Pope Francis opened the "Holy Door" in the walls of St Peter's Basilica in the Vatican, launching an extraordinary Catholic jubilee year. The theme of the Holy Year will be mercy.
The Pope opened bronze Holy Door through which more than 10 million pilgrims are expected to pass over the course of the Holy Year.
"This is the door of the Lord. Open to me the gates of justice," the pope said before pushing the doors open, and walking through them. He then recited a short prayer. Francis was followed through the door by his predecessor, the now-retired Benedict XVI.
The pontiff also held a special Mass to formally open his "revolution of tenderness" - intended to show the welcoming face of the Catholic Church, which has suffered blows to its image in recent years, not least during a series of child abuse scandals throughout the world.
Mercy before judgment
Francis launched the 12-month church jubilee to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the end of the second Vatican Council - a significant gathering of bishops charged at the time with modernizing the Church. As he kicked off the church's Holy Year, Francis declared that the idea of mercy was more important in the Catholic Church than judging the actions of its adherents. Francis has referred to the year as a "Jubilee of Mercy" and has announced leniency on divorce and abortion as part of his intended revival of the faith.
"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 said in his sermon on the rain-soaked St. Peter's Square. "We have to put mercy before judgment, and in any event God's judgment will always be in the light of his mercy."
The open-air mass was attended by a crowd of an estimated 50,000 people. The event at the Vatican took place under high security precautions in the wake of the November 13 Paris attacks. Some 5,000 police, soldiers and other law enforcement officials were deployed throughout Rome. A no-fly zone was also imposed over the city.
The Jubilee runs through November 20, 2016.
Holy Years are normally celebrated every 25 - 50 years and have been used to encourage the people to make pilgrimages to Rome to obtain an "indulgence" - the tradition related to the forgiveness of sins. The most recent Holy Year was in 2000, when St. John Paul II hailed the Catholic Church's third millennium. Some 25 million people made the journey to Rome that year.
This jubilee year will also feature a number of special ceremonies at the Vatican to accommodate the expected crowds of pilgrims. Pope Francis has set aside one Friday per month to perform an act of mercy outside of the Vatican.
ss/msh (AFP, AP)