Navigating the Faith: Devotion to the Holy Face of Jesus


by Dr. Cheryl White, PhD

Illumina Domine vultum tuum super nos…” Show the light of your countenance, oh Lord, upon us.” 

When we think about those we love, the mental image we form is of their face. The human face inspires the recollection of that person’s unique personality and the connection we share. To be able to gaze upon the face of Jesus is therefore a human desire unlike any other. During the time that he spent on earth, his disciples and others close to him enjoyed this with frequency, and countless others through the ages have been blessed with visions. The desire to see Jesus, to contemplate his image, is a wonderfully human manifestation of the great mystery of the Incarnation!

In the history of the Church, there have been two major holy relics that inspired a popular devotion to the Holy Face – the Veil of St. Veronica and the Shroud of Turin. By tradition, a woman named Veronica met Jesus as he carried his cross and wiped his face with a cloth that then immediately and miraculously bore his image. The mention of this story does not appear in any of the Gospel accounts, but there are mentions of Veronica (the name literally means “true icon) in several early medieval sources. The exact location of the Veil of Veronica is unknown today.

The Shroud of Turin has a much stronger history and tradition. Believed by many to be the burial shroud of Jesus mentioned in all four Gospel accounts, the cloth has a historical chain of custody that dates to the mid-fourteenth century, and references to it are found in many ancient sources as well. Exhaustive scientific testing done on the Shroud of Turin has yielded compelling evidence that points to its authenticity. Scholars know that the cloth contains pollen and soil specimens that place it in the area around Jerusalem, and the process of radiation that formed the miraculous image on the cloth has yet to be duplicated, even using technologies available today.

Beginning in the mid-nineteenth century, a Carmelite nun named Sr. Marie de Saint Pierre had a vision of St. Veronica on the road to Calvary, wiping the face of Jesus. She composed a brief prayer of devotion, which she widely shared. St. Thérèse of Lisieux also had a profound devotion to the image of Christ’s face, based upon St. Veronica’s Veil. In 1895, she composed a “Canticle to the Holy Face,” found within her autobiography, Story of a Soul. The canticle opens with the words, “Jesus, your ineffable image is the star which guides my steps, you know your sweet face is for me Heaven on earth…” Popes Pius IX (1846-1878) and Leo XIII (1878-1903) encouraged the devotion to grow through their numerous public references and the granting of indulgences.

However, what is perhaps the most important development in the history of the Devotion to the Holy Face resulted from the advent of photography. In 1898, Secunda Pia became the first ever to photograph the Shroud of Turin, a fascinating relic that bears the faint image of a scourged and crucified man. Because of the startling detail revealed in the photographic negative of the Shroud, there was a renewed and strengthened devotion to the Holy Face. For the first time in over 500 years of documented public veneration of the Shroud of Turin, the face of that crucified man became visible.

In response to this new revelation wrought by a single photograph to the entire world, a Carmelite named Sr. Maria Pierina de Micheli received through visions the instructions to design a medal to help spread the devotion to the Holy Face in 1936. This medal bears the image of the face from the Shroud of Turin on the front, with the words from Psalm 66: “Illumina Domine vultum tuum super nos,” (Show the light of your countenance, oh Lord, upon us). On the reverse of the medal is a radiant Sacred Host, with the inscription of “Mane nobiscum Domine,” (Stay with us, Lord.) In 1958, Pope Pius XII gave official papal sanction to the medal, and authorized the Feast of the Holy Face, still celebrated in Rome and in other places around the world on Shrove Tuesday.

Just as recalling the face of a loved one brings comfort and joy, how much more does the contemplation of the Holy Face strengthen us through His immeasurable love?   •

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