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Celebrating Jubilees

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While celebrating a priest’s golden anniversary of ordination one time, I was asked to say a few words of congratulations, something I was eager to do. I knew the priest well and had seen how effective his priestly ministry had been for many years. Dutifully, I went to the microphone and offered my words of appreciation to the “jubilarian.” Afterward, he came over to thank me for my testimony and then added a comment that took me by surprise. “You know,” he said with a twinkle in his eye, “there is no such word in English as jubilarian.” I was startled. Surely, I had heard the word used many times in different contexts. A jubilarian was someone who celebrated a major jubilee. However, knowing that this priest was very learned and widely read, I later went back to my dictionary. Lo and behold, I could not find the word jubilarian.

Nonetheless, I found some related and relevant information — namely, the words jubilee, jubilant, Jubilate and jubilation. Meanwhile, the Latin verb jubilare means to “raise a shout of joy.” We might say, jubilant people celebrate a jubilee in jubilation. It is an occasion for rejoicing. The noun Jubilate is more precise; it refers to the famous and beloved Psalm 100 in the King James Version of the Bible, whose first words proclaim, “Make a joyful noise unto the Lord, / all ye lands.”

This information serves as the starting point for my task in this article, which is to reflect on the nature of priestly jubilees of ordination and to give some guidance for their importance and the proper means to celebrate them. To begin, it is essential to revisit the biblical foundations of the very notion of jubilee, something perhaps once learned in seminary but now receded to the dusty bins of our minds.

Biblical Foundations

The notion of jubilee goes back millennia and is described most thoroughly in the Book of Leviticus (cf. 25:8-17, 23-55; 27:16-25). The biblical word jubilee itself derives from the Hebrew yobēl, a ram’s horn, the musical instrument used to announce the start of major celebrations. We have to keep in mind that the Jews were enamored of the symbolic value of numbers, some of which were considered to hold special mystical properties. The concept of the jubilee revolves around the mystical number seven, which was thought to embody the number of perfection or wholeness. Leviticus thus announces: “You shall count seven weeks of years — seven times seven years — such that the seven weeks of years amount to forty-nine years. Then, on the tenth day of the seventh month let the ram’s horn resound; on this, the Day of Atonement, the ram’s horn blast shall resound throughout your land. You shall treat this fiftieth year as sacred. You shall proclaim liberty in the land for all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee for you” (Lv 25:8-10).

This numerology leads to an important cycle that the 50th year that follows every 49 years would be an extraordinary jubilee year, a year for special happenings to take place. As the numerology indicates, it is based on the notion of the sabbath, the seventh day, when even God rested from work (cf. Gn 2:3).

The text goes on to explain that the jubilee year would affect both people and the land. The jubilee was to proclaim a year of liberty to those held in bondage and to allow the fields a fallow year to rejuvenate their capacity to bear fruit. The whole notion of the jubilee was, in effect, to permit a “reboot” of ordinary life in order that both nature and people could start once more on an equilibrium, restoring what likely had grown out of balance during the regular cycle of life. It is intended as a year of new beginnings, a chance to set the clock back, as it were, and begin again.

Now there arises a practical problem in this description, which is also alluded to in Numbers 36:4. Did ancient Israel really observe this practice of the jubilee year? Scholars are divided on the question. There is some evidence to support the notion that, at least in some fashion, the regulations of the jubilee were observed to permit the land to recover from overcultivation. It is also possible that slaves or bondservants were allowed their freedom after a cycle of seven years, as this would allow them to be restored to their families. But to what degree the jubilee literally took place on a regular cycle is uncertain. This does not diminish its symbolic value.

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Consecrated and Sent to Proclaim the Good News

“The priest is first of all a minister of the word of God. He is consecrated and sent forth to proclaim the good news of the kingdom to all, calling every person to the obedience of faith and leading believers to an ever-increasing knowledge of and communion in the mystery of God, as revealed and communicated to us in Christ. For this reason, the priest himself ought first of all to develop a great personal familiarity with the word of God. Knowledge of its linguistic or exegetical aspects, though certainly necessary, is not enough. He needs to approach the word with a docile and prayerful heart so that it may deeply penetrate his thoughts and feelings and bring about a new outlook in him ‘the mind of Christ’ (1 Cor 2:16) — such that his words and his choices and attitudes may become ever more a reflection, a proclamation and a witness to the Gospel. Only if he ‘abides’ in the word will the priest become a perfect disciple of the Lord. … The priest ought to be the first ‘believer’ in the word, while being fully aware that the words of his ministry are not ‘his,’ but those of the One who sent him. He is not the master of the word, but its servant. He is not the sole possessor of the word; in its regard he is in debt to the People of God. Precisely because he can and does evangelize, the priest — like every other member of the Church — ought to grow in awareness that he himself is continually in need of being evangelized. He proclaims the word in his capacity as ‘minister,’ as a sharer in the prophetic authority of Christ and the Church.” — Pope St. John Paul II, Pastores Dabo Vobis, No. 26

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The ideal of the jubilee is clearly evidenced in the Bible. The Book of Isaiah famously announces a jubilee with the words Jesus himself quotes in the synagogue at Nazareth:

“The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, / because the LORD has anointed me; / He has sent me to bring good news to the afflicted, / to bind up the brokenhearted, / To proclaim liberty to the captives, / release to the prisoners, / To announce a year of favor …” (Is 61:1-2; cf. Lk 4:18-19).

Whatever else can be said about the practice of jubilees in ancient Israel, it seems evident from the Gospels that Jesus adopted an attitude that clearly envisioned a ministry of placing the ideal into practice. His entire mission as recounted in the New Testament shows a man of God with utter conviction that God’s mercy and good news should be proclaimed to all the world, especially to those most in need.

Jesus’ whole ministry can be seen as a jubilee in the biblical sense. He sought to give people hope that their lives were not restricted eternally to the dreary circumstances of their day-to-day existence. He came for sinners, not the righteous, and he came to free those oppressed in any fashion, not to those in power (cf. Mt 9:12).

If the biblical foundations of the jubilee give us important background, the theological underpinnings are equally essential.

Theological Foundations

The first theological insight is to recall that Israel’s entire religion was built upon a covenant relationship with their God, Yahweh, who had called them into existence and given them a communal identity as a chosen people, a royal race, a priestly people peculiarly the Lord’s own (cf. Ex 19:6; Dt 7:6-8; also 1 Pt 2:9).

Holy Door
A woman touches the Holy Door in St. Peter’s Basilica after Pope Francis opened it to mark the inauguration of the Jubilee Year of Mercy at the Vatican in this Dec. 8, 2015, file photo. Pope Francis has approved the theme “Pilgrims of Hope” to be the motto for the Holy Year 2025. CNS photo/Max Rossi, Reuters

This generous act of love evokes God’s first gracious act of creation itself, when out of the chaos of the universe God chose to create all that is, put it in order, and to make the human being male and female, in God’s own image. Such a stance is a statement that our very existence is not due to ourselves, nor is it for the purpose of promoting ourselves, but to give due honor to the creator, whose humble creation we always remain. To celebrate the ideal of the jubilee, then, is to rediscover ourselves as creatures of the one creator in whose image we reflect the depth of love that should be shared with the human community.

Celebrating the jubilee is a way of acknowledging our limitations. It is an admission that all that we supposedly “own” — including possessions, relationships and even our bodies — are not really ours to control but rather the means to live out a covenantal relationship to which we are called and into which we have been privileged.

The second insight, a corollary to the first, is that a jubilee celebration is an opportunity first and foremost to thank God for the multiple gifts received from God’s hands. It is an act of thanksgiving. It is a chance to step aside from the ordinary routine of daily life, to reflect back on the promises God has made and has kept, and to rejoice in the fact that we have been recipients of God’s largesse.

For Israel, the jubilee year was a joyful acknowledgment that God had blessed them abundantly as a people, even amidst the trials and tribulations they had experienced along the way. Yes, they had been enslaved, but God had freed them in the Exodus. Yes, they had been unfaithful time and again to the covenant, yet God had forgiven them and offered them new opportunities for service. In the end, the only proper response to God’s gracious forgiveness and mercy is thankfulness and praise — an attitude characteristic of the joy of the jubilee.

Priestly Jubilees

Applying the biblical and theological foundations above to the contemporary practice of priestly jubilees, I see a number of useful observations. Let us recall, however, how these jubilees usually unfold. Many dioceses around the world make a point every year of celebrating priestly ordination anniversaries to honor their presbyters for their dedicated service to the people of God. While these anniversaries are often celebrated in increments of five or 10 years — thus five, 10, 20, 30 and so on — usually only the most honorific anniversaries are celebrated with pomp and circumstance.

JubileesThus there is a natural focus on the 25th (silver) anniversary or the 50th (golden) anniversary, and in some rarer instances even a 60th or 75th (both diamond) anniversary of ordination.

The use of valuable metallic or gemstone images for major jubilees expresses the value that we see in them. In fact, “honor” in Hebrew means “weight” and thus represents value. Silver and gold are precious metals that retain their value, and the diamond is the hardest substance on earth, symbolizing strength and endurance. Much as with marriages, such markers are recalled with joy because they mark a significant passage of time in ministry, amounting to a quarter, or a half, or even three-quarters of a century.

Since the majority of presbyters serve in parishes, it is only natural that often such jubilees are celebrated in that context. This gives parishioners a chance to celebrate their pastor/vicar and an occasion to rejoice festively in the priestly ministry they have witnessed. Many priests I know are somewhat embarrassed by such celebrations.

They recognize, and not with false humility, that they are often unworthy of the adulation that is cast in their direction. They view their years of ministry as simply the accomplishment of their vocation and the successful passage of years. Yet parishioners need a venue to express their heartfelt feelings to the presbyters who have touched their lives in significant ways, especially in crucial moments of heartache and death, of sickness and pain, but also in joyful celebrations of the Eucharist, baptisms, first Communions, marriages and reconciliation.

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A Sense of Sacramentality and Community

“A Catholic sense of sacramentality and community would also encourage public celebrations of senior priests. This acknowledgment in a context of grateful prayer enables them to give witness to the community at large. Other gatherings of priests and laity ought to make special provision for ‘the elders among them,’ so that their wisdom and grace can be acknowledged and more generously shared.” — “The Basic Plan for the Ongoing Formation of Priests” (USCCB, 2001, Page 89)

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More importantly, in tune with the biblical and theological foundations of the jubilee that we recounted above, priestly jubilees are a way for both the minister and the community to give proper honor and glory to God for the gift of the presbyterate to the Church. Such celebrations make our thanksgiving explicit. They also help us recall that all that we have received is indeed a divine gift.

If we receive people’s adulation as a result of faithful priestly service for an important milestone like a silver or golden jubilee, it is in part only a proper acknowledgment that God has allowed us to perform this sacred duty by grace. It provides a way for the community to focus once more on the nature of our shared baptismal call, for it is God alone who has bestowed on us the identity of a priestly people and charged certain in our midst for service as ministerial priests.

Jubilee Customs

As with the biblical practices of old, there are certain customs that are usually observed for priestly jubilees. Practices vary from diocese to diocese, but often the celebration of the annual Chrism Mass affords the opportunity for the bishop to honor his brother priests marking major anniversaries of ordination in the midst of the entire diocesan presbyterate. This is most appropriate because all priests are part of a presbyterate whose ministry is conducted under the authority of, and in cooperation with, the bishop.

Pope Francis
Pope Francis prays before a statue of Our Lady of Loreto at the Sanctuary of the Holy House on the feast of the Annunciation in Loreto, Italy, March 25, 2019. CNS photo/Vatican Media via Reuters

It also provides a chance for different generations of priests to witness with their confreres the joy of ministry. Senior priests, in particular, can provide helpful inspiration and encouragement to younger colleagues, while the presence of younger presbyters can assure the entire group of a continuity in ministry going forward. There are, of course, sometimes sharp differences of opinion or even ministerial style in presbyterates. Yet, ideally, despite age differences and diverse ecclesiologies, jubilees can provide a time to promote unity in priestly ministry.

It can also be a time to reflect in more depth once more on the theology of priesthood and its rootedness in the service of the Good Shepherd himself (cf. Mk 10:45; Jn 10:14).

On the local level, ordination anniversaries tend to be scattered throughout the year. Traditionally, many priests were ordained in late spring, perhaps May or June, usually on the occasion of major feasts, such as the Visitation or the feast of Sts. Peter and Paul. Many other dates are possible, too. I myself was ordained on May 14, the feast of St. Matthias.

Different months may mark ordination ceremonies, as I am aware that numerous priests were ordained in December, prior to Christmas, and near the end of their seminary formation period. Whatever the date, organizing local celebrations in parishes to commemorate ordination jubilees is an appropriate way to draw attention to the significant occasion.

The important point, I believe, is to remember that the goal is to bring people together to honor the gift of the priesthood to the Church, incarnated in the ministry of individual priests who have reached major milestones. Such occasions can move bidirectionally at the same time. One direction affords priests marking major jubilees to recall the trajectory of their diverse ministries. It looks backward, hopefully with joyful memories, but perhaps also with mixed emotions about opportunities lost or experiences that caused pain.

But such ceremonies can also be forward-looking in the sense that they show younger men or boys that a vocation as a priest is a worthwhile endeavor, a sacred calling that might even be theirs one day. Many dioceses use such jubilees as part of a vocation effort, perhaps joined not only with priestly vocational pitches but also vocational efforts to other ministries, such as the religious life or the diaconate. Such broader celebrations should not be viewed as a lessening of the value of the priesthood, but a broadening of our appreciation of vocational call, which takes multiple forms. Celebrating jubilees together is the proper acknowledgment that ministry, in whatever shape it takes, gives honor and glory to God from whom the call comes.

Longevity and Service

jubilee
People pray during the worldwide jubilee gathering marking the 50th anniversary of the Catholic charismatic renewal at the Circus Maximus in Rome June 2, 2017. CNS photo/Paul Haring

Pope Francis has made it a point in several of his teachings to emphasize the important and often neglected role of elders in modern life. His most innovative teaching was making the fourth Sunday of July, in proximity to the feast of Sts. Joachim and Anne (July 26), the parents of the Virgin Mary, a worldwide celebration of grandparents and the elderly. It is an attempt to respond to modern society’s tendency to cast the elderly aside, to pass over them without much notice. Of importance is to note that simple longevity is not what jubilees should be about.

As we age, of course, most of us decline in physical health and are likely not as “sharp” as we used to be. But jubilees are not simply a celebration of long life, but more so of the quality with which that life has been put to good use. So, I encourage all of us to enter into the joyful spirit of jubilee, to reconnect with the biblical and theological roots of this tradition that connects the past and future by means of the present.

SULPICIAN FATHER RONALD D. WITHERUP is superior general of the Society of Saint Sulpice and author of many books on Scripture and theology, including “Gold Tested in Fire: A New Pentecost for the Catholic Priesthood” (Liturgical, 2012) and “Scripture and Tradition in the Letters of Paul” (Paulist, 2021).

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Church Jubilee 2025

Preparations for the 2025 Jubilee, which is a special year of grace and pilgrimage in the Church, are underway. In January, Archbishop Rino Fisichella met with Pope Francis and revealed the motto: “Pilgrims of Hope.”

The 2025 Jubilee will include the opening of the Holy Door in St. Peter’s Basilica. The door is only opened during jubilee years, celebrated every 25 years or when the pope calls for an extraordinary jubilee. The four major basilicas in Rome have holy doors.

“To pass through the Holy Door means to rediscover the infinite mercy of the Father who welcomes everyone and goes out personally to encounter each of them. It is he who seeks us! It is he who comes to encounter us,” Pope Francis said as he opened the jubilee Holy Door on St. Peter’s Basilica on Dec. 8, 2015.

“In passing through the Holy Door, then, may we feel that we ourselves are part of this mystery of love, of tenderness. Let us set aside all fear and dread, for these do not befit men and women who are loved. Instead, let us experience the joy of encountering that grace which transforms all things,” he said.

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