To officially begin the special Jubilee Year of Mercy in Vermont, Burlington Bishop Christopher J. Coyne called for the Holy Door at St. Joseph Co- Cathedral in Burlington to be opened during a Dec. 13 vesper service, saying, "Open the gates of justice; we shall enter and give thanks to the Lord."
He said he was overjoyed to see the cathedral filled with hundreds of the people of God as they began the Jubilee of Mercy. "It is a sign of our faith and how we want to be bearers of that mercy to others."
The celebration, he said, marked the solemn beginning of the Holy Year in the diocesan Church, "a prelude to the profound experience of grace and reconciliation that awaits us this year."
And as the symbolic yellow and white door in the main aisle of the Old North End church opened, he proclaimed, "This is the Lord's gate: Let us enter through it and obtain mercy and forgiveness."
Carrying the Book of the Gospels, he then lead clergy and laity – some making the sign of the cross before passing through the door – in two columns through the doors to continue the afternoon service for the opening of the "Porta Sancta" (Holy Door) for the Year of Mercy that began on the feast of the Immaculate Conception, Dec. 8, and will end on Nov. 20, 2016.
Walking through the Holy Door – for the first time in her life – was a "monumental experience" for Marie Moore of Ascension Church in Georgia. "It may be the only time in my life," she said. "It's a time to recognize that it's a new beginning."
During the service, Msgr. Peter Routhier, rector of the co-cathedral and of the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Burlington, read from the papal Bull of Indiction of the Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy announcing the Holy Year. He said, in part: "Jesus Christ is the face of the Father's mercy . . . . Whoever sees Jesus sees the Father. Jesus of Nazareth, by His words, His actions and His entire person reveals the mercy of God."
He continued, "We need constantly to contemplate the mystery of mercy. It is a wellspring of joy, serenity and peace. Our salvation depends on it."
During the course of the year, Catholics are invited to make a pilgrimage to the co-cathedral to pass through the Holy Door and ponder God's love and mercy in their lives and how they, too, can be vehicles of that mercy to others.
According to Catholic teaching, walking through special Holy Doors results in a remission from sin – an indulgence – when accompanied by prayer and repentance. The act of walking through the doors symbolizes spiritual renewal and the passage from sin to grace.
Moore is fulfilling the requirements for the indulgence. "It shows I have faith and I am praying for faith and peace around the world," she said.
St. John Paul II said that the Holy Door " . . . evokes the passage from sin to grace which every Christian is called to accomplish. Jesus said, 'I am the door' in order to make it clear that no one can come to the Father except through Him."
Also when the door opens, the obstacles of passage to the Lord are removed.
The doors of the Church "are wide open so that all those who are touched by grace can find the certainty of forgiveness," Pope Francis said. "God never ceases to demonstrate the richness of His mercy over the course of centuries."
God touches people's hearts with His grace, filling them with repentance and a desire to experience His love, he added. "The greater the sin, the greater the love, which the Church must express toward those who convert."
God's mercy is wider than the sea, and "there are no ifs, ands or buts about God's mercy," Bishop Coyne emphasized in his homily at the vesper service. "That is not poetic hyperbole; it's the Gospel truth."
He spoke about those to whom Jesus was merciful, including Zachaeus the tax collector and Mary Magdalene, the woman caught in adultery.
His mercy was not merited, and He showed mercy without conditions. But He sought a response: that those who received mercy, healing and forgiveness would respond in mercy, conversion and faith.
"There is a wideness to God's mercy that is incomprehensible to us because we want to place conditions on mercy" when showing it, Bishop Coyne said.
"We seek it. It is there. If we desire it, we will know it," he said.
The biblical theme of the year is "Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful."
Traditionally, every 25 years the popes proclaim a holy year, which features special celebrations and pilgrimages, strong calls for conversion and repentance and the offer of special opportunities to experience God's grace through the sacraments, especially confession.
Extraordinary holy years, like the Holy Year of Mercy, are less frequent, but offer the same opportunities for spiritual growth.
The Year of Mercy will be devoted to personal conversion, prayer and apostolic works.
Gerry Couture of St. Joseph Co-Cathedral Parish attended the vesper service and said it is comforting to know God's mercy and forgiveness are limitless. "The world needs that message more than ever now with all the violence," he said. "I think it is import to forgive, and it is important for people to know it's important to forgive. Forgiveness is something that is underrated."
The service at the co-cathedral to begin the Holy Year was months in planning and coincided with a Burlington inter-faith service against gun violence with a particular focus on the forgiveness of sin, prayers for the prevention of gun violence and sincere spiritual renewal.