Logo for Holy Year of MercyAn open door at the St. Katharine Drexel National Shrine led to many open hearts Dec. 18 at a Mass marking the Jubilee Year of Mercy, called by Pope Francis in the hopes that Catholics worldwide will show forgiveness to others.

More than 300 worshipers of various racial and ethnic backgrounds, the young and the old, the healthy and the disabled, filled the pews and several folding chairs set up to accommodate them at the Bensalem shrine.

Despite the crowd, a reverent silence fell as Father Dennis Gill, director of the archdiocesan Office for Divine Worship and rector of the Cathedral Basilica of SS. Peter and Paul in Philadelphia, spoke about the meaning of the jubilee year.

“The Holy Door, like Jesus, is the gateway to the Father. Mercy is the way God reaches out to us. We want to seek forgiveness for our sins and be close to God in every way possible,” Father Gill said.

He set the tone of the liturgy’s theme by recounting what became for him a poignant ordeal during a pro-life demonstration in 1989 in Chester County. He and scores of other demonstrators were arrested and spent five days in jail.

He recalled that, at the time, he was afraid and humiliated and prayed constantly that all would be freed. Then, one night, his cell door was opened and he was told he could leave. When he walked outside, he saw someone waiting for him to take him home.

His rescue was one example of what God’s mercy really is, he said, and such mercy is available to all the sons and daughters of God, Father Gill said.

The basilica, the St. Katharine Drexel shrine and four other sites in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia are authorized to have a Holy Door, passage through which can offer indulgences for remission of sins. The other sites are the shrines of St. Rita of Cascia, St. John Neumann and the Miraculous Medal, all in Philadelphia, and Our Lady of Czestochowa in Doylestown.

Pope Boniface VIII began what would become the tradition of Holy Years in 1300, generally held every 25 years when pilgrims would travel to Rome to pass through the Holy Door at St. Peter’s Basilica.

After Pope Francis opened the jubilee year in Rome on Dec. 8, the feast of the Immaculate Conception, by opening the door of St. Peter’s, Holy Doors opened in churches around the world.

The Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament, who staff the Drexel shrine, were founded by then-Mother Katharine Drexel in 1891 to serve African Americans and Native Americans in the United States. Mother Katharine was canonized in 2000 by Pope John Paul II.

Sister Donna Breslin, president of the order, called the appointment of a Holy Door at the shrine a tremendous blessing.

“It reminds us that the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament are called this year to transformation and to share in the mercy of God. It is significant for us as a congregation, reminding us that we are entering more deeply into that mercy,” Sister Donna said.

The beauty of the Mass served to highlight the presence of the grace of God. Her own reflections about the jubilee year are also focused on gratitude for the mercy that God has shown her and the congregation, she said.

Sister Pat Downs saw Friday’s celebration as a symbol of the unity of the church around the world.

“It was a time to recognize God’s love for us and to understand that there’s nothing we can do that keeps us from God. A human can refuse (God’s love) but it is always there. People are yearning for peace and for God,” Sister Pat said.

Bensalem residents Mary and Jack Willison said they felt the grace of God from the minute they walked into the chapel. It was what they called an “encounter” that will help them to participate in the jubilee year within their family and among their neighbors.

“We have not been to the shrine before, but I think we will come back to attend other events,” Mary Willison said.

Sister Pat said she is working to schedule a series of devotions tied to the year, such as a Time of Adoration in March and the recitation of the Chaplet of Divine Mercy, once a month.

“Any public activity that we hold will be tied to the Year of Mercy,” she said.