The following commentary is from the EWTN series, The Papacy: A Living History, The Papal Artifacts Collection of Father Richard Kunst. It is from the first episode of Season 2: The Canonization of Pope John Paul the Great. A DVD of Season 2 will be available from EWTN in 2015.
The commentary provided here is a compilation of the conversation between Father Richard Kunst, the Papal Artifacts’ Expert, and his co-host, Father Ryan Moravitz.
We know that at the beginning of his pontificate, really early on, John Paul II viewed his pontificate as the gateway to the new millennium and the Jubilee Year, 2000.
During his pontificate, because it was so long, he had two Holy Years: he had an “extraordinary year” in 1983 to mark the 1,950th anniversary of the Crucifixion. Then he also had the Jubilee Year of 2000. And, of course, you know that the emblem of the Holy Year is the Holy Door. This is a brick from the Holy Door, 1975, which would have been in the Holy Year door until 1983. And then in 1983, they would have taken those bricks out, but this brick is significant because it’s from the first Holy Year of John Paul II.
In the Collection, there is also one from the next Holy Year, 2000. And along with that, these holy bricks that are quite hard to obtain, are even harder to obtain in their original boxes. The boxes have all the original information about what the particular Holy Year represents and what years the brick was in the Holy Door in Saint Peter’s Basilica.
Bricks are actually an historical marker of pilgrimage, of the call to pilgrimage, which also models our pilgrimage to eternal life. So the reason we pilgrimage is to grow closer to the Lord and to remember ultimately, the journey to heaven. So this marks an historic moment in the Church when John Paul II called us to celebrate and to make pilgrimage, in particular, to Rome, and to the tomb of Saint Peter.
The Holy Year was actually established in the year, 1300, by Pope Boniface VIII, and he did it with the whole purpose of pilgrimage.
The cynical side of that is he did it, because he also knew there would be monetary benefit from it. But the spiritual point of it was that we are on pilgrimage to the threshold of the tombs of the apostles, Peter and Paul. And so, we see something like this brick as a tangible reminder of the pilgrimage that John Paul II called us to in the year, 1983.
Two Holy Year bricks, dated 1983, the year commemorating the 1950th anniversary of Mary’s birth. Pope John Paul II, marking it as more significant than the usual Holy Years that take place every twenty-five years, designated this as The Extraordinary Year of Mary.
The significance of these bricks: it is impossible to go through the Holy Door in the Holy Year until these bricks are removed. Traditionally, in the early years of this practice, the pope would literally take a hammer and smash through the bricks. There would be a whole crowd of people gathered to grab portions of the bricks, either broken pieces or whole bricks. These would be considered mementos or relics of the Holy Year.
Smashing the bricks became quite dangerous for the pope as well as the pilgrims. Many people got injured and some people even died. So the church changed this practice, removing these bricks in advance, before they opened the door. Then they would be distributed to the people who were working at the Vatican.
These bricks are quite prized and very large and ornate with the image of the cross-keys and the tiara (the symbol of the pope) as well as the initials of the foundry of St. Peter’s Basilica. The year is also included on the bricks.