Pilgrims from the Italian town of Manoppello, home of the Shrine of the Holy Face, retraced an ancient procession for the first time in 808 years in Rome on Saturday, carrying a replica of the sacred image which scholars believe to be the Veil of Veronica (vera icona "true icon").

Beginning at the end of the colonnade of St. Peter’s Square, a hundred or so people including the mayor of Manoppello processed through the Holy Door of Mercy and into St. Peter’s basilica where prayers were recited and hymns were sung. They then carried the Holy Face to the church of Santo Spirito in Sassia, a few hundred yards away, heading towards the Tiber, where there was Exposition and Veneration, and then a Mass celebrated by Archbishop Georg Gänswein, prefect of the Pontifical Household.

Pope Innocent III first instituted the procession in 1208 when the Volto Santo — the Holy Face – was in St. Peter’s basilica, its home from 705 until the 16th century when Holy Roman Emperor Charles V attacked the city of Rome.

The Holy Face was then stolen, passing “through many hands, and went the route of all the taverns of Rome, without anyone noticing what it was," according to the writings of the Duchess of Urbino. Scholars say it ended up in the tiny village of Manoppello where it was all but forgotten by the outside world for nearly 500 years.

The remarkable story behind the Holy Face has been expertly documented by Paul Badde, who has written a number of books on the image whose history has been likened to a “gripping cultural thriller”. 

“It’s about the reconciliation of the image and the Word of the Gospel,” Badde told me at the start of the procession. “The whole adoration of the Holy Face started here 800 years ago and now it’s coming back to the home of St. Peter, where it should be – it’s an historic step. ”

The procession has significance for the Year of Mercy as the Santo Spirito church used to be part of a hospital. In the Middle Ages, all the hospitals were named after the Holy Spirit and works of mercy were performed as a matter of course.

“It was connected from the very beginning with the sick and the poor,” said Badde. “Pope Innocent III gave each of them 3 denari: 1 for bread, 1 for wine, 1 for meat.”

Asked why the image of Holy Face being processed was a replica and not the real one, Badde said the people of Manoppello are apprehensive the Vatican might keep it. When Benedict XVI visited Manoppello to see the Holy Face in 2006, they wondered if the Vatican "was coming to take it back”, Badde said. For many years, he added, the Vatican was reluctant to admit it had “got away”.

He said Saturday’s procession “might create a new tradition”, especially now. “It re-enters history to speak in the midst of all the noise in a very new, very comforting and immensely quiet way about the incarnation of God in Jesus Christ.”

American priest Father Daren Zehnle, who has been to visit the Shrine of the Holy Face six or seven times, said he fell in love with the image the first time he saw it. Retracing the pilgrimage on Saturday was “deeply moving,” he said, “as if the Lord is calling us to look upon the face of His love, the face of His mercy.”

He also has no doubt the image is the true icon, the Veil of Veronica. “If you look at the evidence put together by Paul Badde, of the historical movements of the Holy Face through the centuries, and if you put that before a court in any country, they would decide in favor of the Holy Face to be that very cloth that came out of the tomb. I don’t see any possible way it could be denied.”  

Father Zehnle has further interesting detail on the procession and the history of the Holy Face here.

In his homily, Archbishop Gänswein quoted Pope Francis in stressing that to bring and give Jesus to others "is the vocation and the joy of every baptized person", and this is “exactly what today is given to us — to become witnesses” by bringing Jesus “in whose face God himself shows His face.”

He added that Benedict often spoke of the importance of contemplating the face of Christ, and Pope Francis also mentioned it in the context of the Year of Mercy: “Jesus Christ is the face of the Father's mercy,” Francis said. “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.”

Archbishop Gänswein concluded: “The face of Christ is the first, the most noble and most precious treasure of all Christendom, even more: of all the earth. Omnis Terra!

“Before this face we ought to open ourselves again and again. Always as pilgrims; always to the outlying areas; and always having before our eyes one goal: that moment when we will be before Him face to face.”