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The Straight Dope 

I have a friend who has a cross made of wood supposedly from a door in Saint Peter's Basilica. It was said that this door is only opened once every 100 years. What is behind the door, and why is it kept closed?

--Blewick, via America Online

I know what you're thinking: a secret back door to the Vatican! Exactly, except that it's not secret, in the back, or to the Vatican. But they could use one. You know, to help Cecil avoid the paparazzi.

What you're talking about is an odd tradition at Saint Peter's involving the Porta Santa, or Holy Door. This door is in the front of the basilica to the right of the main entrance. Most of the time it's kept not merely locked but walled up. It's opened only during Holy Years, also known as Jubilee Years. Massive numbers of pilgrims descend on Saint Peter's at these times, and I gather the door functions as a sort of Holy Fire Exit.

Holy Years are an odd tradition in their own right. The first was proclaimed in AD 1300 by Pope Boniface VIII, not entirely voluntarily. The faithful somehow got the idea that centenary years were the occasion of a Great Pardon. Tens of thousands of them spontaneously embarked on a pilgrimage to Rome with the view of getting one.

So here's Boniface looking out the window, and he sees vast crowds of people who've evidently done something bad enough that they figured it was worth going to Rome to get a pardon. Whoa, says Boniface, it's time to think fast.

He worked up a system whereby participants could gain a special indulgence (pardon from punishment for sins) in return for fulfilling various conditions, notably visiting certain Roman churches, Saint Peter's being the most important.

The original plan was that Holy Years would occur every 100 years, but the interval was soon reduced to 25 years. Additional Holy Years are sometimes proclaimed for special occasions, e.g., in 1983-'84, which marked the 1,950th anniversary of the Crucifixion and Resurrection.

A Holy Year starts on Christmas Eve, at one time considered the last day of the year. There's an elaborate ritual in which the pope strikes the Holy Door three times with a silver hammer. The door promptly collapses, no doubt inspiring at least one or two spectators to hope that the rest of Saint Peter's was built by a different contractor. In fact, however, workers with ropes and pulleys nudge things along.

Considering all the buildup, one would suppose the Holy Door provided admittance to a garden of forbidden delights. But in fact it gets you into the same part of the church the other entrances do. The door remains open until the following Christmas Eve, when it's again walled up.

One can appreciate that having a special door heightens the drama of the Holy Year, provides instructive symbolism, etc. But why the pope feels he has to wall it up as opposed to using a good dead bolt is a matter that remains obscure. Cynics will of course suggest that some cardinal's nephew has the plaster contract.

If you want to investigate you won't have long to wait. The next Holy Year begins on Christmas Eve 1999.


At the end of your column about the "Flynn flap" [September 6, in which I skeptically considered the possibility that "in like Flynn" referred to actor Errol Flynn's sexual prowess] you invited us seventysomethings to offer what we could to the pool of human knowledge. Born in the Bronx in 1926, I lived there until age 16, which coincides with your critical year, 1942 [when Flynn was tried for statutory rape]. I never heard, or at least I don't remember, Boss Flynn's name coming up. [The clout of New York political boss Edward J. Flynn has been suggested as an alternative basis for the expression.] But I and all my friends freely bandied about "in like Flynn." There is no doubt in my mind that it referred to his success with women.

--Murray Lefkowitz, Merion Station, Pennsylvania

I [was] 70 in October, so I hope my recollections will carry some weight.... It was the double entendre involved that accounted for the phrase's popularity. Young males could smirkingly use it in front of females, who then started applying it to other situations without necessarily knowing its original meaning. As I recall, my brothers and I even got our mother to use it, which was especially amusing since she hated Errol Flynn with a passion. I was in the army air corps in World War II, and we all knew the phrase had nothing to do with Flynn's cinematic feats.

--G.R. Niles, Honolulu, Hawaii

Boomers lie, but I know Bob Dole's generation never would. I guess "in like Flynn" really does mean in like Flynn's, uh, whatever.

Is there something you need to get straight? Cecil Adams can deliver the Straight Dope on any topic. Write Cecil Adams at the Chicago Reader, 11 E. Illinois, Chicago 60611; E-mail him at; or visit the Straight Dope area at America Online, keyword: Straight Dope.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration by Slug Signorino.

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