The Church in Jubilee

16 Sep 1996 | LITURGY


We greet you all as we prepare together to celebrate the Jubilee Year 2000 AD. The purpose of this letter is to explain the special nature of this event to all interested, particularly Pastoral Councils, Priests, Religious Communities, Diocesan and National Agencies and to identify the themes proper to the celebration of the Jubilee. Our letter draws substantially from Pope John Paul II's Apostolic Letter Tertio Millennio Adveniente 10 November 1995 (hereafter, TMA), but with our own country in mind. We are asking Catholic Communications to use this letter as the basis of simpler communiques to be issued from time to time over the next 3 years.

We would appreciate your assistance in helping people rediscover the wonder of the Incarnation, and what it implies for all our relationships with one another. Rather than burden you with extra work and new programmes, we request that you incorporate into your ordinary programmes and activities the themes appropriate to this great celebration.


From the outset of his Pontificate, Pope John Paul II has been consistent in calling us to celebrate the year 2000 as a Jubilee, and to regard the remainder of this millennium as a kind of "advent" during which to prepare for it.
Since the publication of the very first document of my Pontificate, I have spoken explicitly of the Great Jubilee, suggesting that the time leading up to it be lived as "a new Advent"...... In fact, preparing for the year 2000 has become as it were a hermeneutical key of my Pontificate..... (TMA, n.23).

Naturally, the Pope has focused on the specifically Christian nature of this event. It is not just a calendar event: it commemorates God's union with creation and the unfolding of God's purposes in human history. However inclusive of others our celebration must be - for God reaches out to include all - the event we celebrate is a Christian feast.

The Incarnation

The Jubilee commemorates the historic event of Christ's birth, which Christians believe was the coming among us of the second person of the Holy Trinity. This was already implicit in the Christian Scriptures:

- the Gospel of St Luke describes the circumstances of his birth (2:1-7) and portrays it as the result of a special divine intervention (1:26-38);

- the Gospel of St John proclaims that the Eternal Word who was "with God before the world was made..... became flesh and dwelt among us, and we saw his glory, the glory that is his as the only Son of the Father, full of grace and truth", (John 1: 2, 14);

- St Paul sees his coming as marking "the fullness of time" (Gal. 4:4) - the time for fulfilling "the purpose God had in mind from the beginning" (cf Eph. 1:9-11). His birth ushers in the final era of history:

"At various times in the past and in various ways, God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets; but in our own time, the last days, he has spoken to us through his Son, the Son that he has appointed to inherit everything and through whom he made everything there is. He is the radiant light of God's glory and perfect copy of his nature, sustaining the universe by his powerful command......" (Heb. 1:1-3).

- The Christian faith proclaims that history has a direction and purpose, that it is not a mere recurring cycle, nor will it run on indefinitely; it will culminate when "he comes again" (cf Apostles Creed).

- In the meantime, Christians keep alive the memory of his life, death, resurrection and ascension into Heaven, and in every celebration of the Eucharist we "look forward to his coming again" (cf Eucharistic Prayers).

The coming of God among us in this way is the source of profound reassurance in the midst of life's anxieties, and the basis of a hope that is always greater than every possible setback.

"For I am certain of this: neither death nor life, no angel, no prince, nothing that exists, nothing still to come, not any power, or height or depth, nor any created thing, can ever come *between us and the love of God made visible in Christ Jesus our Lord." (Rom. 8:38, 39)

In the Christian celebration of Christmas each year, the main theme is wonder: wonder at the fact that God chose to be united to creation in a bond that commits God to us forever, involves God in our history, and ensures human history of a glorious outcome. And all this is totally gift, grace, undeserved mercy.

The whole of creation shares in this destiny (Rom. 8:18-25). Because the knowledge of this plan has been revealed to us, we are called to lives of thanksgiving and praise, and to make known to others God's wonderful plan.

Sabbatical and Jubilee Years

Jesus himself pointed to his coming as the fulfilment of ancient prophecies:

The spirit of the Lord has been given to me,
for he has anointed me.
He has sent me to bring the good news to the poor,
to proclaim liberty to captives
and to the blind new sight,
to set the down-trodden free,
and to proclaim the Lord's year of favour.
(Luke 4:18,19)

The celebration among Jesus' forebears of the sabbatical year (every seventh year) and the jubilee year (every 50 years) also pointed to that future which would be good news for the poor, the broken hearted, and all who needed to be set free. They celebrated these years by allowing the earth to lie fallow, by setting slaves free, cancelling debts, and allowing people to return to their land if they had lost it. These grand gestures symbolised the "redeeming" of people - pointing to a future time of perfect "redemption", the fullness of peace, mercy and justice. Their faith involved the idea of restoring right relationships with one another based on acknowledging that the earth ultimately belongs to God alone, and that God has given it for the benefit of all.

Special Themes

The themes proper to our celebration of the jubilee flow from what we learn in the Scriptures concerning the Incarnation and the spirit of jubilee. These are therefore:

- A time to re-live the wonder, joy, praise and thanksgiving that comes from knowing God shares our journey through history and has a marvellous destiny in store for us (cf TMA, n. 32);

- A sense of the uniqueness of our Christian faith: "here it is not simply a case of our seeking God but of God who comes in person to us" (cf TMA, n.6). God is present to all people drawing them towards their salvation. The Incarnation represents a new mode of God's presence, a kind of full immersion. Christians are uniquely placed to witness to the length and breadth of God's mercy and the sheer wonder of God's grace;

- A time for new initiatives in evangelisation; an opportunity to tell the good news to people who have lost all sense of the wonderful things God has done for them;

- A time to review the witness we Christians have given during past centuries, to repent of our poor witness, apologise for "counter-witness and scandal" (TMA 33-35) and, as it were, to start again.

Addressing the special committee he had set up to prepare for the Jubilee Year, Pope John Paul quoted Pope Paul VI as follows:

The Church is an evangeliser, but she begins by being evangelised herself. She is the community of believers, the community of hope lived and communicated, the community of love; and she needs to listen unceasingly to what she must believe, to her reasons for hoping, and to the new commandment of love. She is the people of God immersed in the world and often tempted by idols, and she always needs to hear the proclamation of the "mighty works of God" which converted her to the Lord; she always needs to be called together afresh by him and reunited. In brief, this means she has a constant need of being evangelised herself if she wishes to retain freshness, vigour and strength in order to proclaim the gospel" (Evangelii Nuntiandi n.15)

- A time for the Church to re-identify with its origins as the community of Jesus' disciples. Pope John Paul II recalls "the Marcan tradition which stresses the deep link that unites the apostles to Christ and to one another: before being sent out to preach and to heal they were called in 'to be with him'" (I shall give you Shepherds, n.60). Roles in the community - apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, teachers, (Eph. 4:11) - are given to those who are first of all disciples. To make discipleship people's primary experience of the Church will need imagination and courage. It is a call to greater faithfulness. It could also be the 'firm purpose of amendment' that needs to accompany our repentance for the sins which have distorted people's experience of the Church (cf TMA 33-35).

- A time to see the Second Vatican Council as "a providential event whereby the Church began its more immediate preparation for this jubilee" (cf TMA, n.18); The Pope calls us to a "renewed application of the Second Vatican Council" (TMA, n.20), - that "new Pentecost" which Pope John XXIII had in mind when he called for the Council;

- A time for the Church to renew its "preferential option for the poor and the outcast" (TMA n.15) in deeds of justice and mercy. The Church needs new ways of convincing the world that business deals and economic planning are not automatically right just because they bring greater advantage to some regardless of their consequences for others. The Incarnation is about our standing together - together in the need of God's mercy, together in receiving it, and therefore together in having some responsibility for one another; (cf below, Social Justice).

- A time for all Christians to renew their commitment to restoring unity among the followers of Christ (TMA, nn 16, 34), and to do this in the spirit of Pope John Paul's ground-breaking invitation to other Churches and to theologians to help him find a way of re-shaping the ministry of the Pope according to the mind of Christ:

"I insistently pray to the Holy Spirit to shine his light upon us, enlightening all the pastors and theologians of our churches, that we may seek - together of course, - the forms in which this ministry may accomplish a service of love recognised by all concerned. This is an immense task which we cannot refuse and which I cannot carry out by myself. Could the real but imperfect communion existing between us persuade Church leaders and their theologians to engage with me in a patient and fraternal dialogue on this subject?" (Ut Unum Sint, nn 95-96)

- A time to take inculturation seriously, consistent with the Incarnation itself.

"When the Church puts down her roots in a variety of cultural, social and human terrains, she takes on different expressions and appearances in each part of the world" (Pope Paul VI, Evangelii Nuntiandi n.62).

Holy Trinity

...the Incarnation contains the revelation of the mystery of the Trinity...(TMA n.1)

It is because the Son was "sent" by the Father that we know Father and Son are distinct; and because the Holy Spirit was "sent" by the Father and the Son we know the Holy Spirit is distinct from both. These distinctions within God are much more than just different roles God carries out in the world, e.g. as Creator, Redeemer, Sanctifier, etc. The celebration of the Incarnation invites us to celebrate what the Incarnation reveals - the Holy Trinity.

The Pope invites us during 1997 to focus on the second person of the Trinity. It is through our union with Christ that we become our true selves; without him we can never be what we were called into existence to be. He personally is our "justification", our "peace and reconciliation"; he is the "new creation" and we are part of it only through union with him. This is a time for us to catch a new glimpse of the bigness of the plan God is carrying out in Christ - cf Eph. 1:1-10.

During 1998, we are called to "a renewed appreciation of the presence and activity of the Spirit" (TMA, n.45). Our celebration "is certainly not a matter of indulging in a new millenarianism, but rather it is aimed at an increased sensitivity to all the Spirit is saying to the Church and to the Churches (cf Rev. 2:7 ff), as well as to individuals through charisms meant for the service of the whole community...." (TMA, n.23)

"What was accomplished by the power of the Holy Spirit 'in the fullness of time' can only re-emerge in the memory of the Church through the power of the same Holy Spirit" (cf TMA, n.44).

During 1999, we turn to God the Father - the one who, as it were, stands behind the whole marvellous plan of creation and redemption; the one from whom Jesus came to us and to whom we can now go with confidence; the one revealed by Jesus especially in the parable of the "prodigal".

In tandem with this focus on the Trinity, the Pope proposes:

for 1997: stronger faith; he identifies "the strengthening of faith and the witness of Christians" as "the primary objective of the jubilee" (TMA, n.42).

for 1998: renewed hope based on the Holy Spirit just as truly active and present today as at the beginning of the Church, and evident in events in our world and in the Church (cf TMA, n.46).

for 1999: deeper love and the building of a "civilisation of love" (TMA, n.52).

Social Justice

Pope John Paul II's linking of jubilee with the social teaching of the Church (TMA, n.13) reminds us that the Church has a special part to play in creating a more just and humane world. At the very time when there is increasing resistance within wealthy nations to assisting poorer ones the Pope makes a daring suggestion: Christians will have to raise their voice on behalf of all the poor of the world, proposing the jubilee as an appropriate time to give thought, among other things, to reducing substantially, if not cancelling outright, the international debt which seriously threatens the future of many nations. (TMA, n.51)

Resistance to the idea of greater efforts to put poorer nations on a better footing is often plausibly explained and excused. But it is ultimately based on the assumption that we have no responsibility for other people. The same kind of thinking is operative within nations, including ours, when it is assumed that "market policy" is sufficient justification for lay-offs and all the consequences of unemployment while the resulting greater "efficiency" enables higher executive salaries and returns to shareholders. In both cases - national and international - the underlying assumption is that we are not responsible for other people, only for ourselves.

This stands in direct contradiction to the biblical teaching that we are indeed our brothers' and sisters' "keepers" (cf Genesis 4:9-16). What others may have "deserved" (whether through "their own fault", or through hard work, talent, better opportunity.....) can never be the ultimate criterion of our responsibility towards them. We were all undeserving; and none of us deserved the Incarnation. We witness to this truth when we go beyond the limits of just deserts and strict rights and dare to do the deeds of grace and mercy: walking the extra mile, turning the other cheek, giving without measure.......

In any case, the resources of the earth ultimately belong to God alone and God intends them for the benefit of us all.

Many of us have slipped into a diminished sense of these primary truths. The jubilee is a time for us to turn back - to repent, to change, and to create the political will necessary to make things different. The Pope himself has linked his own Lenten messages for the next four years with the jubilee:

1997: - "come blessed ... for I was homeless and you gave me home".

1998: - "come blessed ... for I was poor, marginalised and you welcomed me".

1999: - "come blessed ... to the banquet I have prepared for you".

2000: - "fear not ... I will be with you to the end of time".

We are asking all parishes to fulfil the Pope's request that Lenten catechesis and campaigns be based on these themes, and to use material prepared by our own agency, Caritas Aotearoa NZ. The journey towards Easter is the journey of a community called to penance, fasting and alms-giving. In today's context this involves education for justice and action for justice, which therefore have a rightful place in the season of Lent.


We will not be able, nor even desire, to make a difference "out there" if we ourselves are not personally moved by what God has done. Starting from wonder we move to praise and thanksgiving, to telling others the good news, and action in support of the dignity and rights of all.

To give new impetus to this process, we ask all parishes to arrange for people to gather in each other's homes for prayer. The support and witness of shared prayer, and reflection on the Scriptures (TMA, n.40), need to be the heart and soul of all our preparations for the jubilee. This also gives us the way of preparing together with other Christian people. Nothing short of prayer together will break through the apathy, fear and sterility that presently hinder the gospel.


Given Mary's part in the Incarnation, and her place among the earliest disciples, it is only natural that during this celebration of the Incarnation, we shall want to acknowledge her place in the work of our salvation.

By proclaiming her as theotokos (Mother of God), the Church proclaims that the one born to her was indeed God! Yet, truly human - "born of woman" (Gal. 4:4), needing to be held, fed, and brought up like any child. From the beginning he complicated her relationship with Joseph; as a young teenager he thoughtlessly went missing for 3 days; he got offside with his relations, and with the authorities, and incurred the death penalty imposed by the state. She was still with him at the end. She knew what it was like to be a mother, and what it was like to live by faith.

By remembering her words at the Annunciation, the Church presents her as one, like us, needing to ask questions during her journey of faith. By recalling her visit to Elizabeth, and her advice at Cana: "Do whatever he tells you", the Church names what it means to be disciples. By echoing her Magnificat in its daily Evening Prayer, the Church joins with her in proclaiming the wonderful things God has been doing.

In all these ways, the Church puts true Marian devotion within the reach, and within the daily experience, of all Jesus' disciples. But devotion also needs to be an experience of solidarity, and so we too need to gather as Mary and the first disciples gathered:

..... they went to the upper room where they were staying; there were Peter and John, James and Andrew, Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew, James son of Alphaeus and Simon the Zealot, and Jude son of James. All these joined in continuous prayer, together with several women, including Mary the mother of Jesus, and his brothers (Acts 1:13, 14).

The Year 2000

We invite you all to reflect on what kind of event or events we should arrange for the year 2000 itself. If you wish to make suggestions, please send them to the Executive Secretary of the NZ Catholic Bishops' Conference by March 31 1997. A committee will collate these suggestions and then make specific recommendations to the bishops.

With our thanks and blessing.

Yours sincerely,

+ Cardinal Thomas Williams - Archbishop of Wellington
+ Bishop Leonard Boyle - Bishop of Dunedin
+ Bishop Denis Browne - Bishop of Hamilton
+ Bishop Peter Cullinane - Bishop of Palmerston North
+ Bishop John Cunneen - Bishop of Christchurch
+ Bishop John Dew - Auxiliary Bishop of Wellington
+ Bishop Owen Dolan - Coadjutor Bishop of Palmerston North
+ Bishop Patrick Dunn - Bishop of Auckland
+ Bishop Max T Mariu SM - Auxiliary Bishop of Hamilton

September 1996