Fr. Ed Dougherty, M.M.
Pope Francis made history this summer when he became the first pope in 728 years to open the Holy Door of L’Aquila at the Basilica of Santa Maria di Collemaggio in central Italy. In his August 28 homily delivered at the Mass that he offered before opening the Holy Door, Francis said, “For centuries L’Aquila has kept alive the gift that Pope Celestine V left it. It is the privilege of reminding everyone that with mercy, and only with it, the life of every man and woman can be lived with joy.”
In his trip to L’Aquila, Pope Francis was following in the footsteps of Pope Celestine V, who, in 1294, began the tradition that has come to be known as Celestinian Forgiveness, when he issued a bull of forgiveness offering a plenary indulgence for all who visit the Basilica of Santa Maria di Collemaggio between Vespers on August 28 and sunset on August 29.
Celestine served as pope for only five months before his resignation on December 13, 1294, but the tradition he began in L’Aquila has carried on ever since. After his death in 1296, his remains were buried in the Basilica of Santa Maria di Collemaggio. The indulgence he established was rare in a time when obtaining indulgences often required monetary gifts. The Celestinian Forgiveness was open to all people because it did not cost anything except penance, a visit to the basilica, and reception of the Eucharist.
It’s no wonder this tradition has been so widely embraced through the centuries, and it seems fitting that Pope Francis should highlight this wonderful celebration of mercy because it perfectly demonstrates the nature of God’s forgiveness, which is offered to all people regardless of rank or status. The only thing required of us is to open ourselves to that forgiveness with humble hearts and the rest simply follows. Once we accept God’s mercy as the guiding force in our lives, we are led to the joy of Christ in all we do. In his homily, Pope Francis said, “To be forgiven is to experience here and now what comes closest to the resurrection. Forgiveness is passing from death to life, from the experience of anguish and guilt to that of freedom and joy.”
Touring L’Aquila, where over 300 people lost their lives in a 2019 earthquake, Francis applauded the resilience of those affected by the tragedy and called upon the city to be a “capital of forgiveness, peace, and reconciliation.”
L’Aquila is an ancient city surrounded by medieval walls built upon a hill in the Abruzzo region of Italy. It is a beautiful place that is home to a university and many cultural institutions, and its annual celebration surrounding the Celestinian Forgiveness makes it a perfect focal point to remind the world of the abundance of God’s mercy.
The story of L’Aquila is an amazing intersection of geography, community, forgiveness, and faith. It’s a story that shows how the places we inhabit can become sanctified and marked by celebrations and gatherings that heal the mind, heart, and soul. Anyone privileged to be in proximity to visit L’Aquila towards the end of August in any given year should consider taking part in their wonderful celebration of forgiveness. But let’s also remember that our Catholic tradition teaches us to cultivate such pious devotions wherever we are in the world so that the mercy of God can be known and touch the lives of all people, most especially the lost and the broken-hearted.
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