Pope Benedict XVI made a private visit, today, to the popularly venerated Veil of Veronica.  Veronica’s Veil is, according to tradition, a cloth used to wipe the sweat and blood from the face of Jesus on his way to the crucifixion.  The veil is believed to have been miraculously imprinted with an image of the Holy Face.

The Pope made his way by helicopter from Castelgandolfo to the shrine, which is located in a remote Capuchin monastery in Manoppello in the Apennine Mountains.  Waiting for him at the monastery were thousands of pilgrims, hold signs and cheering, “Benedetto, Benedetto,” and “Viva il Papa,” Reuters reports.

The Pope waved to the crowd and entered the shine accompanied by Fr. Carmine Cucinelli, the rector of the Shrine, and Archbishop Bruno Forte of Chieti-Vasto.

 “The Pope is making a strictly private pilgrimage,” Cucinelli told the press before hand, explaining that there would be no ceremonial portion of the visit.

The Holy Father is said to have offered a prayer before the relic, though he did not make any official statement as to its authenticity.  “This is the reason for my visit,” Benedict told the crowd after his time of prayer, “so that together we can try to better know the face of our Lord, so that from it we can find strength in love and peace that can show us the path," the AP reports.

"Those who meet Jesus," the Pope told the pilgrims, "those who let themselves be attracted by Him and are ready to follow Him even unto the sacrifice of their lives, personally experience, as He did on the cross, how only the 'grain of wheat' that falls to earth and dies brings 'much fruit'."
"This is the way of Christ, the way of total love that triumphs over death," said Pope Benedict, adding: "This is the experience enjoyed by those true friends of God, the saints, who have recognized and loved in their brethren, especially in the poorest and most needy, the face of God long contemplated with love and prayer. They are encouraging examples for us to follow."
"In order to enter into communion with Christ and contemplate His face," the Pope went on, our lives must be "illuminated by the truth of love which overcomes indifference, doubt, lies, and egoism."

The Holy Father also addressed the several priests who were present for his visit, telling them that if the saintliness of Christ's face remains impressed within them "the faithful entrusted to your care will be affected and transformed." He asked the seminarians present not to allow themselves to be attracted "by anything other than Jesus and the desire to serve His Church." Finally, the Pope exhorted male and female religious to ensure that all their activities become "a reflection of divine goodness and mercy.”

“Searching for the face of Christ must be the desire of all Christians," the Pope said.

Benedict concluded his trip with a brief visit to the Capuchin community where he was presented an iconic rendering of the veil.  Afterwards he and departed for Castelgandolfo.

May the Virgin Mary, the Pope prayed aloud, "in whose face more than in any other creature the features of the incarnate Word are visible, watch over families and parishes, over cities and nations of the whole world.”

The tradition of Veronica and her veil has been passed down through the centuries.  It was not recorded in the cannon of scripture, although the story was written by an early Christian into the apocryphal “Acts of Pilate.” 

While Veronica’s Veil was once held in the Vatican, it disappeared in the 16th century.  According to the Vatican press release today, in the year 1506, exactly 500 years ago, an unknown pilgrim brought the Face to Manoppello and gave it to one of the town notables who kept it in his family home. Popular tradition holds that the “unknown pilgrim” was an angel. Years later it passed to another family who, in 1638, donated it to the shrine of the Friars Minor Capuchins.  Though many have venerated the veil as containing an image of the true face of Christ since the Middle Ages, no Pope has made a recorded visit to the shrine.

Benedict XVI is said to have been intrigued by the image since his election as Pope.  According to the Italian news agency, AGI, German Cardinal Joachim Meisner had stopped at the shrine on his way to Rome, causing him to arrive just before the conclave to elect Pope Benedict began.  Meisner reportedly took a picture of the veil and gave it to Cardinal Ratzinger before his election to the Chair of Peter.  According to Jesuit Father Heinrich Pfeiffer, the Pope has been intrigued by the photo ever since.

The veil, which is protected between two sheets of glass and surrounded by a gold and silver frame, measures 17 x 24 cm (approximately 6 ½ x 9 ½ in.) and bears the effigy of a long-haired, bearded man. His cheeks are dissimilar: one, rounder than the other, appears considerably swollen. His eyes look very intensely upward so the whites are visible under the iris. The pupils are completely open, but in an irregular way, and the gaze is at once questioning and loving, according to the Vatican Information Service.

The cloth has undergone studies to examine its authenticity in recent years.  Pfeiffer, who teaches iconography and art history at the Pontifical Gregorian University, concluded after 13 years of studies that it was genuine. According to Reuters, another scholar examined it under ultraviolet light and found the fibers had not been painted. Some critics, however, point to the fact that "Veronica" is a deformation of Greek and Latin words meaning “true image” (vera-eikona).

Regardless of the scientific proof of the image pilgrims will continue to visit the shrine - some say now more than ever.