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ROME(Reuters) - Roman Catholics start celebrating an extraordinary Holy Year on Dec. 8. Pope Francis has chosen the theme of mercy for one of the Church's most important events. But what exactly is a Holy Year?
A Holy Year, also known as a Jubilee, usually happens once every 25 years, unless a pope calls an extraordinary one to call attention to a particular issue or celebrate a momentous event.
The first Roman Catholic Holy Year is believed to have been instigated by Pope Boniface in 1300.
The last ordinary Holy Year was held in 2000 under Pope John Paul II. The last extraordinary Holy Year was called by John Paul II in 1983 to mark 1,950 years since the death of Jesus.
During a Jubilee, Catholics can obtain special indulgences, or remission of their sins, if they fulfill certain conditions and do good works or make pilgrimages. The Vatican website says a Holy Year should also be a time of reconciliation with adversaries and an occasion to promote solidarity, hope and justice in the world.
An indulgence is the remission of punishment for a sin that has already been forgiven by a priest. Catholics say that after an indulgence the soul is totally purified of that sin in this life and the next, maybe helping them get to heaven faster.
The Church teaches that people who do not go straight to heaven after death must first spend time in purgatory, a sort of unpleasant waiting room before they can pass through the pearly gates. Indulgences can reduce time in purgatory.
People can get indulgences if they do good deeds like visiting the sick, or make pilgrimages to a "Holy Door" in designated religious sites around the world during a Holy Year.
Prisoners can receive the indulgence in jail chapels, and by praying or thinking of God as they cross the threshold of their cells, which will represent passing through a Holy Door.
Centuries ago, people could buy indulgences. Martin Luther was scandalized by this practice, which was one of the controversies that sparked his Reformation in the 16th century.
The Holy Doors, which symbolize the doorway of salvation for Catholics, are only opened during Jubilee years. Pilgrims passing through them secure the remission of their sins.
A Holy Door will be opened in St Peter's Basilica in the Vatican and three basilicas in Rome as well as in Catholic cathedrals around the world and specially designated churches and shrines.
The three papal basilicas in Rome are St. John Lateran, St. Paul Outside the Walls, and St. Mary Major. The Holy Doors in the basilicas are kept closed when a Holy Year is not underway.
Pope Francis opened a Holy Door in Bangui, Central African Republic, in November, marking an unofficial local start to the Jubilee.
Reporting by Isla Binnie Editing by Jeremy Gaunt