The Holy Father is entering an active war zone to open the holy door in the capital of Bangui for the Year of Mercy.
VATICAN CITY — On Sunday, Pope Francis announced that he will jump-start the Jubilee of Mercy by opening the Diocese of Bangui’s holy door while in the Central African Republic, as a sign of prayer and solidarity for the war-torn nation.
“To manifest the prayerful closeness of the entire Church to this afflicted and tormented nation, and to exhort all Central Africans to increasingly be witnesses of mercy and reconciliation, Sunday, Nov. 29, I plan to open the holy door of the cathedral of Bangui,” the Pope said Nov. 1.
One of the novelties for the upcoming Jubilee of Mercy is that, for the first time, holy doors will be designated in every diocese throughout the world.
Each of the four major basilicas in Rome has a holy door, which are normally sealed shut from the inside so that they cannot be opened. The doors are only opened during jubilee years so that pilgrims can enter through them in order to gain the plenary indulgence that is connected with the jubilee.
The rite of the opening of the holy door is intended to symbolically illustrate the idea that the Church’s faithful are offered an “extraordinary path” toward salvation during the time of jubilee.
Though the Jubilee for Mercy doesn’t begin until Dec. 8, Pope Francis has decided to open the holy door in the Central African Republic’s capital 10 days early, during his Nov. 25-30 visit to the African continent.
Francis made the announcement on the Solemnity of All Saints, after leading pilgrims gathered in St. Peter’s Square in the traditional Angelus prayer.
He is scheduled to make stops in three countries while in Africa later this month. He will set foot in Kenya first, where he will stay Nov. 25-27, before moving on to Uganda Nov. 27-29. His last stop will be the Central African Republic, Nov. 29-30.
Origins of the Conflict
Pope Francis’ visit to the Central African Republic comes in the midst of an ongoing, violent conflict between Muslims and Christians.
The conflict began when CAR opposition parties known as the Séléka alliance brought in Muslim militia from Sudan, Darfur and neighboring Chad to overthrow the government of François Bozizé, the country’s deposed Christian president. Fighting began in December 2012, and by March 24, 2013, the Séléka had captured the capital of Bangui, and its leader, Michel Djotodia, declared himself president.
Djotodia incorporated some of his Séléka fighters into the CAR armed forces. However, the rest of the Muslim Séléka militia, lacking payment from Djotodia for their services, decided to wreak havoc on the country, directing their rampaging, killing and looting to Christian villages and their inhabitants, while leaving Muslims alone.
Christians formed their own “self-defense groups” called anti-Balaka (meaning anti-machete). These groups opted for revenge attacks on their Muslim neighbors, rather than take the Séléka militia head on, which in turn prompted severe reprisal killings.
The conflict has been characterized by murder, mutilation and rape by fighters on both sides in the name of religion, leaving more than 6,000 people dead. Hundreds of thousands have been forced to flee their homes, as the United Nations estimates that 25% of the country’s population has been internally displaced by the fighting since 2013.
Papal Appeal for Mercy
In remarks after the Angelus, Pope Francis noted that recent episodes of violence “have tightened the delicate situation” in the CAR over the past few days and are a source of “great concern.”
“I make an appeal to all parties involved to put an end to this circle of violence,” he said, offering his spiritual closeness to the Camboni Fathers of the parish of Our Lady of Fatima in Bangui, where many refugees have fled.
The Pope assured his solidarity with the local Catholics, with the other religious confessions in the country and with the Central African nation as a whole, “which is so sorely tested, while making every effort to overcome divisions and return to the path of peace.”
After opening the holy door in Bangui, Francis will open the holy door at St. Peter’s Basilica when the jubilee officially begins Dec. 8 — the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception — and will close Nov. 20, 2016, the Solemnity of Christ the King.
St. John Lateran’s door will open Dec. 13, and St. Mary Major’s will open Jan. 1, 2016, while that of St. Paul Outside the Walls will open Jan. 26, 2016.
Francis announced the jubilee during a March 13 penitential service, the second anniversary of his papal election.