VATICAN CITY/MANOPPELLO, Italy — Ever since his election a year ago, Pope Benedict XVI has repeatedly called on Catholics to contemplate the face of Christ, and renewed that message forcefully throughout the recent Lenten season.
“We must help others to find God in the merciful face of Christ,” Benedict wrote in this year’s Lenten Message. “Without this perspective,” he added, “civilization lacks a solid foundation.”
Then, in his weekly general audience address on Ash Wednesday, he called on the faithful to contemplate Christ’s face in order to look with greater understanding on the poor and non-Christians.
“Those who begin to recognize God, to look at the face of Christ, also see their brother with other eyes, discover their brother, what is good for him, what is bad for him, his needs,” he said.
In many ways, Benedict’s emphasis is a continuation of Pope John Paul II’s 2000 apostolic letter, Novo Millennio Ineunte (At the Beginning of the New Millennium). The letter recalled the strength of the witness of the Great Jubilee Year, stressing that it would be “hopelessly inadequate if we ourselves had not first contemplated his face [his italics].” John Paul wrote how confession is essential to such contemplation and concluded, “If we have truly contemplated the face of Christ, dear Brothers and Sisters, our pastoral planning will necessarily be inspired by the ‘new commandment’ which he gave us: ‘Love one another, as I have loved you’.”
Benedict will be raising this theme even more concretely later this year when, possibly next month, he will travel to the Abruzzi mountains of Italy and visit the Holy Face of Manoppello — an icon of Christ which some experts say is the veil Veronica used to wipe the brow of Jesus on his way to his crucifixion.
The visit has not yet been officially confirmed, but sources close to the Pope and Archbishop Bruno Forte, in whose diocese the image is located, say that he has promised to visit the image.
Sometimes dubbed the “second
Shroud of Turin,” the Holy Face is an image of a man who has suffered, is
marked with scars, yet whose mood is serene. It was verified as the true veil
of Veronica seven years ago by Jesuit Father Heinrich Pfeiffer, professor of
History of Art at the
Some scholars — many of whom have
yet to see the veil in person — have been skeptical and the
Trappist Sister Blandina
Paschalis Schlömer from the abbey of Maria Frieden in
When seen properly, the image is enigmatic. Christ’s face, which appears on a very thin, nylon-like substance, changes in expression depending on whether the image is lit from the front or the back. Moreover, its dimensions fit exactly with the face imprinted on the Shroud of Turin, and scholars have verified that there is no trace of paint on the cloth. When viewed against the light, the cloth becomes transparent and the image strangely disappears.
Benedict, for whom contemplating the face of Christ is such an important part of one’s faith, would now like to see the image for himself.
“Time and again he comes back to the human face of God,” said Paul Badde, author of a German book on the Holy Face of Manoppello, Das Göttliche Gesicht (The Godly Face). “This will be an improvement on that theme.”
Badde disclosed that Benedict had, in fact, been inspired to write his first encyclical Deus Caritas Est (God Is Love) by references to the holy face of Christ in Dante’s “Divine Comedy.” In the book, the inner light of paradise is filled not with a brighter light, but with the gentle face of a human being: the face of Jesus Christ. The story’s moving climax is of Dante’s journey from hell to paradise where he discovers that God has a “human face.”
Contemplating the face of Christ, Badde added, is also part of Benedict’s efforts to rediscover and return to the roots of the Church and Christianity.
“For Benedict, the key element of Christianity is that we discover personhood,” explained Badde. “This distinguishes us from all other religions because before one can have a concept of the dignity of the human being, you first have to develop idea of person. And as Catholics, who see God as a person through Christ, we are able to have this deep reflection of God.”