Pope Francis formally opened the door to his Holy Year of Mercy when he pushed open the bronze doors of St. Peter’s Basilica Tuesday.
Once the basilica’s Holy Door was open, Francis crossed the threshold, taking the first steps of what will be a yearlong pilgrimage of the faithful.
Some 10 million people are expected to pass through the Holy Door over the next year in a rite symbolizing crossing the threshold to salvation.
Francis was followed by his predecessor, Emeritus Pope Benedict XVI. The octogenarian appeared thin and frail, using a cane and a helping hand from his longtime assistant to step over the threshold.
Once the two popes had taken their steps of mercy, the first pilgrims were welcomed to walk through the doorway.
The yearlong pilgrimage emphasizes the themes that have been central to Francis’ papacy. Francis has worked to change the image of the Roman Catholic Church to merciful and welcoming rather than its reputation for moralizing and casting judgement.
"How much wrong we do to God and his grace when we speak of sins being punished by his judgment before we speak of their being forgiven by his mercy," Francis told about 50,000 people during the mass held to kick off the Holy Year of Mercy. "We have to put mercy before judgment, and in any event God's judgment will always be in the light of his mercy."
Before the mass, Maria Sila, a pilgrim from Buenos Aires told the Associated Press, "We have to absorb the message that God always forgives us, which is the message that the pope gives to us."
"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," Francis said in the homily during the mass before the opening ceremony for the pilgrimage, reports The New York Times. "This will be a year in which we grow ever more convinced of God’s mercy."
Francis’ Holy Year of Mercy is in line with historical pilgrimages. Generally celebrated on intervals of 25 or 50 years, Holy Years have encouraged faithful Catholics to make pilgrimages to Rome for a tradition of forgiveness. However, this yearlong celebration of mercy does not sit on the same interval, with the last Holy Year celebrated in 2000 to usher in the new millennium.
Francis is the first pope to include local cathedrals and other places of worship in such a jubilee. He encouraged cathedrals across the globe to open their Holy Doors to pilgrims, so the faithful can take part in the pilgrimage within their own countries.
Although Tuesday’s ceremony formally launched the Holy Year of Mercy in the Vatican, Francis had technically already kicked off the yearlong event. While visiting the capital of the Central African Republic last week, the pope opened another Holy Door, the door to the Bangui cathedral.
In an effort to give the Christians in the region spiritual support and demonstrate his message of mercy’s universal significance, Francis called Bangui, the capital of the Central African Republic, "the spiritual capital of the world," reports the Times.
This report contains material from the Associated Press.