July 18, 2008

Seeking the Face of the Lord

Pray for courage and compassion during your ‘Veronica moments’

(Sixth in a series)

Were you there when she wiped his holy face?”

Tradition gives us the witness of a valiant woman named Veronica as Jesus wound his way up the Via Dolorosa in Jerusalem to Calvary.

Who was she? Was she a companion of the mother of Jesus? Was she a woman who just happened to be passing by on the way to the market? Whoever she was, the Sixth Station of the Cross exemplifies courage, compassion and spiritual practicality.

Courageous Veronica stepped forward to mercifully wipe the bleeding face of Jesus, unafraid of the executioners and their whips. She offered compassion to Jesus, although there is no indication that she knew him to be anything other than a criminal in need. Veronica’s spontaneous act of kindness illustrated a spiritual practicality: She used her own veil to wipe the face of Jesus.

Part of the tradition of Veronica that dates back to the early centuries of Christianity is the detail that Jesus left the imprint of his face on her veil. Apparently, it was a reward for her kindness and, if you will, Jesus left a signature of identification for the one who stepped forward to help him.

The image of the “face of the Lord” is a theme that runs through the Old Testament, especially the psalms. Seeking the face of the Lord, asking the Lord to show his face, appears often in the prayer of the Church.

As many readers know, the theme of the Lord’s face is one of my favorites. I have come to think of this theme in connection with what I call a “Veronica moment.”

When I studied in Rome after ordination to the priesthood, I served as a part-time chaplain to a small hospital or clinic near the college of Sant’Anselmo where I studied. The clinic, which was for women preparing to give birth to children or who had given birth, was named Santo Volto or the Holy Face (of Jesus). It was owned and operated by the Sisters of the Holy Face.

I offered morning Mass for them and distributed holy Communion to the patients. As I served the sisters and the nurses, I was deeply impressed by their compassion and care for the women and babies. I was drawn by their devotion to the face of Jesus, which had a definite impact on their health care. I thought of the clinic of the Holy Face and the spirituality of those who served there as a “Veronica moment.”

The theme of seeking the face of the Lord has stayed with me. When I became a bishop, I chose as my episcopal motto “Seek the Face of the Lord” from Psalm 27.

While I was on retreat at a retreat house in southern Louisiana before being ordained a bishop, I was searching for a symbolic image that might capture my new ministry.

While making the Way of the Cross in the old Jesuit cemetery, I noticed that on every image of the stations the face of Jesus was worn away as if by the winds and storms of the ages. It occurred to me that an image for my ministry as bishop might be to give definition to the face of Christ. I relate the image to a “Veronica moment.”

I have often thought of the spirituality of Blessed Teresa of Calcutta as an example of “Veronica spirituality.” Mother Teresa stressed service to the poor as service to Jesus. She spoke often of seeking the face of Jesus in the face of those around us and especially in the faces of the poor. Her spirituality has had a strong impact on my own spirituality as a priest and a bishop.

The courage, compassion and practical spirituality demonstrated by the woman named Veronica toward Jesus in his Passion is certainly worthy of our imitation.

The fact that she showed compassion for Jesus, whom she probably knew only as a criminal, is significant for us as well.

I think Veronica could be a patroness for mothers and fathers who stand by a child who has a deeply troubled past, who perhaps made a terrible mistake in his or her life. I think we all admire mothers and fathers who remain faithful to wayward children even though they themselves are heartbroken and perhaps deeply embarrassed.

Surely Blessed Teresa could be counted as a contemporary Veronica. She had a deep compassion for the down and out, and she acted on that compassion.

As we pray at this Sixth Station of the Cross, we do well to pray for the courage, the compassion and the practical will to act when “Veronica moments” occur.

The down and out, those who live with devastating mistakes, are sisters and brothers of our extended family.

Jesus said so. †

Local site Links: