Part 1: The Face of Mercy in Manoppello
“The practice of pilgrimage has a special place in the Holy Year, because it represents the journey each of us makes in this life. Life itself is a pilgrimage, and the human being a viator, a pilgrim traveling along the road, making his way to the desired destination…each according to his or her ability will have to make a pilgrimage. This will be a sign that mercy is also a goal to reach and requires dedication and sacrifice. May pilgrimage be an impetus to conversion; by crossing the threshold of the Holy Door, we will find the strength to embrace God’s mercy and dedicate ourselves to being merciful with others as the Father has been with us.” –Pope Francis from The Face of Mercy, Misericordiae Vultus
Human beings are made in the image and likeness of God, and so our souls have a yearning, a natural longing for the infinite. We are called to communion with God, to see Him “face to face.” He is calling us to seek Him, to know Him, and love Him with all our heart, mind, and strength. The history of salvation can be described as a gradual discovery of the Face of God by nations and individuals, marked by their battles, falls and triumphs, as they turn toward or away from the Face of God, on a pilgrimage–a journey which will only end when each person comes “face to face” with God.
The Year of Mercy cannot be complete until we have made some sort of pilgrimage toward God. Although I had made a local pilgrimage to the Door of Mercy at St. Louis Cathedral in New Orleans, I had felt a very strong tug in my heart to return to Italy and re-visit places of pilgrimage that were especially meaningful to me. Together with my husband, I made the necessary preparations, but, the most important “packing” for the journey was to remember on our pilgrimage all those God has given us to love, and their intentions, people that we would like to have with us, but could not make the journey. We especially carried within our hearts those who were too sick, or too old, as well as those who have lost their faith, the deceased, and people in our country and in the world in need of someone’s prayers, placing all in our hearts so that we could carry them, in spirit, through the Doors of Mercy.
We began with the place in which I encountered the Face of Mercy in a very profound way in October of 2012: the Sanctuary Basilica of the Holy Face in the small mountain village of Manoppello. This humble, beautiful village has hidden in its heart, for centuries, what St. Pio of Pietrelcina called “The greatest relic of the Church”–a gossamer-thin byssus veil, bearing, in a miraculous way, an image of the human Face of Jesus.
We arrived very late at night after 28 hours of travel to a hotel in the village very near the Sanctuary. The next morning we walked to the Basilica for Mass, entering the beautiful dedicated Holy Door, engraved with depictions of events in the history of the Veil. My favorite was the panel recalling the visit of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI to the Shrine in September of 2006. It was a year later, that he wrote his moving prayer to the Holy Face in honor of that occasion and elevated the Shrine to the status of a Basilica.
The day after we arrived was a special occasion as well, as the next day, August 6th, was a Feast of the Holy Face, the Transfiguration. The Veil, normally kept in a special reliquary high above the back of the altar (but accessible by a stairway from behind) was to be brought down after the Mass and placed in another movable reliquary, used in processions, near the front of the altar. The Veil would remain there throughout the day for prayers and veneration of the faithful, then be returned to its place behind the altar for the night.
Earlier in the day, on the steps leading up to the relic, I bumped into journalist Paul Badde, who has taken more photos perhaps than anyone of the Holy Veil and written so much about its amazing re-discovery. I couldn’t have been more surprised than if I had bumped into Lazarus emerging from the tomb! Paul has been making an amazing recovery from heart surgery, stroke, and a coma which lasted for more than
three weeks during Lent of 2016. Paul later introduced me to Sr. Petra-Maria, who, I soon discovered, shares with pilgrims her extensive knowledge and love for “Il Volto Santo.” Like two other nuns, who shared similar names–Sr. Marie St. Pierre, a Discalced Carmelite nun associated with the Holy Face in Tours, and Bl. Mother Maria Pierina, an Immaculate Conception nun associated with the Holy Face Medal–Sr. Petra-Maria is a true apostle of the Holy Face of Manoppello. The Holy Face draws her like a magnet; she never tires of gazing at His Face or drawing others to His peaceful, merciful countenance and telling and re-telling the incredible details of the features, the history, and especially, the spiritual significance of the miraculous image. (I’ll have to save those details for a special post.)
Celebrations and entertainment were held in honor the Holy Face in the piazza in front of the Basilica in the evening by local musicians and very talented young people of the community, who gave a very enjoyable musical performance of the life of St. Francis. I’ll never forget the line of young “Franciscan monks” on the stage singing “Andiamo! Andiamo!…” “We go! We go! For the Blessed Mother!” The next day the Holy Veil was brought out after Mass on the Feast of the Transfiguration for the day and in the evening there was planned a solemn procession with the Veil and benediction. But, as in all things in life, plans change… (To be continued in Pt.2)