Courtesy of Paul Badde
May 18, 2020
Eucharistic celebration in the Parish Church of Manoppello
Before the Holy Face
Archbishop Bruno Forte's homily
Today's Eucharistic celebration is an act of praise to God for the gift of the precious sudarium of the crucified Lord, preserved in the Basilica of the Holy Face, present among us today on the occasion of the annual feast of the third Sunday of May, which commemorates the arrival of the relic in Manoppello. This thanksgiving, moreover, takes place on the centenary of the birth of Karol Wojtyla, St. John Paul II, who on this date in 1920 came into the world in Wadowice, Poland. The mystery proclaimed by the Word of God from the liturgy of Easter time is thus united to the double mystery we are celebrating, the luminous one linked to the Face of the Savior and the one depicted by the figure of this great Saint, who was a loving witness to the Redeemer, springing from a union with Him that I would not hesitate to define as mystical, whose depths I could perceive throughout the entire week that I spent with him, when I had the grace to preach the spiritual exercises for him in 2004, which he intensely and faithfully followed, and which were also the last of His earthly life.
The reading from the Acts of the Apostles (16:11-15) demonstrates the exquisite attention that the Apostle Paul pays to human relations: in addition to his efforts to visit the communities he founded to see the brethren in person, the consideration he shows towards women, to whom he turns with great freedom to announce to them the good news, is striking, not hesitating to accept the invitation of Lydia, a dealer in purple cloth, a believer in God, to go as a guest in her household. We could say that Paul's attention to faces is revealed here, that is, to people in their unique and concrete stories: if we were to ask ourselves from whom a fervent Hebrew such as Saul had learned to pay so much attention to faces, especially to female ones, traditionally neglected by the rather masculine culture of his time, we could only answer that he had learned it from his mystical contemplation of the One he had met on the way to Damascus and who, speaking to him one on one, had said to him: "Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?" (Acts 9:4). The vision became in the heart of the fervent persecutor a precise question: "Who are you, O Lord?", to which he received the revealing answer: "I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting!" (v. 5). The role of the Face of Jesus, expressed in appearance and in voice, is decisive for the vocation of the one who will become the great Apostle of the peoples, as Ananias will confirm to him, "the Lord sent me to you, that Jesus who appeared to you on the way you were traveling" (v. 17): from our personal encounter with the Face of Christ, our lives are transformed, even transfigured, to become with the grace from on high lives of apostles, stories of humility, charity and holiness in the service of the Gospel. From the encounter with the Face of the Lord comes conversion and mission.
The text taken from the Gospel according to John (15:26-16:4), then, makes us understand who makes possible this meeting so personal and transformative with Christ, leaping over the chasm of the centuries that separate us from the days of His flesh: it is the Spirit, the Paraclete that Jesus sends from the Father, the Spirit of truth that testifies to Him and makes it possible for us to bear witness, if we abide with Him and remain united to Him. Once again, the Face of the Savior reaches us with absolute concreteness in the strength of His Spirit, and looking at us and calling us makes us able to love as He asks and to become witnesses of this love at the cost of one’s life, as so often the persecutions of Christians have shown in the history of humanity. Not only, therefore, does the Face of the Beloved send forth the disciple, but it is also the source of the strength that reaches out to him and that makes possible the otherwise impossible ability to bear witness, completely and without fear, to Him who is risen, The Face that sends us forth by His voice is the same Face that looks at us, accompanies us, supports us and awaits us in the infinite beauty of the final encounter in beauty and joy, which will never know sunset. From the Holy Face of Jesus, contemplated and loved, comes the strength of our missionary passion and fidelity stronger than any trial..
The Face of Jesus was also for St. John Paul II the source of his vocation and mission and the strength to bring these to completion in the absolute fidelity of his whole life: in the two long dialogues that I had with him during the exercises of 2004, the Pope recounted to me - among many other beautiful things - a phrase, which in my opinion shows in a tangible way the mystical union that He lived with Christ. Speaking of the challenges faced in serving the Church and bringing to the world the good news of salvation that does not disappoint, John Paul II paused for a moment, and then added with a particularly expressive face, as if marked by memories, these words: "The Pope must suffer". He emphasized that "must" with a particular intensity, which instinctively reminded me of Jesus' phrase addressed to the disciples of Emmaus: "O foolish men and slow of heart to believe in all that the prophets have spoken! Didn't Christ have to undergo this suffering in order to enter into his glory?" (Lk 24:25-26). It is the law of love, the need to pay with one’s life the price of the gift of self for the sake of others, summed up, for example, in the words of Paul and Barnabas, reported by the Acts of the Apostles: "After preaching the gospel in that city and making a considerable number of disciples, they returned to Lystra, Iconium, and Antioch, strengthening the souls of the disciples and urging them to remain steadfast in the faith because, they said, it is necessary to go through many tribulations to enter the kingdom of God." (Acts 14:21-22) As with the Apostle, so for St. John Paul II, the strength to endure so many trials can only come from the Lord Jesus, from His Face radiating light, love, and courage: "I can do all things in Him who strengthens me" (Phil. 4:13).
It is also the holy Pope himself who reveals to us this mystical secret of his life: he does so, certainly, with the discretion and modesty of those who speak of the unspeakable, but also with the conviction of those who have had a true and profound experience of loving and dialoguing knowledge and contemplation of the Face of the Lord. In a prayer recited during his pastoral visit to the Archdiocese of Lucca (September 23-24, 1989), a city where a wooden crucifix revered as the Holy Face (Volto Santo) of Christ is preserved, St. John Paul II pronounced words which reveal profound depths of faith and mystical union, and which we can address with humility and love to the Holy Face imprinted on the sudarium, venerated in this place: "Lord Jesus, crucified and risen, image of the glory of the Father, Holy Face who looks at us and scrutinizes us, merciful and meek, to call us to conversion and invite us to the fullness of love, we adore you and we thank you. In your luminous Face, we learn how we are loved and how we are to love; where freedom and reconciliation are found; how to become builders of the peace that radiates from you and leads to you. In your glorified Face we learn to overcome all forms of selfishness, to hope against all hope, to choose the works of life against the actions of death. Give us the grace to place you at the center of our lives; to remain faithful, amidst the perils and changes of the world, to our Christian vocation; to announce to the peoples the power of the Cross and the Word that saves; to be alert and hard working, attentive to the least of the brethren; to grasp the signs of true liberation, which has begun and will be fulfilled in you. Lord, grant your Church to stand, like the Virgin Mother, at your glorious Cross and at the crosses of all men to bring consolation, hope, and comfort to them. May the Spirit you have given us bring to maturity your work of salvation, so that all creatures, freed from the constraints of death, may contemplate in the glory of the Father your Holy Face, which luminously shines for ever and ever. Amen.