Just after midnight in Rome, Pope John Paul II will deliver a special message marking the third millennium of Christianity. Before the Holy Year ends, on Jan. 6, 2001, during the Feast of the Epiphany, an estimated 25 million pilgrims will visit the Vatican.
With a global television hookup, monitors in St. Peter's Basilica and a trial opening of the basilica's Holy Door, the Vatican has planned a modern, high-tech start to the church's Holy Year.
At least 58 countries, including Cuba, will provide live coverage when John Paul walks through the Holy Door this evening, keeping up a 700-year-old Holy Year tradition to mark the beginning of Vatican celebrations for the new millennium.
In the United States, the EWTN cable channel has scheduled coverage beginning at 5 p.m., and NBC (Channel 2) has coverage beginning at 11:35.
John Paul has promoted a theme of global economic justice for the year, encouraging individual acts of charity. He has also called on wealthy nations to forgive the crushing international debt of poor Third World countries.
"It's a beginning, as we enter the new millennium," said Bruce Croteau of Winter Park, Fla., who is planning a similar ceremony in his parish. "It's a challenge to us to seek reconciliation with God, our neighbor and our relationships. The door itself represents Christ, who is the door to God. Crossing the threshold is symbolic of us on our journey to God the father."
Papal spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls said the Vatican has received 62,000 requests for tickets for the ceremony, which is followed by midnight Mass, but that only 8,200 people can safely fit in the basilica. The overflow will be seated in St. Peter's Square, where four giant TV screens will be erected.
And those with poor seats in the basilica can follow the ceremony on small monitors being installed for the first time in St. Peter's.
The Vatican is pleased that Cuba has signed on for live coverage. Only in recent years has the communist island marked Christmas as a holiday, but John Paul's groundbreaking visit in January 1998 helped improve church-state relations. Navarro-Valls said no live coverage is planned in China and several other countries with poor relations with the Vatican.
The Vatican is leaving little to chance. Workers recently knocked down the brick wall sealing the Holy Door and the bronze door, closed following the 1983 Holy Year, was tested. "It opens," Navarro-Valls said.
In one break with tradition, John Paul will merely push open the door instead of tapping on the bricks with a silver hammer, because the bricks already have been removed. Some speculated it was a concession to the 79-year-old pope's frail health. In 1975, plaster rained down on Pope Paul VI when he tapped on the bricks.
John Paul has suggested that the Holy Year should be a time for promoting Christian unity.
The concept of a Jubilee year is rooted in the Old Testament. Then known as the Great Sabbatical Year, it occurred every 50 years. In those times, every seventh year was considered a Sabbatical Year, to be consecrated to God. Jubilee followed the seventh Sabbatical Year, and required the canceling of all debts and the freeing of slaves.
On March 12, the first Sunday of Lent, the pope will preside over a "Day of Forgiveness," during which Christians will be called upon to acknowledge personal and historical faults.