There’s an altar dedicated to the Holy Face of Jesus at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Manhattan, New York, where I find myself many days for Mass and prayer. It is one of the spots I am always drawn to. It has a cloth with an image of our Lord.
Despite being in the middle of everything — and maybe it’s all the more powerful because it is — there can be great quiet there, right on Fifth Avenue in one of the busiest cities in the world, and opportunities for deep prayer. I’m forever seeing piety from daily visitors, joggers, and tourists who appear to be seeking the face of God whenever the doors of the church are open.
This particular altar is definitely no exception. I’ll often see flowers left behind, a man kneeling, a woman lighting a candle. And I always feel like I am being drawn deeper into a love story — God’s love for us.
From the Holy Face, my route is largely the same every time I’m there on my way to the Blessed Sacrament chapel dedicated to Our Lady. I always stop at the sixth station on the wall and look at the depiction of the face of Jesus there.
I always try to get into the line of sight, between Jesus and Veronica. Veronica is so moved by the suffering of Christ in his passion that she walks up and gives him her veil to wipe his sweat and blood on, to give him a moment’s relief.
Sometimes I see someone working on the frontlines of love — whether it be family life, or supporting struggling families, or another more hidden or thankless ministry; sometimes it’s the priesthood, and I want to do the same.
Whatever church I’m in, truth be told, it does not have to be as grand as the cathedral in Manhattan or anywhere else — I’m always drawn to this station. I imagine myself looking at Jesus in his passion. Sometimes I’m pretty sure I can see him looking at me.
We make him suffer and he knows our suffering. We’re together every day. These two profound realities are how we can more consciously live our lives with God.
Lent is about remembering that, returning to him in love, knowing his presence. Seeing his face — most importantly in the Eucharist, especially after a good Confession — makes all the difference.
It often doesn’t take very long after leaving a church in a city to encounter his face again in the faces of others.
The other day it was the counterterrorism officer who was checking the outside of the cathedral with a dog who was sniffing everything that could be a potential hidden threat (the dirt and grass by the handicap ramp; the box that keeps the traffic light on the corner sidewalk running).
If I’m at St. Patrick’s, frequently the first people I see there are tourists taking selfies. “May they see Christ’s image in them!” I whisper in prayer — sometimes as a plea, because God would appear furthest from their minds, on the surface between Victoria’s Secret and NBA store bags (such is the neighborhood).
Most especially, Jesus’ face can be — and must be, for the sake of our souls and for the love of every man and woman and child on earth, which is how we love God in this mess of a world — seen in a man nesting on concrete, asking for spare change or a meal, desperate to be noticed, never mind loved.
In so many of the artistic depictions of the Holy Face of Jesus, both his love and our need are laid bare. (If you were to Google now, you will find plenty of them. I’m partial to El Greco, but I always am.) There’s something about artistic renditions of his face that always seem to capture the depths of love.
The human imagination captures something both of the truth of God and our longing for him. And as beautiful as so many of them are, they only begin to tell the story. They flow from the love of Jesus on the cross, a love that most of us have not even begun to fully truly appreciate.
There’s no requirement to believe the Shroud of Turin or the Veil of Manoppello are, in fact, evidence of the Lord’s death and resurrection. But they do seem yet more windows into his love for us, not just in the images themselves but in the possible physical evidence for the skeptical and notes of love for the faithful they so many pilgrims believe them to be.
As German journalist Paul Badde has laid out, the two of them, when brought together, show the exact same face — one a man who has died, and one of the same man with his eyes opened — and healed.
Badde has literally written the book on the Holy Face, which is preserved at a shrine in the mountain village of Manoppello, Italy. Ask him to talk about the face of Christ, and he will immediately be making plans to show you things.
If you can’t plan a day trip to Manoppello with the Holy Face, he will show you a replica in his apartment, and likely hand you a card with its image before you part ways.
He says it was the Blessed Mother under the title of Our Lady of Guadalupe who first brought the Holy Face of Jesus to his attention — because she always brings you to her Son. He’s since written of the Veil of Manoppello as an adventurous investigation.
He’s convinced this is the face of Jesus and that it is about the most important relic there is because of the deeper knowledge it draws us into, the reality of Jesus in our lives and in our world. God “didn’t become a book, he became a person. God became a person. Man.”
Badde is not the only evangelist for Manoppello. In 2006, Pope Benedict XVI took a pilgrimage to the shrine where it resides in the Abruzzo mountains.
He said at the time: “As the Psalms say, we are all ‘seeking the Face of the Lord.’ And this is also the meaning of my visit. Let us seek together to know the face of the Lord ever better, and in the face of the Lord let us find this impetus of love and peace, which also reveals to us the path of our life.”
The “Volto Santo” (“Holy Face”) has very much become a ministry for Badde. He believes it is critical in this age of disbelief to stop and look and consider the implications of a God who would live and die and be resurrected for love of us and to redeem us for our sins for eternity.
He fears that so many — even at high levels in the Church — don’t actually believe in the Resurrection. The Holy Face can change this, he believes. And he’s not only talking about people in the pews, but theologians and bishops, too.
Maybe that explains how scandals can happen — the weakness of belief, the rise of unbelief and outright hostility to real religious faith, even where it would be expected to be most solid. They think resurrection is “good preaching or … a living community.
“No, resurrection is real. Jesus was dead and he resurrected from the dead. He’s alive. From the dead to alive. … That’s so important. It’s so important against all the heresies about it, because all the heresies … at the foundation … are about not believing in the Resurrection anymore.”
He believes the veil bears witness to the reality of the Resurrection, which is why he is somewhat tenderly relentless about telling its story.
In his own reflection on the relic, Cardinal Robert Sarah says: “In Manoppello we encounter God face-to-face. It is such a moving place. One is so touched by the gentleness of Christ’s eyes, with their extraordinary penetrating and calming power. And when we let ourselves be seen by him, his gaze purifies and heals us. We can really sense how much Jesus has loved us — so much as to die for us. For true love is dying for the one you love.”
It’s hard to miss that when I ask Badde about the veil, his morning routine, and how he spends his days. All he can talk about is the love of God and the love he draws us into in the Eucharist and the eyes we see on the face on the veil.
When meditating on the Holy Face of Jesus, whether the Shroud of Turin, the Veil of Manoppello, your parish’s sixth station of the cross, or whatever image your Google search seeking his face lands you on, be drawn in to the truth of what we celebrate as “Good” on that last Friday before Easter year after year.
There’s no guarantee any one of us will live to see another Paschal Triduum — so don’t let Holy Week be reduced to a series of mere obligations and traditions.
Gaze at the Lord in his passion, walk with him even to the gates of hell on Holy Saturday. Go to the empty tomb with Mary Magdalene in prayer. Make his love story for us the story of your life, because this is what he wants, this is our identity as Christians.
Look at him with love and let him look at you with just a touch of a taste of the enormity of his love for you. And you will see this more and more as everything. And you will see his face more and more in the world, just as others will be able to see his face in yours by how you look at them with love.
Manoppello is worth reading more about. But even if you don’t, remember the love with which the Lord looks down at you from the cross, remember the love with which he forgives and heals and makes you new again. Keep seeking his face.
Kathryn Jean Lopez is a contributing editor to Angelus, and editor-at-large of National Review Online.
Editor’s note: Journalist Paul Badde’s book “The Face of God: The Rediscovery of the True Face of Jesus” (Ignatius, $17.95) tells the story of the historical and scientific evidence behind the belief that the Veil of Manoppello is the face cloth laid over the face of Jesus in the tomb.
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