this time, in this place – and not otherwise. On one level, that’s a symbolic truth. On another level, as with the Incarnation, it’s literally true – you don’t have to pass through these doors, but you do have to visit one of these pilgrimage sites to receive the graces of the Jubilee Year.
So, why the sealing and opening of the Holy Door? Because material phenomena – in this case, the Holy Doors of different pilgrimage sites – are the signs and instruments of real things unseen – the graces of the Jubilee Year, in particular the grace of the plenary indulgence of the Jubilee Year. During a Jubilee year those graces and those doors are open. Apart from a Jubilee those graces and those doors are sealed shut.
For more information about pilgrimage sites around the Archdiocese of St. Louis, and more information about the Year of Mercy, visit:
For more information on the history of the Holy Door, and the Rite for sealing it, read this:
If it’s helpful by way of contrast, you can also read about the opening of the Holy Door here: