14 May 2016

More Than an Abstraction

This past Wednesday I had the pleasure of giving another conference for the Sisters of St. Francis of the Martyr St. George at the Mater Divinae Gratia Convent here in Rome. The title of my address was, "More Than an Abstraction: The Volto Santo [Holy Face] and the Jubilee, the text of which here follows:

The opening words of the Bull of Indiction of His Holiness Pope Francis for this Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy highlight with great subtlety – and almost certainly unintentionally – the history of the first Holy Years: “Jesus Christ is the face of the Father’s mercy.”[1] This theme of looking upon the face of Jesus, of gazing upon mercy, runs like a golden thread throughout the entire text of Misericordiae vultus and points even to the very origin of the Christian jubilee, as we shall see.

Pope Francis tells us that “we need constantly to contemplate the mystery of mercy” and that “at times we are called to gaze even more attentively on mercy so that we may become a more effective sign of the Father’s action in our lives.”[2] The Father’s action in our lives is to conform us ever more closely to the image of his Son, so much so that when people look upon us they see not us, but Christ Jesus. It is, after all, the saints who “show the true Face of God who is Love and, at the same time, the authentic face of man.”[3] Moreover, “Christ invites us to imitate him, to become similar to him, so in every person the Face of God shines out anew.”[4]

But how is it possible for us to gaze now upon Jesus Christ, upon him who “is the face of the Father’s mercy”? We can do so by gazing upon “the napkin which had been on his head” the Apostles Peter and John found in the tomb of Christ “not lying with the linen cloths but rolled up in a separate place by itself” (John 20:7).
This napkin, the holy sudarium, is now housed at the Shrine of the Holy Face in Manoppello, Italy – some two hours east of Rome - where it is known as il Volto Santo (the Holy Face). This mysterious piece of byssus (sea silk) was called the Veronica when he it was kept in Rome in the Basilica of Saint Peter.

Whoever looks upon the Holy Face cannot but consider his own sins and how closely his life resembles that of Jesus. I have often thought that looking upon the veil which covered his face in the tomb is something like a foretaste of how Benedict XVI described the experience of purgatory:

Before his gaze all falsehood melts away. This encounter with him, as it burns us, transforms and frees us, allowing us to become truly ourselves. All that we build during our lives can prove to be mere straw, pure bluster, and it collapses. Yet in the pain of this encounter, when the impurity and sickness of our lives become evident to us, there lies salvation. His gaze, the touch of his heart heals us through an undeniably painful transformation “as through fire”. But it is a blessed pain, in which the holy power of his love sears through us like a flame, enabling us to become totally ourselves and thus totally of God.[5]

Indeed, elsewhere Benedict XVI said the face of Jesus “is the Face of mercy, the Face of pardon and love, the Face of the encounter with us.”[6] Pope Francis explains what happens when we look upon the face of mercy with his customary simplicity: “with our eyes fixed on Jesus and his merciful gaze, we experience the love of the Most Holy Trinity.”[7]

When we experience this love, we cannot help but realize that the love we give – both to God and to our neighbor – is not equal to the love we receive. This is a cause of sorrow for us, because we know we have not attained purity of heart; at the same time, however, it is also a cause of great joy, because we know the Lord pours out his mercy upon us. To know that my life is not yet fully conformed to that of Jesus - to know that I am not yet as merciful as he is and that his face is not always reflected in mine - is indeed painful, but it is, as the Pope emeritus said, truly a blessed pain because it spurs those who look upon the Face of Mercy to strive all the more earnestly to be able to say with Saint Paul: “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me” (cf. Exodus 34:29; Galatians 2:20). It is within this context that Pope Francis turns his attention to the liturgical year, exclaiming, “How many pages of Sacred Scripture are appropriate for meditation during the weeks of Lent to help us rediscover the merciful face of the Father!”[8]

In a particularly way, we also find this theme of looking upon the face of Jesus in the Bible in the prayer the Holy Father composed for this extraordinary jubilee. Addressing the Lord Jesus, Pope Francis echoes the words of the Psalmist Asaph, “Show us your face and we will be saved” (cf. Psalm 80:4).[9] It is a plea we find repeated throughout the Scriptures. King David sang, “Many say, ‘May we see better times! Lord, show us the light of your face’” (Psalm 4:7)! In another Psalm, King David sang, “Let your face shine on your servant; save me in your mercy” (Psalm 31:17). Another of the psalmists sang, “May God be gracious to us and bless us; may his face shine upon us” (Psalm 67:2). In a psalm of the Korahites, we sing, “Show us, Lord, your mercy; grant us your salvation” (Psalm 85:8).

The Pslamists continually prayed to look upon the face of God, yet the Lord God said to Moses, “you cannot see my face, for no one can see me and live” (Exodus 33:20). This is why Hagar, after speaking with “the Lord’s angel,” asked, “Have I really seen God and remained alive after he saw me” (Genesis 16:11, 13)? Jacob, too, after wrestling with the angel, marveled that “I have seen God face to face … yet my life has been spared” (Genesis 32:31). Moses, too, spoke to the Lord “face to face, as a person speaks to a friend” (Exodus 33:11). Still, this was a privilege granted only to a few; God had not yet revealed himself fully.

Considering these verses, we might say that the Father’s mercy is his face. Is it not his mercy that moves the Lord to reveal himself? After all, at the beginning of his Gospel, Saint John tell us, “No one has ever seen God. The only Son, God, who is at the Father’s side, has revealed him” (John 1:18). Is this not why “the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us” (John1:14)? Indeed, it is in the very act of showing his face to us that Jesus reveals the Father’s mercy. This is why Jesus said to the Apostle Philip, “Whoever has seen me has the seen the Father” (John 14:9).

Pope Francis highlights this dimension of the Incarnation - of the enfleshment of mercy - when he reminds us that God “does not limit himself merely to affirming his love, but makes it visible and tangible. Love, after all, can never be just an abstraction.”[10] It is, then, something of an understatement when Pope Francis says, “mercy, once again, is revealed as a fundamental aspect of Jesus’ mission.”[11]

For this reason, Pope Francis urges us to seek the intercession of the Mother of God through the Salve Regina, “a prayer ever ancient and new, so that she may never tire of turning her merciful eyes towards us, and make us worthy to contemplate the face of mercy, her Son Jesus.”[12] Pope Benedict XVI offered a similar encouragement when he said:

It is first all necessary to let the Blessed Virgin take one by the hand to contemplate the Face of Christ: a joyful, luminous, sorrowful, and glorious Face. Those who, like Mary and with her, cherish and ponder the mysteries of Jesus assiduously increasingly assimilate his sentiments and are conformed to them.[13]

Truly, much as in the Holy Rosary, we see the life of Jesus in his Holy Face and become like him as we ponder its mysteries.

How can we fail here to remember the blessing of Aaron, so beloved of Saint Francis of Assisi? Invoking the blessing of God, the high priest prayed, “The Lord bless you and keep you! The Lord let his face shine upon you, and be gracious to you! The Lord look upon you kindly and give you peace” (Numbers 6:24-26)! Yes, it is Jesus who is “the visible face of the Father, of the God who manifests his power above all by forgiveness and mercy.”[14] At the heart of this Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy is the desire to look upon the face of Jesus, but to be able to do so he must first turn his face upon us, even as he looked upon Peter (cf. Luke 22:61). We, too, must be purified by the gaze of Jesus to be “a credible witness to mercy.”[15]

The Apostle Saint John tells us in his Revelation, “They will look upon his face” - upon the face of the Lamb of God, upon the face of Jesus, the face of the Father’s mercy – “and his name will be on their foreheads” (Revelation 22:4). But must we wait until the Last Judgment until we attain the Beatific Vision and look upon the face of God? Given our recent celebration of the Ascension of the Lord when “a cloud took him from their sight,” - “not to distance himself from our lowly state but that we, his members, might be confident of following where he, our Head and Founder, has gone before” – it seems so (Acts 1:9).[16] He has gone before us, yes, but he has not abandoned us or left us without reminders of himself because, as Pope Francis reminds us, “love can never be just an abstraction.”[17]

In his first letter, Saint John tells us “we shall see him as he is” and Saint Paul tells us we will see him “face to face” (I John 3:3; I Corinthians 13:12). More importantly, Jesus himself tells us the clean of heart “will see God” (Matthew 5:8). Each of these texts speak of a vision in the future, but if we have not seen the face of Jesus, how will we recognize him when we stand before him “in his glory, and all the angels with him” (Matthew 25:31)?

An empty tomb?

We often speak of the tomb of Jesus as being empty on the morning of Easter, but a close examination of the accounts of the Resurrection - such as they are - reveal something quite different. Regarding the burial of the Lord, Saint Matthew tells us “Joseph wrapped [the body of Jesus in] clean linen and laid it in his new tomb,” a detail also recorded by Saint Mark and Saint Luke (Matthew 27:59; Mark 15:46; Luke 23:53). Saint John, however, refers to “burial cloths” - in the plural - used to bind the body of Jesus “according to the Jewish burial custom” (John 19:40).

Saint Luke, however, adds a curious detail, not recorded by Matthew and Mark, when he describes what Saint Peter saw when he entered the tomb: “But Peter got up and ran to the tomb, bent down, and saw the burial cloths alone” (Luke 24:12). Whereas before he referred only to one cloth, now he speaks of more than one cloth. The tomb, then, was not empty; there were cloths inside!

To this important detail, Saint John adds a few additional specifics that, at first glance, might seem unimportant:

When Simon Peter arrived after [John], he went into the tomb and saw the burial cloths there, and the cloth that covered his head, not with the burial cloths but rolled up in a separate place. Then the other disciple also went in, the one who had arrived at the tomb first, and he saw and believed” (John 20:7-8).

We have, then, several cloths used for the burial of Jesus, but what were – or are – these cloths?

The most famous of these cloths, of course, is the Shroud of Turin, an inexplicable image depicting the body of a dead man, a man who suffered greatly and whose body shows signs of having been crucified. Christians throughout the ages have believed this cloth to be the piece of linen referred to by the Evangelists and see in it the image of Jesus, lying dead in the tomb. Some even try to use it to prove the Resurrection of the Lord, but this is not possible. The image very clearly shows a dead man. The Shroud of Turin can prove that a man died a horrible death. It cannot be the Shroud that caused the beloved disciple to believe because he already knew Jesus was dead and he certainly needed no further proof of this. Still, the Shroud of Turin is not important, for it is, as Paul Badde calls it, “the map of sufferings,” it does not prove the Lord lives.[18]

There is another cloth held in Oviedo, Spain, which is called the Santo Sudario, the Holy Napkin, where it has been preserved since the eighth century. This cloth bears no image, but contains stains of blood and water found on both sides of the cloth. These stains correspond to the dimensions of the lower half of a man’s face.

After investigating the history of the Santo Sudario and after speaking with forensic experts, Paul Badde describes the story contained within these “death blood” stains:

As this man was dying, an edema must have formed in the lungs. When he died, he had spouted blood from his mouth and nose. There was such an enormous gush of it that the hand of some nearby pious Jew – for Romans were not so squeamish in such matters – must have quickly seized this cloth and pressed it against the face and the mouth of the dead. He had wrapped it over again, doubled, because the dead man had been bleeding so freely, and then wrapped it around the back of the man’s head before tying the whole cloth in place… The nose had been broken.[19]

If we compare the dimensions of the head on the Shroud of Turin and the dimensions of the dead man hidden in the Santo Sudario, the dimensions are the same; these two cloths once covered the same body. Once touched to his face, the Santo Sudarioh was not moved about to clean the face, but was bound over the face beneath the Shroud of Turin. Here, then, is a second burial cloth.

Since 1239, a cap has been housed in Cahors, France – it was in Constantinople before – that is said to have been used during the burial of Jesus and bears traces of blood on the inside. Such caps are known to have been used in Jewish burial practices to keep the mouth closed in death. It seems this cap would have been used to keep the Santo Sudario in place before the anointing of the body. We have, then, three burial cloths from the tomb, but what of that other cloth that covered his head, the one found not with the burial cloths but “rolled up in a separate place.”

In the tiny and remote village of Manoppello, Italy, there is housed a cloth utterly unique in the entire world. It is now called il Volto Santo, the Holy Face, though it has gone by several different names in the past, perhaps most memorably as the Veronica. It was certainly in Manoppello by 1636, and possibly even more than a century earlier, having been taken from Rome during the sack of 1527. This cloth bears the image of a man whose nose has been broken and who has a bruised cheek. His beard and mustache are thin and sparse, as if plucked. He has shoulder-length hair which is parted in the middle, with a small tuft above the forehead. His eyes are open and he his mouth is slightly open, as if to smile or speak. His expression seems to be that of a man who has just woken peacefully from sleep. In this Holy Face, we see that God’s love is “visceral,” that it “gushes forth from the depths naturally, full of tenderness and compassion, indulgence and mercy.”[20] In the face of Jesus left for us on this veil, we find “a wellspring of joy, serenity, and peace.”[21] Everyone who has looked upon this face, who has looked into those eyes and allowed those eyes to search their souls, knows that “everything in [Jesus] speaks of mercy,” that “nothing in him is devoid of compassion.”[22]

It is said that this cloth also came out of the tomb of Jesus, that it was the last cloth placed upon his face. This is the cloth John saw in the tomb and because of which he believed in the Resurrection. Saint Peter held up this cloth in the early morning light and saw the face of Jesus looking back at him in the dawn. This cloth proves that Jesus is not dead but risen even as he said! This is the face of Jesus which rests on a piece of byssus, a marvelous material made from the silk of mollusks and which changes with the light; sometimes his face disappears altogether and sometimes his face cannot be missed. Curiously, when we compare the dimensions of the Volto Santo, we find it is the exact same face as that of the Shroud of Turin and of the Santo Sudario.

If the Volto Santo is the face of Jesus, then the Volto Santo is the misericordiae vultus, the face of mercy upon which Pope Francis urges us to direct our gaze throughout this extraordinary jubilee. What is more, this cloth, this face of mercy, is responsible for the first Jubilee of 1300 and played a significant and central role in the first jubilees.

The Holy Face and the Jubilee

The ceremonies marking the opening of a Jubilee – consisting of the knocking down of a brick wall erected in front of the Holy Doors – strikes the modern observer as something perhaps rather odd. It seems the rite itself is the product of the mind of John Burchard, master of ceremonies to Pope Alexander VI met with the ordinary Penitentiaries to discuss the indulgence granted for the Jubilee of 1500. Burchard records a meeting he had with the Holy Father on 18 December 1499:

…I took the opportunity to show his Holiness the place in the chapel of St. Veronica which the Canons of the Basilica declare to be the so-called golden door which was wont to be opened by the Sovereign Pontiffs upon each hundredth year of the Jubilee, which I had also frequently heard said and maintained in common talk (in vulgo). His Holiness was of opinion that it ought to be opened in the same way at the time of the inauguration of the Jubilee, and he gave directions to have blocks of marble arranged and cut for the adorning of the said door to such height and width as the contour of the door showed on the inside, giving orders also that the walls in front and at the side of the said chapel should be entirely removed, that the people might pass through more freely.[23]

It was in the St. Veronica Chapel, built by Pope John VII in 705 in the space now occupied by Michelangelo’s Pieta, that the sacred image of the Volto Santo was housed until the early 1500s when it was brought to the village of Manoppello. Nestled and beloved in the Abruzzo region of Italy, it was almost forgotten by the outside world for more than four centuries.[24]

We know that “…no relic was more famous in the Middle Ages, and none gave rise to such enthusiastic manifestations of devotion” than the Volto Santo,” then called the Veronica. [25] It was to this image that Dante Alighieri referred when he wrote:

Of one
Who haply from Croatia wends to see
Our Veronica, and the while ‘tis shown,
Hangs over it with never sated gaze
And allt hat he has heard revolving, saith
Unto himself in thought: “And dids’t though look
E’en thus, O Jesus, my true Lord and God?
And was this semblance thine?[26]

Dante began his work on the Paradiso around 1308 and completed it in 1320.

A century earlier Pope Innocent III, who carried the Volto Santo in an annual procession from the Basilica of Saint Peter to the church of Santo Spirito, wrote a hymn in its honor, the Salve Sancta Facies:

Hail holy face of our Redeemer,
on which shines the appearance of divine splendor
impressed upon a little cloth of snowy radiance
and given to Veronica as a standard of love.

Hail, beauty of the ages, mirror of the saints,
which the spirits of the heavens desire to see.
Cleanse us from every stain of sin
and guide us to the fellowship of the blessed.

Hail, our glory amidst this hard life,
so fragile and unstable, quickly passing away.
Point us, O happy figure, to the heavenly homeland
to see the face that is Christ indeed.

Hail, O sudarium, noble encased jewel,
both our solace and the memorial
of him who assumed a little mortal body –
our true joy and ultimate good![27]

Innocent III composed these verses in the year 1216. In doing so, he attributed the gift of the image to a legendary woman. As Herbert Thurston explains:

All that we can say of believing that Veronica, i.e., Berenice (Beronike – the medieval Greek pronuniciation of this word is practically identical with Veronica), may really have been an historical personage, though there is no sort of early authority for her meeting our Savior on the way to Calvary. Evidence, however, may be quoted for believing that the woman healed by our Lord of an issue of blood was named Berenice, and that she erected a statue in honor of her heavenly Physician at Paneas, in Syria, representing the scene of her own cure. The widely diffused notion that the name Veronica has something to do with vera ikon (true image) is a fallacy.[28]

Father Thurston may be right about the etymology of the word, but what then seems to be an accidental renaming of this woman could be providential, for the cloth – which has been wrongly attributed to her since the time of Innocent III – does indeed bear the true image of the Lord. But what does this image have to do with the jubilee?

The Jubilee of 1300

Pope Boniface VIII (of Unam Sanctam fame) proclaimed the first Christian jubilee in 1300. A thorough historian, Herbert Thurston, S.J., rightly notes, in his comprehensive study The Holy Year of Year, that

…it is interesting to find that the Bull of Boniface VIII, when prescribing the conditions of the Jubilee, makes no mention of the Sudario or Scala Santa or any other more or less doubtful relic as objects to be venerated during the pilgrimage – these were matters left to the pious devotion of the faithful; but it enjoins only a series of visits to the Basilicas of the Apostles, to wit, the Church of St. Peter at the Vatican, and the Church of St. Paul outside the walls.[29]

Nonetheless, Diana Webb notes in her study of Pilgrims and Pilgrimage in the Medieval West that “the exhibition of the Veronica, which had been growing in celebrity in the course of the thirteenth century, had, however, been a feature of the 1300 Jubilee.”[30] Giovanni Villani tells us in his Nuova Cronica, “for the consolation of the Christian pilgrims, every Friday and solemn feast-day the Veronica or sudario of Christ was shown in St. Peter’s.”[31]

We know the Veronica was shown to pilgrims in Rome on 17 January 1300. While the image was exposed, Pope Boniface VIII, while making his way to the Vatican basilica, encountered a 107-year-old man from Savoy being carried by his sons who was also on his way to St. Peter’s. Boniface VIII asked the frail man why he made such a difficult journey and received this response:

I remember that at the beginning of the last century my father who was a labourer, came to Rome and dwelt here as long as his means lasted, in order to gain the Indulgence. He bade me not to forget to come at the beginning of the next century, if I should live so long, which he did not think I should do.[32]

Seemingly unware of such an indulgence, the Holy Father asked the man what indulgence he sought. “A hundred days’ Indulgence every day of the year,” he answered. Other pilgrims confirmed they shared the same hope as the old man.

Finding no written record of any such indulgence, the Pope sent his cardinals out to inquire what indulgences people hoped to receive through a visit to the Basilica of St. Peter. This oral testimony of anticipated indulgences in connection with a centennial year led to the issuance on February 22, 1300, of the papal bull proclaiming the Jubilee of 1300, which he said had already commenced on Christmas Day of 1299.

Here it is good to remember that the Veronica was enshrined in the Vatican Basilica. Almost a century early, in 1208, Pope Innocent III proclaimed an annual procession with the Volto Santa from the Vatican basilica to Santo Spirito in Sassia. He also granted an indulgence to those who prayed before the Veronica.[33] The succeeding pontiffs added additional indulgences to whomever prayed before the Volto Santo. Could these be the indulgences the pilgrims told the Cardinals about? Rather than being a feature of the jubilee, the we might say the Volto Santo was the cause of the jubilee.

Indeed, the importance and inclusion of the Volto Santo in the first jubilee seems to have been foreseen, if not planned. The parchment on which the papal scribe Leo wrote to explain more precisely the requirements for obtaining the jubilee indulgence contains a curious work of art. At the top of the letter is an image of the face of Jesus (which bears a striking resemblance to the Volto Santo), flanked by Saints Peter and Paul. We find the same image at the bottom of the page, only it is upside down (and not reversed), a seeming reference to the fact that the Volto Santo is visible from both sides of the cloth. This suggests that, though looking upon the Volto Santo was not required per se to obtain the indulgence of the Jubilee of 1300, it was nonetheless of great importance for the pilgrims to Rome. Indeed, by the next jubilee, the pilgrims at least thought they were required to look upon the Holy Face as a condition of the indulgence.

The Jubilee of 1350

When Pope Boniface VIII established the Holy Year of Jubilee as a perpetual institution, he decreed that a jubilee should be celebrated every one hundred years. Pope Clement VI thought differently, though, and proclaimed and celebrated the second jubilee just fifty years after that of Boniface VIII in 1350.  While Clement VI was at Avignon in 1349, it is said that a man holding two keys – presumably Saint Peter - appeared to him in a vision saying, “Open the door, and send fire forth from it, by which the whole world may be warmed and illuminated.”[34] So it was that Pope Clement VI proclaimed the Jubilee of 1350.

Whereas during the Jubilee of 1300 the Volto Santo was shown to pilgrims every Friday and feast day, throughout this second Jubilee, the faithful were given the opportunity to look upon the Volto Santo in the Basilica of St. Peter every Sunday, and every feast day. The number of the faithful desiring to look upon the Holy Face was so great “that many were suffocated or trampled to death.”[35] The same would happen, as we shall see, one hundred years later.

So important was the viewing of the Holy Face to the pilgrims that Alberic a Rosate quotes a document he says is a Jubilee Bull of Pope Clement VI describing the veneration of the Volto Santo as the culmination of the Jubilee pilgrimage. Though the authenticity of the document is of dubious origin, he “implies that to receive the blessing given with the Sudario was one of the necessary conditions for gaining the Indulgence.”[36] Indeed, Thomas de Burton writes that “the sudarium of our Lord Jesus Christ would be shown to those arriving at the said holy city, 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.”[37] Apparently, it was considered sufficient only to look upon the Volto Santo to have your sins forgiven. After all, looking on the Volto Santo is looking on the face of mercy.

Petrarch, too, composed a sonnet commemorating the visits of pilgrims to the Volto Santo:

The palmer bent, with locks of silver grey,
Quits the sweet spot where he has passed his years,
Quits his poor family, whose anxious fears
Paint the loved father fainting on his way;
And trembling on his aged limbs slow borne,
In these last days that close his earthly course,
He in his soul’s strong purpose finds new force.
Though weak with age, though by long travel worn:
Thus reaching Rome, led on by pious love,
He seeks the image of that Savior Lord
Whom soon he hopes to meet in bliss above:
So, oft in other forms I seek to trace
Some charm, that to my heart may afford
A faint resemblance of thy matchless grace.[38]

In one of his letters, Petrarch again referred to the Holy Face, saying,

How well it is for the Christian soul to behold the city [Rome] which is like a heaven on earth, full of the sacred bones and relics of the martyrs, and bedewed with the precious blood of these witnesses for truth; to look upon the image of our Saviour, venerable to all the world.[39]

Indeed, it seems that many opportunities were given for the faithful to venerate the Volto Santo even in 1399, before the Jubilee of 1400 began.[40]

Ser Luca Dominici visited Rome in the autumn of 1399 and in the spring of 1400. In his diary entry for the 7th through the 15th of September, he writes, “The Pope has shown the Sudario every day and given his blessing, and all the beautiful and precious things there are in Rome have been exhibited, and all the relics they can, even things that have not been shown for a hundred years past.”[41] On October 3rd, he writes again that “the Pope showed the Sudario every day.”[42]

Even if there was not an official jubilee in 1400, pilgrims still came to Rome to see the Volto Santo. Ser Luca writes that on April 4th “we received the papal benediction three times, and we saw the Sudario three times and the heads of Sts Peter and Paul twice, and all the fine things of Rome, and we entered by the Porta Santa sixteen times.”[43]

The Jubilee of 1450

Living in Rome during the Jubilee of 1450, Paolo di Benedetto di Cola dello Mastro has left us a description of the principle events of that Holy Year. He writes:

I recollect that even in the beginning of the Christmas month a great many people came to Rome for the Jubilee. The pilgrims had to visit the four principle churches – the Romans for a whole month, the Italians for fourteen days, and the Ultramontanes [those coming from across the mountains] for eight. Such a crowd of pilgrims came all at once to Rome that the mills and bakeries were quite insufficient to provide bread for them. And the number of pilgrims daily increased, wherefore the Pope ordered the handkerchief of St. Veronica to be exposed every Sunday, and the heads of the Apostles, St. Peter and St. Paul every Saturday; the other relics in all the Roman churches were always exposed. The Pope solemnly gave his benediction at St. Peter’s every Sunday.[44]

He continues speaking of the number of pilgrims who came to the Eternal City for the jubilee. They were of such great numbers that accommodations could not be found for them until. Paolo dello Mastro tells us, “When the Pope gave his solemn blessing, all spaces in the neighborhood of St. Peter’s, even the surrounding vineyards, from which the Loggia of the benediction could be seen, were thick with pilgrims, but those who could not see him were more numerous than those who could, and this continued until Christmas.”[45]

Looking at the diary of Stefano Infessura, we can infer that the showing of the Volto Santo and the papal blessing occurred at the same time. “In the said year [1450], on the 19th of December, which was a Saturday,” he says, “the sudario was shown to the pilgrims who were in Rome, and the pope gave his blessing to all the Christian people who were [in] the piazza of St. Peter’s.”[46] Stefano goes on to tell us that a great tragedy happened after the blessing as the people left St. Peter’s Square.

Curiously, Paolo di Benedetto di Cola dello Mastro recounts that the tragedy occurred not because the Volto Santo was shown that day, but because word went round about 4:00 p.m. that Pope Nicholas V would not give his customary benediction that evening and the pilgrims would not be shown the Volto Santo. Consequently, the pilgrims left the basilica by way of the Ponte Sant’Angelo. How we are to reconcile this discrepancy is uncertain.

Either way, we know that a great mass of people left the area of the basilica at the same time and made to cross the Tiber over the Ponte Sant’Angelo. Paolo di Benedetto di Cola dello Mastro recounts that mules and horses became frightened and blocked the bridge, causing many pilgrims to be trampled underfoot or even pushed into the Tiber River. This led the castellan of the Castel Sant’Angelo to close the gate to the bridge. Even so, the fatal blockade lasted for an hour.[47]

Two chapels were constructed across the Tiber, one dedicated to Saint Mary Magdalene and the other to the Holy Innocents, where the Holy Mass was offered every day for the souls of the 172 victims who died in the stampede. These chapels were later replaced with statues of Saints Peter and Paul by Pope Clement VII (d. 1534) and remain there today.

Though the Volto Santo was housed in the Basilica of St. Peter, it seems its veneration was not restricted to the Vatican Basilica. Giovanni Rucellai, a merchant from Florence who was in Rome for the Jubilee of 1450, writes that after the opening of the Holy Door of the Basilica of St. John Lateran – the cathedral of the Bishop of Rome – at Christmas pilgrims from across the mountains took the bricks homes as relics. Once the Holy Door was cleared of the rubble, “the face of our Lord Jesus Christ, which is placed at the tribune of the High Altar of that church, passed through that door; and out of devotion every one who gains the Indulgence passes through that door, which is walled up again as soon as the Jubilee is ended.”[48]

A Tangible and Visible Reminder

In his Dialogue Concerning Heresies, which he wrote in 1528, Saint Thomas More suggests that Jesus

was pleased to leave the holy veronica, also an express image of his blessed face, as a keepsake to remain in honor among those who loved him, from the time of his bitter Passion to this day. Just as by the miracle of his blessed, holy hand it was imprinted and left on the sudarium, so by a similar miracle has it been, in that thin, corruptible cloth, kept and preserved uncorrupted these fifteen hundred years, fresh and easy to make out, to the inward comfort, spiritual rejoicing, and greatly increased fervor and devotion of the hearts of good Christian people.[49]

Why do we need such a keepsake? Moreover, why leave four different burial cloths behind?

The answer is simple: We need them so we can remember what the Lord suffered for us and, more importantly still, so we can remember that he is truly risen from the dead. We need such a keepsake to remember the depths of the Lord’s merciful love. In these cloths, and above all in the Volto Santo, we see that, as Pope Francis writes in Misericordiae vultus, “the Cross of Christ is God’s judgment on all of us and on the whole world, because through it he offers us the certitude of love and new life.”[50]

In the Volto Santo, we see the signs of the Lord’s Passion, of his beatings and sufferings; but we also his love shining forth through the gentleness of his expression, in his mouth forming in a smile, and in his eyes so full of love. In the Volto Santo, we see again that God “does not limit himself merely to affirming his love, but makes it visible and tangible. Love, after all, can never be just an abstraction.”[51]

For the medieval people, however, such keepsakes were not enough. They longed to look upon the Volto Santo, it is true, but they wanted keepsakes of their own; they wanted visible and tangible reminders - early souvenirs, if you like - to commemorate their pilgrimage to the Face of God. Much as pilgrims to the shrine of the Apostle Saint James in Compostela, Spain returned home wearing the pilgrim shell, pilgrims to the Volto Santo returned home wearing patches bearing the Holy Face. Some even returned home with woodcuts of the image and still others with painted copies of the Holy Face.[52]

Among the many souvenirs produced for the Jubilee celebrations were various medals struck in commemoration of the Holy Year. One such medal is said to be from the 1400s but seems to have been made in the early 1500s. Be that as it may, the image on the medal is of great interest to us. On the one side is the bust of Pope Boniface VIII, who opened the first Jubilee in 1300. On the reverse side is “a doorway with a bust or face of our Savior above it, and two candles burning on either side.”[53]

The Volto Santo and the Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy

We have seen the central – and, dare we say, crucial – role the Volto Santo played in the first several jubilees of the Church and with what devotion people longed to upon the Holy Face. Once the Volto Santo was taken from Rome, however, its importance in the jubilees faded from memory, even to the present day. Through Pope Francis, however, the Volto Santo seems to be calling out to pilgrims once more, calling them to “gave even more attentively on mercy so that [they] may be become … more effective sign[s] of the Father’s action in [their] lives.”[54]

In effort to commemorate – and perhaps even restore – this central role of the Volto Santo in the jubilee – a copy of this remarkable relic was recently brought from Manoppello to Rome. It was taken in procession through St. Peter’s Square, through the Holy Door, to the chapel of the Pieta (where the original was once held), through the basilica to the pillar of Saint Veronica, and to the church of Santo Spirito in Sassia when it was venerated by many pilgrims.

Photo: Paul Badde
In his homily marking this historic celebration, His Excellency the Most Reverend George Ganswein called the Volto Santo “the distinctive sign of Christians” and “the first, the most noble, and the most precious treasure of all Christianity” and of all the earth.”[55] The following day, His Excellency the Most Reverend Edmond Farhat called the Volto Santo “the definitive sign” of Jesus’ divinity.[56] In this Jubilee of Mercy, how can we fail to look upon this sign and so, “with our eyes fixed on Jesus and his merciful gaze,” experience the fullness of his love?[57]

If we turn our eyes upon the Volto Santo and ponder this mysteries of the Face of Mercy, we can ponder, as Saint Anthony of Padua says, “how great will be the glory of standing before the Creator’s face, with the blessed spirits, with them to praise without end, and with him who is Life ever to live, and continuously to rejoice with an inexpressible joy.”[58] By gazing upon his face here in this life, may we come to see him face to face. Amen!

[1] Pope Francis, Misericordiae vultus, 1.
[2] Ibid., 2, 3.
[3] Pope Benedict XVI, Angelus Address, 9 August 2009.
[4] Pope Benedict XVI, Wednesday Audience Address, 29 April 2009.
[5] Pope Benedict XVI, Spe salvi, 47.
[6] Pope Benedict XVI, Address to theClergy of Rome, 22 February 2007.
[7] Pope Francis, Misericordiae vultus, 8.
[8] Ibid., 17.
[10] Ibid., Misericordiae vultus, 9.
[11] Ibid., 20.
[12] Ibid., 24.
[14] Pope Francis, Prayer for the Jubilee of Mercy.
[15] Ibid., Misericordiae vultus, 25.
[16] Preface I, Mass of the Ascension of the Lord.
[17] Pope Francis, Misericordiae vultus, 9.
[18] Paul Badde, The True Icon: From the Shroud of Turin to the Veil of Manoppello, trans. Michael J. Miller (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2012), 18.
[19] Ibid., The Face of God: The Rediscovery of the True Face of Jesus, trans. Henry Taylor (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2010), 244.
[20] Pope Francis, Misericordiae vultus, 6.
[21] Ibid., 2.
[22] Ibid., 8.
[23] In Herbert Thurston, S.J., The Holy Year of Jubilee: An Account of the History and Ceremonial of the Roman Jubilee (Westminster, MD: The Newman Press, 1949), 31.
[24] See especially Paul Badde, The Face of God, 69-144 and The True Icon, 88-96. See also Eugenio di Giamberardino, The Holy Face of Manoppello: Tradition, History, Science and Devotion, 21-25 and Heinrich Pfeiffer, Il Volto Santo di Manoppello, 2d ed. (Pescara, Italy: Carsa Edizioni, 2012), 16-23.
[25] Herbert Thurston, S.J., The Holy Year of Jubilee, 153.
[26] Dante, Paradiso, XXXI.11.103-108. Translation in Herbert Thurston, S.J., The Holy Year of Jubilee, 153.
[27] Translation in Herbert Thurston, S. J., The Holy Year of Jubilee, 58-59.
[28] Herbert Thurston, S.J., The Holy Year of Jubilee, 154.
[29] Ibid., 140.
[30] Diana Webb, Pilgrims and Pilgrimage in the Medieval West (London: I.B. Tauris Publishers, 1999), 66.
[31] Giovanni Villani, Nuova Cronica, 9.36. In Diana Webb, Pilgrims and Pilgrimage in the Medieval West, 117.
[32] In Herbert Thurston, S.J., The Holy Year of Jubilee, 13.
[33] Cf. Paul Badde, The Face of God, 135-136.
[34] Thomas de Burton, Chronica Monasterii de Melsa, ed. E. A. Bond in Rolls Series 42, 88-89. In Diana Webb, Pilgrims and Pilgrimage in the Medieval West, 78.
[35] Herbert Thurston, S.J., The Holy Year of Jubilee, 58.
[36] Ibid., 58.
[37] Thomas de Burton, Chronica Monasterii de Melsa, ed. E. A. Bond in Rolls Series 42, 88-89. In Diana Webb, Pilgrims and Pilgrimage in the Medieval West, 78.
[38] In Herbert Thurston, S.J., The Holy Year of Jubilee, 58-59.
[39] Petrarch, Epist. De Rebus Famil., xii.7. In Herbert Thurston, S.J., The Holy Year of Jubilee, 139.
[40] There is some question as to whether a jubilee was actually held in 1400. Cf. Herbert Thurston, S.J., The Holy Year of Jubilee, 63.
[41] Ser Luca Dominici, Cronache di Ser Luca Dominici, ed. G. C. Gigliotti (2 vols, Pistoia: 1993), 175-176. In Diana Webb, Pilgrims and Pilgrimage in the Medieval West, 158.
[42] Ibid., 180-181. In ibid., 159.
[43] Ibid., 233. In ibid., 160.
[44] Paolo di Benedetto di Cola dello Mastro, Cronache Romane, 16-20. In Herbert Thurston, S.J., The Holy Year of Jubilee, 66-67.
[45] Ibid., 18. In Ludwig Pastor, The History of the Popes: From the Close of the Middle Ages, Vol. II. Frederick Ignatius Antrobus, ed. (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, Ltd., 1949), 89.
[46] Diario della Citta di Roma di Stefano Infessura, 5. In Diana Webb, Pilgrims and Pilgrimage in the Medieval West, 121.
[47] Paolo di Benedetto di Cola dello Mastro, Cronache Romane, 18. In Herbert Thurston, S.J., The Holy Year of Jubilee, 69.
[48] In Guiseppe Marcotti, Il Giubileo dell’anno 1450, in Archirio di Storio Patria, iv., 569-570. Quoted in Herbert Thurston, S.J., The Holy Year of Jubilee, 39.
[49] Saint Thomas More, Dialogue Concerning Heresies, ___. Mary Gottschalk, ed. (_____: Scepter Publishers, 2006), ___.
[50] Pope Francis, Misericordiae vultus, 21.
[51] Ibid., 9.
[52] Cf. Diana Webb, Pilgrims and Pilgrimage in the Medieval West, 128.
[53] Herbert Thurston, S.J., The Holy Year of Jubilee, 40.
[54] Pope Francis, Misericordiae vultus, 3.
[55] Archbishop Georg Ganswein, Homily at Santo Spirito in Sassia, 16 January 2016.
[56] Archbishop Edmond Y. Farhat, Homily at Santo Spirito in Sassia, 17 January 2016.
[57] Pope Francis, Misericordiae vultus, 8.
[58] Saint Anthony of Padua, Sermon for the Ascension of the Lord, 5. In Sermons for Sundays and Festivals, Vol. IV: Sermons for Festivals and Indexes, trans. Paul Spilsbury. (Padua: Aedizioni Messaggero Padova, 2010), 251.


  1. Wonderful work, Fr. Zehnle!!! (I am catching up on your posts. I almost missed it due to the recent birth of my 10th grandchild, "Veronica Rose."My heart melted when I heard the name.)You have done such an excellent job putting such a long and complicated history of the Holy Face into a very clear and concise conference, which I wish I could have heard in person. However, I'm very grateful you have posted it here. I am praying for you too, that there will be much more to come! Many blessings and a joyful return to Illinois!

  2. Thank you Fr. Zehnle for your beautiful commentary. We celebrated the Feast of the Holy Face at our parish for the first time this year at St. Elizabeth Seton Parish in Naperville. Carol Surowiec

    1. You're very welcome! Did you celebrate it on the Tuesday of Holy Week?

  3. We celebrated it on the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday.