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Lost and Penniless in Italy When I Saw the Face of Jesus

Every traveler’s worst nightmare leads to a divine encounter

By Susan Wills

Two years ago this month, in Rome for a workshop of the Pontifical Academy for Life, I took advantage of the occasion to take small groups of seminarians including my youngest son, on mini-pilgrimages to the shrines of their favorite (mostly young) saints. We prayed at the relics of Gemma Galgani in Lucca and Catherine in Siena, Maria Goretti in Nettuno, Francis and Clare in Assisi, and over a dozen saints in Rome. On the last day of my trip, we’d planned on visiting Gabriel of Our Lady of Sorrows (Gabriele dell’Addolorata) in Isola del Gran Sasso (Teramo), about two hours northeast of Rome, fairly close to the Adriatic. But nothing about that unforgettable day went as planned.

Not long after leaving Rome, driving a sweet Alfa Romeo Giulietta (with six forward gears!), snow started falling. We’d left the Garmin behind, but “the boys” knew the way, more or less, and one had suggested that while we were near Teramo, we detour an hour and twenty minutes south to visit Manoppello where there is a miraculous image called the “Volto Santo” (Holy Face). By the time we stopped for lunch in L’Aquila, there was four-inch deep slushy snow in the parking lot. The toll road then took us higher and higher into the Abruzzi mountains, through tunnels and valleys shrouded in fog. 

The only glitch on our way from L’Aquila to Teramo (having missed the earlier exit for Isola del Gran Sasso) was my not being able to reach the automated ticket dispenser when we got back on the toll road. I had to open the driver-side door in the heavy snow and reach up as far as I could to yank out the toll ticket. It didn’t seem like a big deal until we reached another toll booth where I had to pay. My wallet was gone, along with my driver’s license, all the cash I had, my debit card (foreclosing all hope of getting any more cash) and credit cards, meaning I could no longer pay for anything, including tolls on our return to Rome. It had probably fallen out of my pocket as I dodged the deepest slush in the restaurant parking lot or may fallen out of the car when I opened my door at the first toll booth. We phoned the restaurant and returned to the toll booth without success.

Luckily, before leaving the seminary, one of the boys thought to ask for 20 Euros “emergency” cash. That took care of the very irritated toll guy, but it wouldn’t be enough to take the highway back to Rome. I began to entertain images of sliding off an icy back road in the middle of the night in some remote area of the Abruzzis, missing my flight home the next day or perhaps freezing to death after surviving the crash.

After visiting the shrine of St. Gabriel — the Passionist seminarian who died of tuberculosis at age 24 and soon became a prodigious miracle-worker, as well as patron of youth, students and seminarians — and taking a break to pelt each other with snowballs, the young men and I headed to Manoppello. Another missed turnoff sent us over a mountain where the barely paved one lane road clung to the hillside making a U-turn impossible. The Santuario del Volto Santo (Sanctuary of the Holy Face, elevated by Pope Benedict XVI to a Basilica following his pilgrimage there in September 2006) was closing at 7 p.m. that day and we were losing hope of arriving in time to see the Holy Face.

The rest of the trip alternated between prayers and increasingly desperate suggestions as to how we could raise enough money for tolls and gas to get us back to Rome and get me to the airport in the morning. The most promising idea was to locate a bar and send the seminarians in to explain our plight and pass a hat around. Yeesh.

By some miracle, we arrived at the darkened Basilica and empty parking lot with five minutes to spare. My son and I tried every one of the massive doors to no avail. The other two boys knocked on the front doors of nearby homes where, thankfully, one resident suggested we drive around the back of the Basilica to the residence of the Capuchin friars. By then it was pitch black, but in the headlights we couldn’t miss a very high and very locked fence. The intercom was answered by the Rector, Fr. Domenico, who explained apologetically that the community was about to pray Vespers and have dinner. But then he changed his mind, offering to unlock the gate and meet us at the kitchen door.

Flipping the lights back on as he led us through the narrow halls of the residence and sacristy and into the Basilica and up the steps behind the altar to stand just inches in front of the Holy Face of Jesus, this kindly Capuchin recounted the partly mythic and partly documented tale of how the image of Christ arrived rather mysteriously in Manoppello around 1506 and how it changed hands until it was entrusted to the Capuchin Friars around 1638. Father Heinrich Pfeiffer, SJ, an art historian and professor at the Pontifical Gregorian University, recounts this fascinating “history” here.

The image of the Holy Face was hardly known outside the region before Sr. Blandina Schloemer, a Trappist nun, pharmacist and iconographer from Germany, began to investigate the Holy Face in the 1980s. Overlaying transparencies of the veil and the Shroud of Turin and later the Sudarium (“sweat cloth”) of Oviedo, which bears blood stains consistent with both images, she found remarkable points of consistency among the three faces. They match up perfectly when superimposed on each other. Her studies piqued the interest of Father Pfeiffer.

Intrigued by their research, German journalist Paul Badde embarked on an investigation of the veil, which culminated in his book “The Face of God: The Rediscovery of the True Face of Jesus” (2006). Pope Benedict XVI found Badde’s account so convincing that he chose Manoppello as the site of his first personally-chosen pilgrimage within Italy.

Where did the image come from originally? The sixth Station of the Cross recounts the incident where “Veronica” offers her veil to Jesus to wipe his face and when he returns it to her, the veil bears his true image (vera icon). One version of its history traces it from Jerusalem to Edessa (Turkey) where it remained for 400 years, before being transferred to Constantinople and eventually to Rome in the late 7th or early 8th Century. It is thought to have been reposed and displayed in St. Peter’s Basilica since 1200. A more likely source could be found in the Gospel account of the Resurrection:
  “he bent down and saw the burial cloths there, but did not go in. When Simon Peter arrived after him, he went into the tomb and saw the burial cloths there, and the cloth that had covered his head, not with the burial cloths but rolled up in a separate place” (John 20:5-7).

Badde convincingly argues that the Holy Face of Manoppello was most likely the “Veronica” veil that had been displayed in St. Peter’s Basilica from the 13th Century or earlier. Its dimensions would perfectly fit the double-paned reliquary which held it until the glass was shattered and the veil stolen during the time that St. Peter’s was undergoing reconstruction (1506 to the early 1600’s, possibly during the sack of Rome in 1527). Tiny shards of glass are found embedded in the cloth of the image in Manoppello.

There are many reasons to think that the Holy Face is not made by human hands. The image appears on an extremely fine material — marine byssus or sea silk, which comes from the hairs of a mollusk — mentioned often in the Bible. There is no paint or pigmentation on the cloth. Threads are only slightly thicker than one tenth of a millimeter. The space between threads is two tenths of a millimeter. The image itself is transparent and is visible from both sides. You can clearly look through the image to see whatever is behind it. In bright light, the cloth appears white and the face can’t be seen. But backlit, one clearly sees the face in shades of brown to gray to yellow, depending on the lighting. The gaze of the eyes seems gentle and penetrating at the same time. Byssus is translucent, shimmering really, and so the face seems to constantly change slightly in appearance and defies being accurately photographed.

After giving us an opportunity to pray before the image and marvel at its changing appearance, Fr. Domenico led us to a room filled with photos and transparencies. Photos of numerous icons and paintings created before 1600 bore a remarkable similarity to the Holy Face, as if the Veronica in St. Peter’s served as a template. Later depictions of the veil, showed Jesus with his eyes and mouth closed. We were able to slide the transparencies of the Holy Face, the Shroud of Turin and the Sudarium of Oviedo on top of each other and see the perfect congruence.

Father then escorted us to his office and very generously handed each of us souvenir images and pamphlets. By now it was nearly 9 o’clock and we still had no money for the return trip to Rome. One of the brothers then spoke up, explaining our dilemma. Without a moment’s hesitation, Father Domenico disappeared into an adjoining room and returned with a wad of cash, about 80 Euros in all. With thanks and a promise to repay his generosity, we headed back across the width of Italy. After paying tolls, filling the tank, buying a pannini for dinner, paying 10 Euros to park in the hotel lot and 5 Euros to use the lobby computer to email my family with my arrival time, I arrived at the airport once again penniless, but filled with gratitude for the opportunity to see the face of Jesus and to have been rescued by his Capuchin guardian.

For more information on the Holy Face of Manoppello, the official website is here, and this website has excellent supplementary information. Numerous videos are available on YouTube by searching for “Holy Face of Manoppello.” But there is nothing equal to making the pilgrimage in person and meeting him face-to-face. 

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