Cardinal Donald Wuerl opened the national Holy Door at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington Dec. 8, ushering in the extraordinary Jubilee Year of Mercy.

Calling the opening of the doors “a prelude to the profound experience of grace and reconciliation that awaits us this year,” Cardinal Wuerl was the first to process through the newly opened Holy Door which he called “a symbol of God’s loving welcome as we begin the Jubilee Year of Mercy.”

The extraordinary Holy Year proclaimed by Pope Francis began Dec. 8, the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and continues through Nov. 20, 2016, the Solemnity of Christ the King.

The Holy Door at the National Shrine is the national Holy Door for the Year of Mercy in the United States. Cardinal Wuerl opened the archdiocesan Holy Door at a Nov. 7 vigil Mass at the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle in Washington.

Opening the Holy Door at the National Shrine on its patronal feast, Cardinal Wuerl said “the Church holds up for us the Blessed Virgin Mary as a sign of hope and a beacon of light.”

“Mary is truly a proper and pure living temple for the Son of God, a holy, living house of the Lord,” the cardinal said. “Our aspiration during this Holy Year, our goal, is to approximate that goodness, purity and holiness of Mary.”

The cardinal was the principal celebrant of the noon Mass at the National Shrine. Concelebrants included Washington Auxiliary Bishops Martin Holley, Barry Knestout and Mario Dorsonville and about 20 priests. About 2,500 faithful – lay and religious – attended the Mass.

“This is a moment of grace, a year in which we are all called to experience, once again, personally and as a family, God’s great love for us even when we fail, even when we sin,” Cardinal Wuerl said.

Calling the Holy Door “a beautiful vision of this Year of Mercy,” Cardinal Wuerl urged those at the Mass to remember that “as you go through the door, God awaits to embrace you with His mercy, His love.”

Cardinal Wuerl said the Holy Year is “a time of special grace” and called on the faithful “to avail ourselves of the great gift and sacrament of forgiveness.”

“In the Sacrament of Penance, we go through those doors again and meet Christ and His Church ready and eager to absolve and restore us to new life,” the cardinal said. 

He said the Holy Year is “a special gift” that is “a visible invitation for each of us to say, ‘Lord, I am sorry,’ so that we can hear the words: ‘You are forgiven.’”

In addition to seeking mercy and forgiveness, the faithful should share mercy and love with others, the cardinal said.

“Sharing this gift (of mercy) can bring Christ’s peace and hope to our families, our communities and our world,” he said.

The Holy Door, he added, is a visible sign to remind the faithful “we need constantly to contemplate the mystery of mercy.”

The Catholic tradition of a Holy Door for jubilee years dates back to the Middle Ages. The door was seen as a passage toward salvation and an entrance to a new path of eternal life in Christ.

In Misericordiae Vultus  (“The Face of Mercy"), the document in which he called for the Year of Mercy, Pope Francis said the Holy Door represents “the bridge that connects God and humanity, opening our hearts to the hope of being loved forever despite our sinfulness."

Cardinal Wuerl, during his homily at the National Shrine, said that the Holy Door should “awaken in the hearts, in the consciousness of all of us that the Church is our spiritual home.” During the Mass, prayers were also offered that “the Church will be a sign of God’s pardon and forgiveness.”

“May our faith as disciples of the Lord be strengthened as we go through the doors of mercy and may our love of Jesus be deepened by our experience of God’s loving and forgiving embrace. And may we, as true missionary disciples, try to share that mercy with everyone around us,” the cardinal said.

Among those attending the Mass was Elizabeth Kroff, who said walking through the Holy Door “is the only way to start this (Holy) Year.”

“What I did today should help remind me of the mercy of Christ and the mercy I am supposed to show others,”” she said.

Franco Martinez said he escorted his infant daughter in her stroller through the Holy Doors because “who knows when I will be able to do this again.”

“This may be a once in a lifetime blessing for me, but she is young enough to maybe have this experience again,” he said. Pointing to his daughter, Gabbi, he added, “One day I will tell her about this extraordinary holy day.”

Pope Francis has attached indulgences to those who make a pilgrimage to a Holy Door.

In a letter last September to the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of the New Evangelization, the Holy Father declared that an indulgence would be granted to the faithful who “make a brief pilgrimage to the Holy Door, open in every cathedral or in the churches designated by the diocesan bishop.” 

“It is important that this moment be linked, first and foremost, to the Sacrament of Reconciliation and to the celebration of the Holy Eucharist with a reflection on mercy,” the pope wrote. “It will be necessary to accompany these celebrations with the profession of faith and with prayer for me and for the intentions that I bear in my heart for the good of the Church and of the entire world.”