ROME — The Shrine to the Holy Face of Christ, tucked into Italy’s Apennine Mountains, is starting to catch the attention of the world, particularly that of American Catholics.
“We have a lot of Italians, of course, and many Germans, but now we’re seeing more and more pilgrims from the U.S.,” said Trappist Sister Blandina Paschalis Schloemer, a daily pilgrim who lives within eye-shot of the shrine.
The modest basilica houses a curious image of the face of Jesus Christ. Depending on the light, it is at times visible and at other times transparent.
Sister Blandina herself proved that the face is exactly proportionate to that on the Shroud of Turin, but whereas in the shroud, Christ’s eyes are closed, here they are open.
Some believe the image is the storied “veil of Veronica,” the cloth Veronica in the Gospel used to dry Christ’s face as he carried the cross to his crucifixion. Others say it is the “Resurrection cloth,” a sudarium that covered Christ’s face in the tomb. Still others take it as a centuries-old hoax.
What is certain is that none of them can prove how the image — which is present on a fine mussel-silk cloth without the use of any pigments — was created.
Paul Badde, the German author of The Face of God, is convinced that the image is the one and only “Holy Sudarium,” the “napkin” from Christ’s sepulcher that St. John refers to in his Gospel. In revealing Christ’s face at the moment of the Resurrection, he calls it “the first and authentic page of all the Gospels.”
Badde’s book is the story of how he reached that conclusion. When it was published, he sent the first copy to then-Pope Benedict XVI in the autumn of 2005. The Pope subsequently dedicated his first trip to the shrine.
Badde said that interest in the “Santo Volto” has been gradually increasing ever since.
“Benedict XVI’s visit there set a point of no return,” he told CNA. “In 10 years' time we may hardly recognize the place.”
He said that Americans are playing a “key role” among the pilgrims in a place that “had never been heard of” until the 2006 visit. The Chinese are also discovering the Holy Face, and buses filled with pilgrims from Brazil and Argentina are pulling through.
Just last weekend, Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston offered an introduction to an exhibit on the “Holy Face” unveiled in New York City. While the Capuchin cardinal avoided taking sides on the debate of the image’s provenance, he did allude to the strength of such depictions.
“Images of Christ have the power to move our hearts; they can catechize without words and allow us to contemplate the beautiful face of God revealed in his own Son,” Cardinal O’Malley said in his introduction.
In Manoppello, the shrine is run by Cardinal O’Malley’s own Capuchin brothers. The increasing international popularity isn’t lost on them: The latest edition of the Manoppellan friars’ 50-page color magazine dedicates the leading article to an Italian-language reprint of Cardinal O’Malley’s presentation at the New York Encounter event.
Later in the publication, Cardinal Raymond Burke, who heads the Supreme Tribunal of the Apostolic Signatura, the Vatican’s top court, is photographed as he celebrates Mass before the veil.
Pilgrims in recent months include another Vatican cardinal, world bishops, ambassadors from Germany and Costa Rica to the Holy See and even EWTN’s European regional director.
For Sister Blandina, it is no surprise that interest is increasing. She says it is the real deal.
“Here he says, ‘For you, I am here.’ He is always here, and he is waiting for us and for every human being,” she said.
“When we open our hearts, he can manifest himself,” she added. “He can show himself and speak to us.”