Masked Faces and the Holy Face

The news ripped through my computer like an electrical shock. In the midst of the lockdown, through my parish’s daily Mass uploaded to YouTube, the father of a former student was announced among the sick in need of prayers. A few days later, I learned in the same manner that Joe Senior had died. I sought in vain to find news; there was no wake, funeral, or public obituary, and my inquiry to the parish went unanswered. I knew Joe Senior from the four years I taught his son; the two even shared the spoils of their hunting trip with my family so many years ago. My heart ached for both of them, and for Joe’s wife, whom I also got to know.

A few weeks later, as I assisted with seating for Sunday Mass (at 25 percent of church capacity), in walked Joe Junior with his mom. My eyes locked on hers, and I felt my face curl in sympathy. Yet my expression went unanswered, or so it seemed. A mask concealed my face from her, and hers from me. We could not embrace. I attempted to express my sorrow and learn what happened, but it was impossible to do so behind the voice-muffling mask. The strip of cloth that was protecting our health was, at the same time, sickening our souls. The masks created an awkward and painful moment.

This is not an argument against wearing masks to prevent the spread of coronavirus. We must do what we must do. It is, first, another reminder (the pandemic has been prolific in generating them) of something precious that we take for granted: facial expressions, which are the most quintessentially human of gestures. Like sacraments, they make visible the invisible yearnings of the heart, often before a single word forms on our lips. Whether in a moment of grief, triumph, or joy, countenance opens a window to the soul.

Masks, we hope, will become relics of an unforgettable year once COVID-19 is vanquished. For now, though, masks unwittingly alienate us from each other in the true sense of the word: they make us aliens, foreigners, from even our close friends. Masks have even transformed the casual smile toward a stranger, that simple, kindly, and almost reflexive gesture, into an odd stare. Cloaked faces hide our true selves, and form a barrier to fulfilling our vocation as men and women called to communion with each other in Jesus Christ.


My masked encounter also prompted me to think of a face that went uncovered despite threatening dangers: our Lord’s holy face, unprotected from the spittle and blows of His captors. There is a pious devotion, not as well known as it should be, to the holy face of Jesus that I had forgotten. I realized instantly that our current pandemic and civilizational crisis is the perfect impetus for taking it up.

An image of our Lord’s holy face is miraculously preserved on Veronica’s veil, now kept inside St. Peter’s Basilica. In the 1840s, as political revolution was sweeping Europe, our Lord revealed to Sister Marie de Saint-Pierre, a French Carmelite, that blasphemy and profanation of Sundays wounded His sacred heart like a “poisoned arrow.” Blasphemy, in particular, He likened to being cursed in His face.

He asked that we offer His holy face in prayer to God the Father in reparation and for the conversion of sinners. As antidote, He presented the “Golden Arrow” prayer to be recited daily, and, along it, this simple prayer: “Eternal Father, I offer Thee the adorable face of Thy beloved Son for the honor and glory of Thy Name, for the conversion of sinners and the salvation of the dying.”

Venerable Leo Dupont, a friend of Sister Marie, spread devotion to the holy face of Jesus in France, where miraculous healings attributed to the holy face began to occur. Pope Leo XIII approved the devotion, establishing the Archconfraternity of Reparation to the Holy Face of Jesus so Catholics worldwide could participate. Among the most enthusiastic was France’s Martin family, whose daughter, when she entered the Carmel, took the religious name Thérèse of the Child Jesus and the Holy Face.

The young saint composed her own beautiful prayer to the holy face of Jesus, one whose beginning is particularly apt for our times. “O Jesus . . . I venerate the sacred face whereon there once did shine the beauty and sweetness of the Godhead; but now it has become as it were the face of a leper! Nevertheless, under those disfigured features, I recognize Thine infinite love.”

The holy face of Jesus is the perfect locus of meditation for a nation whose medical and civic lives are at a crossroads. Our universal prayer right now, though coming from the depths of our hearts, is simple: Deliver us from evil. The only One who can do so goes unrecognized, masked from increasing numbers by sins of every kind. Only if we heed His command to make reparation for our sins and for those who dishonor Him will He repair us. And only when we are repaired first does our broader civic life have any chance of its own repair.

Veronica had neither office nor power. Yet her seemingly tiny gesture of compassion towards our Lord’s holy face remains impactful today, unlike any of the political actions of her day. As we gaze upon the holy face, let us remember that the only way to overcome our current alienation is through a greater love of God.


*Image: Saint Veronica with the Veil by Mattia Pretti, c. 1653 [L.A. County Museum of Art, Los Angeles, CA]

David G. Bonagura Jr. an adjunct professor at St. Joseph’s Seminary and is the 2023-2024 Cardinal Newman Society Fellow for Eucharistic Education. He is the author of Steadfast in Faith: Catholicism and the Challenges of Secularism and Staying with the Catholic Church, and the translator of Jerome’s Tears: Letters to Friends in Mourning.