I published this short defense of the Holy Face devotion on the Sodality of Charity website three years ago. Tuesday, February 13, is the feast of the Holy Face of Jesus, and the principal feast of the Oblates of the Holy Face.
I. The Martin Family
From her childhood years, St. Thérèse of Lisieux was accustomed to venerate the Holy Face of Jesus, as it was represented on the veil of St. Veronica. On April 26, 1885, when she was 12 years old, she was enrolled in the Confraternity of the Holy Face. Together with her were enrolled also her father Louis Martin and her three older sisters, Marie, Léonie, and Céline (mother Zélie had died in 1877). The Confraternity’s headquarters was located in Tours, near the Oratory founded by Leo Dupont, who was inspired to the devotion by the revelations received by Sister Marie of St. Peter (1816-1848). This Carmelite nun from Tours had wanted the world to make reparation for the outrages and blasphemies that disfigured and continued to disfigure the Holy Face of the Savior. Dupont founded the Confraternity at Tours in 1851 and his contemporaries called him “the holy man of Tours.”
In the same year as the Martin family joined the Confraternity of the Holy Face, Pope Leo XIII raised it to the status of Archconfraternity and established it for the entire world. Following the death of Monsieur Dupont in 1876, Charles Théodore Colet, Archbishop of Tours, erected an altar at Dupont’s Oratory and declared it to be a public place of worship. The Bishop celebrated the first Mass there himself and established a group of priests. These were called by the people the “Priests of the Holy Face” and they were to take care of the Oratory and the faithful who worshipped there.
II. The Persecution in France
These were tumultuous times in France. The anti-clerical republicans won the elections of 1877. Afterwards the French state began a secularization program starting with the removal of priests from the ruling committees of hospitals and boards of charity. Public schools were established, and religious instruction was forbidden in them. Also divorce and civil marriage were enacted, work on Sundays was legalized, and religious practices of soldiers greatly restricted, among other things.
Despite these provocations, Pope Leo XIII favored a prudent and cautious policy toward France. In 1890 Cardinal Charles Lavigerie, the Archbishop of Algiers, a French colony, started to preach appraisals to the French Republic, using words which struck French Catholics as scandalous. In February 1892 Leo XIII published an encyclical Au milieu des sollicitudes, accepting the Republican form of government, and writing to the Cardinals in May: “Accept the Republic... submit to it as representing power come from God.”
Because the cult of the Holy Face in Tours had, in the midst of all these difficulties and diplomacy, raised too much attention to its novelty, the Supreme Sacred Congregation of the Inquisition (later known as the Holy Office), abolished the Holy Face Priests group and their work in October 1892. Because of this, many people were thrown into confusion, thinking that this devotion was entirely abandoned. That’s why Father Gaetano Pizzighella, a priest of the order of Stigmatines who was in charge of an Archconfraternity chapel in Verona, Italy, wrote to the Inquisition. Father Pizzighella requested an explanation, and asked if it was still allowed to continue devotional practices to the Holy Face. The Inquisition replied in the affirmative, and that it is not forbidden to do so. Neither the altar with the picture of the Holy Face, or the pious exercise, or the devotion to the Holy Face were forbidden, only condition was that the chapel would not be reserved exclusively to the distinct cult to the Holy Face.
III. St. Thérèse at Carmel
Mother Genevieve of Saint Teresa, the foundress of the Lisieux Carmel, was very fond of the devotion to the Holy Face, and encouraged her novices to adopt it. When Thérèse joined the monastery in 1888, Pauline, her older sister who was also a nun there, told her that the disfigured face of the Savior must encourage her to live in humility. Here Thérèse would remain hidden from the world and become Our Lord’s “little Veronica” who would console Him.
Thérèse was so impressed by this devotion that on January 10th, 1889, the day she received the habit, she added to her religious name the title “of the Holy Face.” She often used stamps bearing the image of the Holy Face.
One month after Thérèse’s investiture, in February 1889, her father was committed to Bon-Sauveur asylum in Caen. The contemplation of the Holy Face would now assume a more prominent place in Thérèse’s prayer. In her mind, she would constantly associate the Holy Face of Jesus with the unrecognizable face of her father. During the family crisis Sister Thérèse grasped more clearly the abyss of humiliation into which the Savior was willing to descend. In meditating the Holy Face, Thérèse reminded herself that her father remained, in spite of everything, the beloved child of the Heavenly Father. Disfigured today, he too would be transfigured like Jesus.
Louis Martin died in 1894. St. Thérèse fell ill with tuberculosis, which eventually killed her. While lying sick in the infirmary on August 5, 1897, with the picture of the Holy Face hung upon the curtains of her bed, St. Thérèse said:
I think of these words of Isaias: “Who hath believed our hearings? There is no beauty in Him, no comeliness. Despised, and most abject of men, a man of sorrows, and knowing infirmity: and His look as it were hid and despised, whereupon neither have we esteemed Him.” (Is. 53:1-3). These words have made the whole foundation of my devotion to the Holy Face, or to express it better, the foundation of all my piety.
IV. The Papal Approval of the Holy Face Devotion
Meanwhile, France herself had not forgotten this holy devotion. Cardinal Léon-Benoît-Charles Thomas, Archbishop of Rouen, wrote to the Sacred Congregation of Rites in 1893 a petition to allow the Mass and Office to be said in honor of the Holy Face of Jesus, because this devotion has been the source of religious revival, and resulted in the acts of reparation and conversions all over France. At that time the Congregation simply replied that there would be no obstacle of granting the request.
But it was only in 1908 when Archbishop René François Renou of Tours wrote a letter to Pope St. Pius X, requesting the Holy Father to establish the proper Office and Mass in honor of the Holy Face. St. Pius X was pleased to agree and gave his permission for the feast of the Holy Face to be celebrated in the dioceses of Tours and Cambrai.
In 1958 Pope Pius XII confirmed the feast of the Holy Face of Jesus on the Shrove Tuesday for all dioceses and religious orders who would ask for the Indult to celebrate it. There are two Masses of the Holy Face. Pope St. Pius X approved the use of the votive Mass of the Passion “Humiliavit” with the proper orations to the Holy Face. The French dioceses of Fréjus and Marseille use the older Mass “Propter te sustínui.”
Prayer to the Eternal Father for our Country
Eternal Father, we offer Thee the adorable Face of Thy well-beloved Son, for the honor and glory of Thy Holy Name and for the salvation of the United States.
The Golden Arrow
May the most holy, most sacred, most adorable, most incomprehensible and unutterable Name of God be always praised, blessed, loved, adored and glorified in heaven, on earth, and under the earth, by all the creatures of God, and by the Sacred Heart of Our Lord Jesus Christ, in the Most Holy Sacrament of the Altar. Amen.