17 January 2016

A Roman pilgrimage with the Holy Face restored and commemorated

The Volto Santo of Manoppello
For some 800 years, the Volto Santo - the Holy Face - of Manoppello was housed in the Basilica of St. Peter in Rome (beginning in the year 705), where it was greatly revered and loved. The Romans and many pilgrims flocking to Rome over the centuries knew it not as the Volto Santo, but as the Veronica, that is, as the true image.

It cannot be a simple coincidence that His Holiness Pope Francis chose as the title for his Bull of Indication of the Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy Misericordiae Vultus, the Face of Mercy; it must, rather, be the workings of Divine Providence, for the Veronica, the Volto Santo, has played a very important role in the history of the jubilees and is likely responsible for them.

During the Jubilee of 1350 - the second of the Christian jubilees - proclaimed by Pope Clement VI, the Volto Santo was shown to the faithful in the Vatican basilica every Sunday and feast day. Thomas de Burton testifies to this repeated exposition of the Veronica, saying:
The sudarium [the napkin, as it is called in John 20:7] of our lord Jesus Christ would be shown to those arriving at the said holy city [Rome], and having seen this they would be absolved of their sins, and would have indulgence of them, restoring them to the state they were in on the day on which they received holy baptism.
During the Jubilee of 1400, Ser Luca Dominici tells us that Pope Boniface IX "has shown the Sudario every day [from September 7th through 15th] and given his blessing."

Just fifty years later, the number of pilgrims during the Jubilee of 1450 desirous of looking upon the Volto Santo was so great that they could not always be accommodated in St. Peter's.

Even before the great jubilees, the Volto Santo played a significant role in the devotional lives of the faithful at Rome and looking upon it was a greater draw for pilgrims than the possibility of seeing the Successor of Saint Peter. We know, for example, that in 1208 Pope Innocent III processed with the Veronica from the Basilica of St. Peter to the nearby church of Santo Spirito in Sassia on the second Sunday after the Solemnity of the Epiphany. 

The same pontiff, who wrote a hymn - Salve Sancta Facies in which Veronica becomes, for the first time, a woman and not the cloth itself - in honor of the Holy Face in 1216, decreed this procession be held each year on this day and granted an indulgence to those who prayed before the Volto Santo. What is more, it was during this annual procession that, in 1297, Pope Boniface VIII was inspired to proclaim the first Jubilee for 1300. But if the Volto Santo played so important a role in the city of Rome, especially during the Jubilees, how is it that it no longer plays such a role today?

On May 16, 1527, the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V attacked the city of Rome and forced Pope Clement VII to flee to Castel Sant'Angelo. It was during this siege that the Swiss mercenaries gave their lives in defense of the Pope and from which the Swiss Guard was formed.

The sack of the Eternal City lasted for some days and during this time a certain Urban, who had taken refuge in Orvieto, wrote to the Duchess of Urbino, saying that "in the Vatican Basilica, 500 men were killed at the Altar and the Church's relics scattered and set aflame." A few days later, he wrote again to say that "the Holy Face was robbed and passed through many hands, and went the route of all the taverns of Rome, without anyone noticing what it was." It was during this time that the Veronica was spirited away to the tiny village of Manoppello where it was all but forgotten by the outside world for nearly 500 years.

Here I am with Fr. Luke Milette and Paul Badde
on June 21, 2014 at Manoppello

In our own day, by the grace of God and the diligent work of Paul Badde, the history of the Volto Santo is becoming known and as its history is known a devotion to the cloth that covered the face of the Lord in his tomb - and which bears the image of the Risen Lord - is steadily growing. So it was that yesterday a group of pilgrims from Manoppello made a pilgrimage to Rome, bringing with them a copy of the Volto Santo to recreate - or, better perhaps, to re-establish that ancient, though brief, pilgrimage route between St. Peter's and Santo Spirito.

After I learned that the pilgrimage was to take place, I wrote to Paul Badde to ask if I might be able to join the pilgrimage when it reached St. Peter's Square. With an affirmative reply, I set out from the Casa Santa Maria and made my way through the Eternal City to the Vatican basilica and met the pilgrims just outside the Square.

After passing through security, the pilgrim band from Manoppello regrouped inside the Square before processing through the Holy Door with their reproduction of the Face of Mercy:

As we made our way up the steps leading to the basilica, my eyes began to water as I contemplated the significance of what we small number of pilgrims were doing. In Misericordiae Vultus, Pope Francis says, 
Jesus Christ is the face of the Father's mercy. These words might well sum up the mystery of the Christian faith. Mercy has become living and visible in Jesus of Nazareth, reaching its culmination in him (1).
Here we were, bringing an image of the Face of Mercy onto the ground where it was venerated for centuries and - more importantly - into the basilica designed, in no small part, as the greatest vault in the world to house and protect the original of the image we carried in procession.

As we followed the image of the Holy Face through the Holy Doors, I could not help but recall the words that accompanied the opening of the Holy Door: "Open to me the gates of justice" (Psalm 118:19).

It seemed as if the Lord himself ordered the doors to be opened to us and that with him we crossed over the threshold to give thanks to the Father with him for the gift of his mercy.

After passing through the Holy Doors, we gathered before Michelangelo's Pieta, before the space where the Volto Santo was kept for 800 years.

The above photograph is particularly striking, given that if you examine the face of Jesus on the Pieta and compare it to that of the Volto Santo, the similarities cannot be dismissed. Despite the crowds pressing in around us to see what was happening, though without fully grasping it, the moment was deeply moving.

From the chapel of the Pieta, we made our way through the basilica towards the pillar of Saint Veronica, toward the very place where the actual Volto Santo would be housed today if not for the sack of 1527.

We were not allowed as a group to arrive at the actual pillar in which the Volto Santo was planned to be guarded (the section of the basilica under the dome is - for some reason - generally closed to the public). We were, however, able to convince the basilica attendants to let a representative portion of our band of pilgrims bring the image to the pillar:

Father Carmine Cucinelli, O.F.M. Cap.
Rector of the Shrine of the Holy Face

From there, we moved as a group to the nave in front of the confessio of the tomb of the Apostle Saint Peter where we recited the Creed and prayed the Our Father, the Hail Mary, and the Glory Be.

Afterwards, we left the basilica, with crowds still pressing in around us, and regrouped again outside the basilica.

We regrouped again near the obelisk in the center of Saint Peter's Square before making our way to the church of Santo Spirito, to the place of the culmination of our pilgrimage retracing those ancient steps of so many pilgrims before us:

Many thanks to Edward Pentin for taking this photo

When we arrived at Santo Spirito, the church was already filled with people awaiting our arrival. The image was displayed near the sanctuary for our veneration as we prayed the luminous mysteries of the rosary together.

Following the rosary, we had about an hour for quiet prayer before His Excellency the Most Reverend George Ganswein, Prefect of the Papal Household and Secretary to Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, celebrated the Holy Mass of the Second Sunday in Ordinary Time. I haven't yet seen a transcript of Archbishop Ganswein's homily, but I'll keep my eyes open for one.

The entire day was one of great joy and it will likely take some time to process the significance of the various aspects of this little but very important pilgrimage. I am deeply grateful to have participated in it and must soon get back to Manoppello.

For your convenience, here are a few links related to yesterday's historic procession, which I'll update if I find more:


  1. What a wonderful grace to have been there! I was praying for all those who in the history-making procession... so happy you were in that blessed number! Love the photos!

  2. Thank you for posting this with all the pics for those that could not be there! This is truly great to see! I've recommended Mr. Badde's book to many people and we've all become very interested in the Holy Face. I will pass this post along!

    1. You're very welcome, Frank; thanks for helping to spread devotion to the Holy Face!

  3. I have given hundreds of photos of The Holy Face of Jesus on this sacred cloth to my brothers and sisters-in-Christ. I downloaded Paul Badde's photos and have them printed. I have been giving them away for about 3 years.

    1. Would it be possible for me to get Paul Badde's photos from you?
      John Reid
      6 Wyman Ct.
      Winchester, MA 01890 Thanks!

    2. If I could send you some of them, John, I would, but I don't have access to physical photos for the time being. Once I'm back in the U.S. in a couple of months I could send a few to you.

  4. Thank you Fr. Zehnle for your articles on the Holy Face. We are trying to organize a Holy Face event at our parish. Please pray for this intention.