We may be sure that a season so sacred as this of Lent is rich in mysteries. The Church has made it a time of recollection and penance, in preparation for the greatest of all her feasts; she would, therefore, bring into it everything that could excite the faith of her children, and encourage them to go through the arduous work of atonement for their sins. During Septuagesima, we had the number “seventy”, which reminds us of those seventy years of captivity in Babylon, after which God’s chosen people, being purified from idolatry, was to return to Jerusalem and celebrate the Pasch. It is the number “forty” that the Church now brings before us: a number, as St. Jerome observes, which denotes punishment and affliction.
This ancient and venerable Catholic practice is rooted in the representation of the face of Christ said to have been left on the towel or veil used by a holy woman thought to be named, Veronica. An Archconfraternity of the Holy Face was established in Tours, France, 1884; its members make reparation for the blasphemies hurled at Christ. Since St. Therese’s devotion to the Holy Face has become known, this devotion has spread worldwide.
In addition, a devout and pious nun, Sr. Pierina, who died in 1945, was given many visions through Our Blessed Lady who appeared to her, as did Our Lord Jesus. They urged her to make reparation for the many insults Jesus suffered in His Passion, such as to be slapped, spit upon and kissed by Judas, as well as now being dishonored in many ways in the Blessed Sacrament by neglect, sacrileges, and profanations.
She was given a medal which on one side bore a replica of the Holy Shroud and the inscription: “Illumina, Domine, vultum tuum super nos.” [O Lord, the light of Thy countenance shine upon us.] On the reverse side was a radiant host with the words: “Mane nobiscum, Domine.” [Stay with us, O Lord.] After great difficulties, Sr. Pierina obtained permission to have the medal cast. Even the expenses for the casting were miraculously met when she found on her desk an envelope with the exact amount of the bill—–11,200 lire.
The Evil Spirit showed his chagrin and rage at the medals by flinging them down and burning the pictures of the Sacred Face, and beating the nun savagely.
In 1940, when the Second World War had the world in turmoil, Italy saw a wide distribution of the medal: soldiers, sailors and pilots were provided with the replica of the Holy Face since the medal was already famous for its miracles and countless spiritual and temporal favors.
In Our Blessed Mother’s own word, the medal is a weapon for defense, a shield for courage, a token of love and mercy and which her Divine Son wished to give the world in these troubled days of lust and hatred for God and His Church. Devilish snares have been set to rob the hearts of men of their faith while evil spreads the world over. Genuine apostles are few. A Divine remedy to all these evils will be the Adorable Face of her Son, Jesus.
Whoever wears this medal and, if possible, pays a visit to the Blessed Sacrament on Tuesday in a spirit of reparation for the outrages received by the Holy Face of Our Blessed Savior during His Passion and those bestowed on Him every day in the Sacrament of His Divine Love, will be granted the gift of a strong Faith and the grace to fly to its defense, conquering if need be, all exterior and interior difficulties. Moreover, they are promised a happy death with special assistance of Christ Himself.
The very first medal of the Holy Face was offered to our glorious Pontiff, Pius XII; then the whole world became acquainted with this special object of holy favors and devotion. No soldier taken as a prisoner of war, and who wore the medal was ever executed. Our Blessed Lord requested that a special feast be instituted to honor His Holy Face on Shrove Tuesday. Pope St. Pius XII obeyed and had this day set aside to honor the Holy Face in 1958.
Shrovetide is the English equivalent of what is known in the greater part of Southern Europe as the “Carnival”, a word which, in spite of wild suggestions to the contrary, is undoubtedly to be derived from the “taking away of flesh” (carne levare) which marked the beginning of Lent. The English term “shrovetide” (from “to shrive”, or hear confessions) is sufficiently explained by a sentence in the Anglo-Saxon “Ecclesiastical Institutes” translated from Theodulphus by Abbot Aelfric about A.D. 1000: “In the week immediately before Lent everyone shall go to his confessor and confess his deeds and the confessor shall so shrive him as he then may hear by his deeds what he is to do [in the way of penance]”. In this name shrovetide the religious idea is uppermost, and the same is true of the German Fastnacht (the eve of the fast). It is intelligible enough that before a long period of deprivations human nature should allow itself some exceptional licence in the way of frolic and good cheer. No appeal to vague and often inconsistent traces of earlier pagan customs seems needed to explain the general observance of a carnival celebration. The only clear fact which does not seem to be adequately accounted for is the widespread tendency to include the preceding Thursday (called in French Jeudi gras and in German fetter Donnerstag — just as Shrove Tuesday is respectively called Mardi gras and fetter Dienstag) with the Monday and Tuesday which follow Quinquagesima. The English custom of eating pancakes was undoubtedly suggested by the need of using up the eggs and fat which were, originally at least, prohibited articles of diet during the forty days of Lent. The same prohibition is, of course, mainly responsible for the association of eggs with the Easter festival at the other end of Lent. Although the observance of Shrovetide in England never ran to the wild excesses which often marked this period of licence in southern climes, still various sports and especially games of football were common in almost all parts of the country, and in the households of the great it was customary to celebrate the evening of Shrove Tuesday by the performance of plays and masques. One form of cruel sport peculiarly prevalent at this season was the throwing at cocks, neither does it seem to have been confined to England. The festive observance of Shrovetide had become far too much a part of the life of the people to be summarily discarded at the Reformation. In Dekker’s “Seven Deadly Sins of London”, 1606, we read: “they presently, like prentices upon Shrove-Tuesday, take the game into their own hands and do what they list”; and we learn from contemporary writers that the day was almost everywhere kept as a holiday, while many kinds of horseplay seem to have been tolerated or winked at in the universities and public schools.
The Church repeatedly made efforts to check the excesses of the carnival, especially in Italy. During the sixteenth century in particular a special form of the Forty Hours Prayer was instituted in many places on the Monday and Tuesday of Shrovetide, partly to draw the people away from these dangerous occasions of sin, partly to make expiation for the excesses committed. By a special constitution addressed by Benedict XIV to the archbishops and bishops of the Papal States, and headed “Super Bacchanalibus”, a plenary indulgence was granted in 1747 to those who took part in the Exposition of the Blessed Sacrament which was to be carried out daily for three days during the carnival season.