According to ancient tradition, Veronica was from Jerusalem and was one of the pious women who encountered Christ on the Via Dolorosa to Mount Calvary. Deeply moved by His suffering, looking into His face pouring with sweat and blood, she wiped it with her veil – and found His portrait imprinted on the cloth when He returned it to her. The white, almost transparent veil measures about 6.5 by 9.5 inches and bears dark red features of a bearded man with long hair and open eyes. The face on the veil is that of a young man who has suffered greatly. He looks tired. The marks of blows that have struck him are clear: bruises and other scars on the forehead, clotted blood on his nose, one pupil slightly dilated. Yet, in spite of the evident signs of suffering and pain, the look is that of a serene man enduring his suffering with patience.
“Jesus took the veil in His hand, wiped His bleeding face, and returned it with thanks. Veronica kissed it, and placed it under her cloak” – (Visions of Blessed Anna Katharina Emmerick).
This event is now immortalised in the Sixth Station on The Way of the Cross. “Your face, Lord, do I seek. Hide not your face from me” (Ps 27:8-9). Veronica embodies the universal yearning of the devout men and women of the Old Testament, the yearning of all believers to see the face of God. On Jesus’ Way of the Cross, though, she at first did nothing more than perform an act of womanly kindness: she held out a facecloth to Jesus. She is the image of that good woman, who, amid turmoil and dismay, shows the courage born of goodness and does not allow her heart to be bewildered.
“Blessed are the pure in heart”, the Lord had said in his Sermon on the Mount, “for they shall see God” (Mt 5:8). At first, Veronica saw only a buffeted and pain-filled face. Yet her act of love impressed the true image of Jesus on her heart: on His human face, bloodied and bruised, she saw the face of God and His goodness, which accompanies us even in our deepest sorrows. Only with the heart can we see Jesus. Only love purifies us and gives us the ability to see. Only love enables us to recognise the God who is Love itself. When considered in the light of Christ’s words about the last days, many will ask: “Lord, when did we ever do these things for you?”. And Jesus will reply: “Truly I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me” (cf. Mt 25:37-40). In fact the Saviour leaves his imprint on every single act of charity, as He did on Veronica’s cloth.
This past Sunday, known as “Passion Sunday”, the Lenten station is kept at the Basilica of St. Peter in the Vatican. At Vespers on this day the Veil of St. Veronica, displaying the Image of Christ’s Holy Face, is exhibited to the public for about two minutes, a solemn ritual that has been celebrated for centuries from the balcony overlooking the temple from the pillar of St. Veronica. The choir proceeds to the front of the altar, to the singing of the hymn Vexilla Regis, while two canons of the Basilica ascend to the balcony of the pillar of St. Veronica. (Each of the four pillars that support Michelangelo’s massive dome was built also with a staircase inside it, and a balcony from which one of the principal relics of the church could be exposed on solemn occasions such as this one.) An antiphon and versicle are sung by the choir, followed by the prayer of the Veil of St. Veronica. A set of silver bells are then rung, and then the Veil is shown to the faithful from the balcony.
(Fr. Z refers to this event in his Sunday LENTCAzT podcast meditation.)
The prayer of the Veil as currently used at St. Peter’s is as follows:
Deus, qui nobis signatis lumine vultus tui imaginem tuam relinquere voluisti: per passionem et crucem tuam tribue nobis, quaesumus; ut sicut nunc in terris per speculum et in aenigmate ipsam veneramur, ita facie ad faciem venientem judicem te securi videamus. Qui vivis.
“God, who didst wish to leave Thy image to us, who are marked with the light of Thy countenance: through Thy passion and Cross grant us, we beseech Thee; that as now upon the earth we venerate it through a glass darkly, so in safety may we see Thee face to face when Thou comest to judge. Who livest etc.”
The original version composed by Pope Innocent III in 1208 is:
Deus, qui nobis signatis lumine vultus tui memoriale tuum ad instantiam Veronicae sudario impressam imaginem relinquere voluisti, per passionem et crucem tuam tribue nobis quaesumus, ut ita nunc in terris per speculum et in aenigmate ipsam adorare et venerari valeamus, ut facie ad faciem venientem iudicem te securi videamus.Qui vivis.
“God, who didst wish to leave as a memorial of Thee to us, who are marked with the light of Thy countenance, an image impressed upon a cloth at the urging of Veronica: through Thy passion and Cross grant us, we beseech Thee; that we may now upon the earth be so able to venerate and adore it through a glass darkly, that in safety may we see Thee face to face when Thou comest to judge. Who livest etc.”
[N.B. Various existing images have been claimed to be the “original” relic, or early copies of Veronica’s Veil, but the lack of firm historical evidence of the authenticity of the cloth held in the Vatican must prompt us to point out that this devotion is not comparable to that shown to the Image of Christ on the relic of the Turin Shroud – the reputed burial shroud of Our Blessed Lord.]
(Information taken mostly from Bible Probe, New Liturgical Movement, Catholic Defense, Fr. Z, and YouTube.)