The four ordinary Jubilees of the 20th century from Leo XIII to Paul VI
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The Four Ordinary Jubilees of the 20th Century from Leo XIII to Paul VI

Tiziano Scalzotto

In continuity with the tradition of the Catholic Church, going back to 1300, there have been four classic Jubilees in the 20th century falling in the scheduled years: the Jubilee of 1900, called by Pope Leo XIII; the Jubilee of 1925, called by Pope Pius XI; the Jubilee of 1950, called by Pope Pius XII; and finally, the Jubilee of 1975, called by Pope Paul VI.

His Holiness Leo XIII announced the Holy Year of 1900, which opened the new 20th century, with the Papal Bull "Properante ad exitum saeculum".

It is also important to note for the sake of historical accuracy that in the pontificate of his predecessor, the Servant of God Pius IX, the Jubilees of 1850 and 1875 were not celebrated, because of the turbulent political situation during those years in Italy. For this reason, the announcement of the Holy Year in 1900 caused great rejoicing and put a series of initiatives in place aimed at reawakening Christian sensibility, not only in Italy but in the whole Catholic world.

It also had a significant effect on the Italian political world, even on the Royal House. As the Florentine writer Piero Bargellini notes in one of his precious publications, following the release of the Bull, King Umberto hailed the great Jubilee with these significant declarations in a Discourse of the Crown held September 15, 1899, before the renewed Italian Parliament:

"The next turning of a year -- 1900 -- which designates an epoch in the Catholic world, will be for us an occasion to demonstrate once again how we are able to make the commitments we have taken on respected when, completing our unity, we have affirmed the capital of the Kingdom in Rome".

The senators and the deputies, gathered in plenary assembly, as Bargellini revealed, applauded the King's words, not so much out of religious sentiment, but rather because the Jubilee offered the opportunity to show the world the Italian Government's tolerance.

There was an attempt to hold an anticlerical congress in 1900, but liberal Rome would not permit public demonstrations in its regard.

But an event demonstrating little sensibility did occur: when the citizen's authority took the Cross of St. Laurence of Porto Maurizio out of the Colosseum.

The incident did not in any case disturb the solemn proceedings and development of the Jubilee, called by a Pope renowned for his wisdom, culture and age.

In this regard, a rather well documented History of the Popes recently came out, owed to the fervid and incisive pen of Fr. P. Battista Mondin, of the Congregation of Missionaries Saveriani, and which has enjoyed a wide and authoritative consensus in lay and ecclesial fields. In the exposition of the biographies, the figures of Pope Leo XIII and, even before of Pope Pius IX, are illumined in an unparalleled manner and with a wealth of historical references regarding that period.

In particular, the author defines Leo XIII with great conviction as a great Pope who had a rather tormented pontificate, like his venerable precursor in that the Roman question still continued to weigh heavily on him.

His pontificate had to confront not a few cultural and social difficulties.

In particular, it was disturbed by the advance of an exasperated anti-clericalism, both in Italy and in Europe, but at the same time marked by encouraging progress in the religious field. Clear signs of this were the rise, among other things, of various missionary institutes which gave a fresh expansion of the Gospel in the world, revealing a prophetic and praiseworthy sensibility on the part of Italian Catholics.

Among these, the Institutes of the "Consolata," the "Saveriani," and the "Comboniani," deserved to be remembered.

In this period the seeds of a renewed Christian culture grew with an important initiative being the return to an appreciation and study of St. Thomas Aquinas in the ecclesiastical institutes for the formation of clergy and religious; let alone a decisive commitment to resolve the complex social question.

To this end, Pope Leo XIII offered ideas and methods for giving rise to a liberalism and at the same time models of sensible socialism to meet the need for fundamental rights and obligations of humanity, in his 1891 encyclical Rerum Novarum

Furthermore in his pontificate Catholic Action took its first steps and the movement, Christian Democracy, laid its foundations in that totally lay political climate, affording a platform of action to Catholics who saw an urgent need for presence in political life. These are truly salient steps, carried out in the evolution of thought and of action of Catholics under that pontificate. I would like here to remember, incidently, Pope Leo XIII's great merit and intuition in personally choosing the then Bishop of Mantua, Giuseppe Sarto, as Patriarch of Venice, who became known later, when he sat on the chair of St. Peter, by the name of Pope Pius X. Homage was paid to Pope Leo XIII in that period by the poet Giovanni Pascoli, who was admired for the richness of his poems in international competitions of Latin language. In fact, the poet dedicated, on the occasion of the opening of the "porta Santa," an affectionate poem, not lacking in spiritual delicacy, homage to a figure, frail in person and in health, but with a lucid and penetrating gaze, of the illustrious pontiff.

In his cited Bull, promulgated in May of 1899, the Pope identifies his greatest preoccupation: that the holy year constitute a providential reawakening of the Christian people's faith, expressing also the hope that it would be the final vestige of his long pontificate.

Furthermore -- with a delicate reference to his adolescence lived in the pontificate of Leo XII -- he remembers the impression that he had of the numerous pilgrims descending on the city and the exhortations made at that time by illustrious orators in various parts of the city -- especially at the four patriarchal basilicas: St. Peter, St. Mary Major, St. John Lateran and St. Paul Outside the Walls -- let alone the edifying commitments of piety and charity offered by the Roman families. The Pope then makes an appeal both to the pilgrims pouring into the city from every part of the world and indeed to all Christians spread throughout the universe, so that, in the course of the Jubilee year, they might render explicit homage to the person, figure and mission of Jesus Christ, Savior of the world, whom he proclaims as "salus vita et resurrectio nostra."

In the document, there are reflections and exhortation principally aimed at bringing about a greater interest for the Divine Redeemer, to whom should be rendered a sincere and solemn worship out of a commitment on the part of all: priests, religious and lay people.

This august document for the beginning of a Jubilee year can be ideally linked -- in the coherent continuity of the Church's mission to evangelize -- to the message of the current pontiff, John Paul II, who in his apostolic letter Tertio Millennio Adveniente, has made a solemn invitation to the whole Church to prepare for the Jubilee of the year 2000 by coming to better know the Divine Redeemer, our Lord Jesus Christ.

On the Holy Door, which Pope Leo XII opened and closed at the end of the Jubilee of 1825, the last celebrated in the 19th century, Pope Leo XIII had the following text written at the end of the Jubilee year 1900:


This text remained in the memory of those who would visit the Basilica of St. Peter until the holy year 1925 called by Pope Pius XI.