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Father Richard Kunst: Something better than seeing the face of Jesus

My favorite piece of real estate on earth (as I have probably mentioned before) is Rome, Italy. For years, I have led small group tours of six to eight people there, and I never tire of doing it. I tire of the flights, but not of Rome. You can learn more about church history and even theology in one week in Rome than you would a whole semester in college, and that is what I love. 

Father Richard Kunst

That being said, there is one church in Rome that offers a more spiritual experience than all the others, and that is the Basilica of Santa Croce in Gerusalemme. Way on the outskirts of the city, Santa Croce is literally built on dirt taken from Calvary in Jerusalem, so it is literally built on holy ground, but it’s what’s on the inside that makes this basilica a category all on its own. 

After Christianity was made legal, St. Helena, the mother of the emperor Constantine, traveled to the holy land to collect all the significant relics associated with Jesus. What she collected was brought back to Rome, and pretty much ever since, these highly significant relics have been kept in the same church: relics such as the largest portion of the cross Jesus was crucified on, a portion of the cross of the “good thief,” a nail from the crucifixion, and perhaps most impressive the “titula,” which is the sign hung above the cross, which is often portrayed in art as “INRI.” 

These relics and others are tastefully displayed in a side chapel, where the visitor can get right up to the glass, just inches away from these most precious relics, an experience that for many people becomes a pretty emotional one. 

After the close encounter with the sacred relics, you are led to a smaller room in which you get another close-up experience, this time with an exact replica of the Shroud of Turin, the reported burial cloth of Jesus with the miraculous image of both his front and back side. Looking at the closest thing we have to a photograph of Jesus immediately after seeing the relics associated with his Passion tends to leave some people speechless, a true spiritual experience that I love watching people have. It is indeed a moving experience, and in a way Jesus himself predicted it. 

In the 17th chapter of Luke’s Gospel, while Jesus is speaking to his disciples about the end of time and the second coming, he says, “The days will come when you will long to see one of the days of the Son of Man, but you will not see it” (Luke 17: 22). The longing to see the face of Jesus has always been a part of the life of the faithful Christian. This, I suppose, is one of the reasons why the Shroud of Turin has so captivated Christians for so long. 

Is the face we see on the shroud really Jesus? Is that what he really looked like? Visiting Santa Croce in Rome and seeing the replica of the shroud right after seeing the actual relics associated with Jesus’ Passion becomes an experience unlike any other. It makes Jesus’ words pretty real; “The days will come when you will long to see one of the days of the Son of Man.” Wanting to see Jesus face to face is part and parcel of being a faithful Christian. 

As an amateur papal historian, I tend to think of Pope Benedict XVI (2005-2013) as one of the greatest theologians who has ever sat on the papal throne, but the greatest of all papal theologians was Pope Leo I, also known as Pope Leo the Great (440-461). When it comes to being able to see Jesus face to face, Pope Leo said something that should give us as Catholics a sense of pride but also comfort. The great theologian pope said, “What was to be seen of our redeemer has passed over into the sacraments.” 

Read that a few times and let it sink in. 

We cannot see Jesus anymore, at least not in his physical human form. Though going to the Basilica of Santa Croce in Rome might get us close, the fact is, he has ascended body and soul into heaven, so he is not here in his physical form. But really we have something better in the sacraments. Pope Leo the Great makes clear that this Jesus Christ who was walking the dusty streets of Palestine 2,000-plus years ago is one and the same in the sacraments. And when it comes to the Blessed Sacrament, this very presence and person of Christ enters into us every time we receive the Eucharist, and that is certainly better than just looking at Jesus. 

You may never get the opportunity to visit the Basilica of Santa Croce in Rome, but you don’t have to. Just go to Mass on Sunday and you will experience something far greater. 

Father Richard Kunst is pastor of St. James and St. Elizabeth in Duluth. Reach him at [email protected].