The door-opening ritual will be repeated at thousands of cathedrals and parish churches around the globe that night and during Christmas Day.
In Philadelphia, for instance, Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua will step outside the Cathedral Basilica of SS. Peter and Paul just before midnight to bless and unlock a set of wooden jubilee doors installed earlier this month. He will then reenter with his retinue, inviting parishioners to follow him and "throw open their hearts to Christ."
The ceremony reflects the multiple levels of Jubilee 2000. For the last several years, through a combination of pomp, soul-searching and intensive outreach, the church has been promoting "spiritual renewal" by the faithful - and trying to woo fallen-away Catholics back into sacramental life.
The Catholic Church is not the only Christian group with a Y2K program of spiritual stock-taking. But none of the others is as lengthy and multifaceted.
The "Holy Year 2000" - which will close on Jan. 6, 2001, the feast of the Epiphany - builds on years of jubilee activities worldwide. The Pope has been the driving force, and Vatican insiders say he is determined to preside to the end, despite his age and infirmity, so he can shepherd the church's billion members into the next millennium.
The jubilee focus is drawn from the biblical ideal, in Leviticus 25, of having regular sabbatical years when land lies fallow, captives are freed, debts are forgiven, and worship is renewed. The Catholic Church has observed periodic jubilee years for 700 years, and has a permanent holy door in St. Peter's, but the pontiff has declared that the door "should be symbolically wider" this year because of the millennial threshold.
In a 1994 apostolic letter, John Paul exhorted Catholics to prepare for 2000 through a three-year interior pilgrimage. He designated the first year, 1997, to reflections on Jesus, the second to the Holy Spirit, the third to "God the Father."
But he also encouraged local dioceses to develop their own jubilee celebrations. Philadelphia has been a particular hothouse of activities since it began its program, "Faith and Life 2000," back in 1991.
Msgr. Charles V. Devlin, the archdiocese's vicar for renewal and evangelization, said the scope of the holy year makes it "probably the number-one observance worldwide in the Catholic Church" and the largest for Philadelphia since an international eucharistic congress here in 1976.
Here is a local and global overview of Jubilee 2000:
Affairs of state. One of the Pope's longstanding efforts has been an official "examination of conscience" about the church's persecution of Jews and others over the centuries. By expressing contrition and seeking reconciliation, he aims at a "purification of memory" for the jubilee.
On nearly 100 occasions, John Paul has acknowledged wrongdoings committed by the institutional church in episodes ranging from the Crusades to the shunning of Galileo to passivity about the slave trade. A papal statement is being prepared for Ash Wednesday, March 8, that will ask forgiveness from Jews and other victims of the Inquisition and the Crusades.
The Y2K "request for pardon" has come under some criticism because the Vatican's approach is that the church cannot sin though its members can.
To heal historical breaches, the pontiff is pursuing dialogue with other Christians as well. The Holy See's accord in October with the Lutheran World Federation was a breakthrough, and John Paul has attempted talks with various Orthodox prelates, though progress there is uncertain.
The American bishops have identified interreligious outreach as a jubilee goal in this country, and the archdiocese's ecumenical prayer service on New Year's Eve is an expression of that.
As part of the jubilee imperative of social justice, John Paul also has thrown the church's weight behind the grassroots campaign (also called Jubilee 2000) to relieve the debt of developing nations. In that vein, the U.S. bishops have called on lay Catholics to sign a "jubilee pledge" to commit themselves to work for peace and justice.
Spiritual renewal. The Pope and his lieutenants emphasize that their millennium program is not done with an eye toward the apocalypse or Jesus' second coming. Catholic "amillennial" teaching, they say, is that the end of time is a historical process that has already begun.
Instead, John Paul is exhorting Catholics to prepare for the coming millennium through conversion of the heart and acts of faith. Nowhere is the jubilee program more vaunted and intricate than in this realm of the spiritual life.
The pontiff has initiated discussion about the nature of God, to dispel the image of a remote judge in favor of a divine comforter. He has tried to inspire "a true longing for holiness" and called on the faithful to "live like saints" in their prayer lives and in their everyday activities.
He has emphasized "self-forgiveness" and encouraged sacramental penance, the rite known as confession, to promote spiritual healing and assure the disaffected. The U.S. bishops have furthered this through a jubilee program of post-abortion reconciliation called "Neither Do I Condemn You."
Cardinal Bevilacqua's staged program has focused on the sacraments, and 1999's theme has been the rite of reconciliation. A Millennium Cross of Reconciliation was displayed in parishes across the archdiocese. The church launched an innovative phone hotline (1-877-BLESSME) and a tandem Web site (www.blessme.org) that have received thousands of anonymous queries to date. A massive Reconciliation Weekend of confessions was held in March.
Philadelphia's jubilee year calendar for 2000 will be "profoundly Eucharistic." Major events planned include daily expositions of the Blessed Sacrament, a three-day Eucharistic convocation in early April, observance of the 40 Hours devotion in all archdiocesan churches in October, and a Eucharistic procession on the Parkway a week later.
The Trenton Diocese will have 24 Eucharistic celebrations on various jubilee themes in 2000, as well as a central jubilee year event at the new Sovereign Bank Arena in June, on the feast of Pentecost.
Another major jubilee theme is evangelization. The Pope has challenged Catholics to adopt "a new evangelization and a new springtime for the Gospel," which usually has meant outreach to nonpracticing Catholics.
Parishes in the Camden Diocese have added missions weekends and "Come Home" and "Landings" programs for the lapsed, for instance, while Philadelphia is offering radio "Millennium Messages" and "Disciples on the Internet."
Pilgrimages. John Paul has invoked the traditional holy year practices of pilgrimages and indulgences. The indulgence is an age-old ritual that lifts the temporal punishment due for sins that have been forgiven in confession. The ritual functions "totally in the spiritual dimension," without benefit of clergy, as Msgr. Devlin said the archdiocese has explained in a lay guide to indulgences and other jubilee practices.
A classic way to receive an indulgence is by making a pilgrimage - and Rome is the destination of choice for the holy year. Up to 25 million pilgrims are expected to flood into Rome on group tours and for the 29 "Jubilee Days" planned for children, scientists, union members, athletes and the like.
Church and Italian officials are making elaborate plans to house and transport the pilgrims. Romans are being encouraged to open their doors to visitors, and nearly 60,000 volunteers are being recruited as guides and helpers.
The plan was for the pontiff to offer daily blessings in St. Peter's Square throughout the holy year, but officials have waived that guarantee because of his fitful health.
The Camden Diocese has scheduled its jubilee pilgrimage from March 27 to April 4, led by Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio. Philadelphia's also was to be in March, but that has been postponed to May or June.
The Pope also asked local bishops to designate pilgrimage sites in each diocese. These are shrines and cathedrals to which people can make spiritual pilgrimages and receive indulgences. Philadelphia has named six sites, the Trenton Diocese four, and the far-flung Camden Diocese 13.
In addition, John Paul decreed, people may receive indulgences by visiting shut-ins, prisoners or others "in need or difficulty" or by personal sacrifices such as fasting, donating to the poor, or abstaining "for at least one whole day from unnecessary consumption" such as smoking or alcohol.
"This is a new dimension," Msgr. Devlin said. "One can make a pilgrimage to Christ through another person, and gain an indulgence through that visit. This comes from Matthew's Gospel, that 'I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink,' and so on."
Indulgences highlight the link between the sinner's penitence and God's forgiveness, the Pope has said.
Daily updates on jubilee activities are posted on the Vatican's Y2K Web site, www.Jubil2000.org For more on archdiocesan events, check www.archdiocese-phl.org