Did St. John Paul II call implicitly for a Millennium of the Holy Face? In the very opening paragraph of his Apostolic Letter On the Rosary of the Blessed Virgin Mary, he states: “With the Rosary, the Christian sits at the School of Mary and is led to contemplate the beauty on the Face of Christ and to experience the depths of his love.”
“To contemplate the Face of Christ, and to contemplate it with Mary, is the ‘program which I have set before the Church at the dawn of the third millennium, summoning her to put out into the deep on the sea of history with the enthusiasm of the new evangelization,’” adds John Paul II to emphasize the importance of this Marian dimension.
In Novo Millennio Ineunte -16, he writes, “Is it not the Church’s task to reflect the light of Christ in every historical period, to make the Face of Christ shine also before the generations of the new millennium?” It seems that he envisions not just a Year but a Millennium dedicated to the Holy Face of Jesus.
Pope Benedict XVI continued with this theme. In his Regina Caeli reflection on May 2, 2010, he said, “The Virgin Mary is the one who more than any other, contemplated God in the human face of Jesus… in Mary’s heart the mystery of the Face of Christ was preserved… From her, we can always learn to look at Jesus with love and faith, and to see in that human face the Face of God.” During his pilgrimage to the Basilica of Our Lady of the Rosary in Pompeii, he reiterated that she presents the mystery of her Son’s Holy Face through the Rosary.
That affected the veneration of the Holy Face of Jesus immensely. From the fourteenth century discovery of the Holy Shroud in France, the image venerated in the West was that of the Sorrowful Face. Then, as seen above, Pope John Paul II extended the veneration of the Holy Face to every stage of life, such as in his encyclical Ecclesia de Eucharistia, introducing the veneration of the Eucharistic Face of Jesus.
Pope Francis followed with an Extraordinary Year of Mercy 2015-16. In his Letter of Indiction, The Face of Mercy, the pope declared, “Jesus is the face of the Father’s mercy… Whoever sees Jesus sees the Father (John 14:9). Jesus of Nazareth, by his words, his actions, and his entire person reveals the mercy of God… opening our hearts to a hope of being loved forever despite our sinfulness.”
Therefore the Holy Face of Jesus can be a Door of Mercy “through which anyone who enters will experience the love of God who consoles, pardons, and instills hope… (The Church) knows that her primary task, especially at a moment of full of great hope and signs of contradiction, is to introduce everyone to the great mystery of God’s mercy by contemplating the face of Christ.”
The Holy Face in Scripture
The theme of the Holy Face of God is prominent in Scripture, beginning with the Old Testament. In Exodus 33:18, Moses asks to see God’s glory. God replies, “But you cannot see my face; for man cannot see my face and live.” Yet paradoxically, there are many references to seeking the face of God in the Old Testament, especially in the psalms. The desire to see the Face of God is frequent as is the fear of being denied that blessing. This is evident in Psalm 27:8,9: “Thou hast said, ‘Seek ye my face.’ My heart says to thee, ‘Thy face, Lord, do I seek.’ Hide not your face from me.” Psalm 30:7 laments, “… thou didst hide thy face and I was dismayed.” A confession is made in Psalm 90:8: “Our guilt lies open before you; our secrets in the light of your face”. Psalm 50:9 beseeches, “Hide thy face from my sins, and blot out all my iniquities.” A suffering soul poses the question in Psalm 88:14, “Why dost thou hide thy face from me?” Psalm 119:135 assures wisdom, “Make thy face shine upon your servant, and teach me thy statutes.” Psalm 11:7 promises a blessing, “… the righteous shall behold his face.”
Besides the individual’s prayer, there is also communal expressions. Psalm 67 begins with an invocation, “May God be gracious to us and bless us and make his face to shine upon us.” An invocation for protection is expressed in Psalm 80: “Restore us, O God; let thy face shine, that we may be saved.” Psalm 24:6 gives a description: “Such is the generation of those who seek him, who seek the face of the God of Jacob.” In 2 Chronicles 7:14 a national blessing is assured by God to Solomon, “If my people who are called by my name humble themselves, and pray and seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and heal their land.” In Numbers 6:22-27, the priestly blessing of Aaron over the people emphasizes its importance: “The Lord bless you and keep you. The Lord make his face to shine upon you, and be gracious to you. The Lord lift up his countenance upon you and give you his peace.”
Images of God were forbidden in the Old Testament because they would be designed and made by man according to his imagination. It seems that God had the people “seek his face” in preparation for the revelation of that Face in Christ. Colossians 1:15 declares, “Christ is the image (icon) of the invisible God” – an icon of God given by God, being the true image of God.
The New Testament opens with the annunciation of St. John the Baptist, whose father prophesies, “Thou shalt go before the face of the Lord to prepare his ways” (Luke 1:76). All of the Synoptic Gospels include the Transfiguration of Jesus. It is Matthew in 17:2 that emphasizes his face: “And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his garments became white as light.” In 2 Corinthians 4:6, St. Paul directs our attention to the face of Jesus: “For it is the God who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ who has shown in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ.” Revelation 22:3-4 proclaims its eternal joyful contemplation in heaven “… the throne of God and of the Lamb shall be in it, and his servants shall worship him; they shall see his face…”. We see that devotion to the Holy Face of God in the Old Testament prepared for its realization in the Holy Face of Jesus in the New Testament. This devotion will be expressed in various ways in the history of the Church.
Brief History of Devotion to the Holy Face
The fourth-century Church Father, St. Cyril of Jerusalem, in his Catechetical lectures 10.7, teaches that “Moses says (to the Lord), ‘Show me your glory’ (Exodus 33:18). You see that the prophets in those times saw the Christ, that is, as much as each was able. ‘Show me your glory … that I may see you with understanding.’ But (God) says, ‘You cannot see my face; for man shall not see me and live’ (Exodus 33:20). For this reason, because no man could see the face of the Godhead and live, he took upon himself the face of human nature, that we might see this and live. And yet when he wished to show even that with a little majesty, when his face did shine as the sun (Matthew 17:2), the disciples fell down afraid. His bodily face – shining with less than the full power of him who made it, but according to the capacity of the disciples – still frightened them, so that they could not bear it. How, then, could any man gaze upon the majesty of the Godhead? – The Lord says: ‘You want a great thing, O Moses, and I approve of your insatiable desire, and I will do this thing for you, but measured by your ability. I will put you in the cleft of the rock. Since you are little, you shall lodge in a little space.’” (Exodus 33:22)
A tradition from apostolic times tells the story of an image of the Holy Face of Christ “not made by human hands.” Claimed to have been made by Jesus pressing a cloth to his face, it is linked to a cure of King Abgar IV of Edessa. This tradition identifies the Apostle St. Jude as the bearer of the Image. That is why he is pictured with an image of the Holy Face. Later it was acquired by the emperor in Constantinople. This tradition is persevered in the Eastern Church. It was believed that the Crusaders took this image from Constantinople to the West. Eventually a “Veronica’s Veil” was kept and venerated in St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome.
In the fourteenth century there also arose the belief that the Holy Shroud of Christ was found and venerated in Lirey, France. A few centuries later it was transferred to Turin, Italy. Belonging to the Royal Family, it was rarely exhibited. The last king of Italy willed it to the Pope on condition that it remain in Turin. This emphasized the sorrowful face of Jesus.
A Eucharistic miracle took place in Walldurn, Germany in 1330. A priest at Mass accidentally spilled the Precious Blood onto the corporal. Immediately 12 images appeared: in the center was Christ Crucified and around him were 11 identical Faces of Jesus. A possible meaning is that at the Last Supper there was Christ celebrating the First Mass with his eleven Apostles, since Judas had already left. Pope Eugene confirmed this miracle in 1445.
The modern revelations about devotion to the Holy Face begin in the early 1800’s with Sister Mary St. Peter of the Carmel in Tours, France. Our Lord told her, “Those who contemplate the wounds on my Face here on earth shall contemplate It radiant in heaven.” The Venerable Leon Dupont knew Sister Mary St. Peter and promoted devotion through his miraculous Oratory of the Holy Face in Tours for 30 years.
St. Louis Martin, father of St. Thérèse, visited the Oratory in Tours and enrolled his entire family in its archconfraternity. The sister of St. Thérèse, Pauline, Mother Agnes of Jesus, introduced St. Thérèse to the Holy Face devotion. St. Thérèse’s complete name is ‘of the Child Jesus of the Holy Face’. Céline, her sister, stated in her book about Thérèse that unless you know her devotion to the Holy Face, you do not know Thérèse.
When the photos of the Holy Shroud of Turin were publicized in the 1890s, interest in the Holy Face became worldwide.
The revelations to Bl. Maria Pierina de Michelis regarding the Holy Face started in 1926. Our Lord informed her that “Each time my Face is contemplated, I will pour my love into hearts and through my Holy Face the salvation of many souls will be obtained.” The Blessed Mother showed her a scapular with Holy Face on one panel with the biblical phrase, “May the light of your Face shine upon us” (Psalm 67:1). On the other panel there was a host with rays and the biblical phrase, “Remain with us Lord” (Luke 24:13). Medals replaced the scapular with Our Lady’s approval. In 1939, through Bl. Pierina de Michaelis, Our Lord requested that his Holy Face be honored especially on Tuesdays with a feast of the Holy Face on the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday. A Mass for this feast was approved by Pope Pius XII on April 17, 1958.
St. John Paul II developed this Eucharistic aspect. In Ecclesia de Eucharistia he introduced the theme of the Eucharistic Face of Jesus. The Eucharistic Face of Jesus makes the historic Face of Jesus present in all its mysteries in sacramental form. By this we are put into immediate contact with these mysteries and all their graces. This indicates a liturgical dimension.
In the late 1990s a new dimension in the contemplation of the Holy Face was introduced with the popularization of the Veil of Manoppello, Italy, as the authentic image of the resurrected Christ. The Sorrowful Face on the Turin Shroud and the Living Face of Manoppello have produced the Holy Face in the context of the Paschal Mystery. There is a special Mass text approved in honor of the Holy Face of Manoppello celebrated at that Shrine.
A Meditation on the Holy Face of Jesus
Theme of seeking the Face of God begins in the Old Testament and is fulfilled in the New Testament with the coming of Christ, God and man. This theme is presented in this poetic meditation according to the progressive stages of salvation history. The theme of each verse is as follows: (1) Promised Face, (2) Incarnate Face, (3) Joyful Face, (4) Luminous Face, (5) Sorrowful Face, (6) Glorious Face, (7) Eucharistic Face, (8) Beatific Face, (9) Venerated Face.
THE HOLY FACE OF GOD
Seek the Holy Face of God,
The promised face of the prophets’ cry
The One to come, in time and space
Seek his Holy Face.
Announce the Holy Face of God,
The humble face of Emmanuel
In Him both Heaven and Earth embrace
Announce his Holy Face.
Behold the Holy Face of God
The joyful face of a newborn babe
Sent here to raise our fallen race
Behold his Holy Face.
Proclaim the Holy Face of God
The luminous face of the Living Word
Light of the world in every place
Proclaim his Holy Face.
Revere the Holy Face of God
The sorrowful face of the Savior scorned
Our sins to bear, our guilt erase
Revere his Holy Face.
Exalt the Holy Face of God
The glorious face of the risen King
His victory won over death’s disgrace
Exalt his Holy Face.
Adore the Holy Face of God
The loving face of the Bread of Life
True gift of heaven and font of grace
Adore his Holy Face.
Praise the Holy Face of God
The radiant face of our heavenly hope
Upon whom saints and angels gaze
Praise his Holy Face.
Invoke the Holy Face of God
The merciful face of our blessed Lord
May Christian hearts in every place
Invoke his Holy Face...
The sacred face, the human face,
The Holy Face of God.
O Mary, the Church has been called to contemplate the Face of Christ and to contemplate it with you. Since the mystery of the Holy Face of your Son is preserved in your heart, we ask that you open your heart and show us the Face of Jesus. Open the eyes of our hearts, enlarge our hearts, fix the eyes of our hearts on the Face of Jesus, and enthrone him in our hearts as he is in yours. Form our hearts into shrines of his Most Holy Face. Mother of all believers, unite us with your Son, to contemplate his Holy Face and truly make us one. Amen.
The concluding prayer is composed from those approved by Bishop Robert E. Guglielmone. Verses by Father Stanley Smolenski and Dan O’Reilly (copyright 2012).
Father Stanley Smolenski, SPMA, is co-founder and director of the Shrine of Our lady of South Carolina/Our Lady of Joyful Hope in Kingstree, South Carolina.