It was the first time I was shocked after walking into a church.
What took me aback during our family trip to Italy seven years ago was the enormous statue of St. Veronica in St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. St. Veronica! I don’t recall ever seeing her, a fixture on Stations of the Cross plaques and facades, as a free-standing statue before. My inner child burst with glee, remembering how I had been consistently disappointed by many a gift shop that did not have my name sandwiched between “Vanessa” and “Victoria” on souvenir keychains or magnets. Younger me always felt a twinge of disappointment not to find my name represented, even in such an insignificant thing as a gift shop tchotchke. My childhood wound was vindicated at last: Here was my namesake, standing tall and prominently in the basilica that serves as the headquarters of the universal Catholic Church.
Instead of a tchotchke, I bought a prayer card of my saint, where I learned that one of the roots for the name “Veronica” derives from Latin (vera) and Greek (eikon), together meaning “true image,” which refers to the miracle of Veronica’s veil retaining the image of Jesus’ suffering face.
Although she was never mentioned in the Bible, St. Veronica is traditionally considered an integral part of Jesus’ passion. In elementary school, I felt both humbled and proud to hear my name read aloud during weekly Lenten Stations of the Cross and to play her in my church’s passion plays. But I never truly reflected, until the moment I saw her tower over me, on the deeper meaning behind her daring and courageous action.
I realized that, of all the saints, Veronica would be unrecognizable without Jesus. She can never be depicted without him, whether in full body on the path to his crucifixion or the image of his face on her veil. Even the statue I saw at the basilica depicts Jesus’ face, very faintly, on her veil. Without Jesus, St. Veronica is made anonymous. Her sainthood, then, is inextricably tied to her encounter with God. She braved the possible backlash of Roman soldiers and wove her way through an agitated, mainly anti-Jesus crowd who were hell-bent on seeing Christ crucified, all to reach the precise person they were persecuting. Talk about audacity!
Once she reached Jesus, her interaction with him was quite extraordinary. For the majority of us, myself included, Jesus comforts us. I cry out for help, listen for his voice, and pray for healing and for hope. I invite Jesus to wipe away my tears and sorrow. But St. Veronica did the opposite: she wiped the tears, sweat, and blood from Jesus’ face. She comforted him. Imagine that! A human comforting her God. Not only does this show how God became truly human but also how God permitted himself to suffer deeply and die for our sakes. In this way, God reveals how he is one with us in suffering. St. Veronica’s action both unveils this truth about our God and shows us a way to interact with him: by providing comfort to others, which in turn, provides comfort to the Lord.
In the Gospels, Jesus gave us some pretty explicit instructions about providing this consolation. At the Last Supper, he washed his apostles’ feet, and we are to extrapolate from his example through service to others. Through the Beatitudes, parables, and his own deeds, Jesus teaches us essentially that “whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me” (Matthew 25:40). Whenever we minister to others in need, we are ministering to Christ. St. Veronica shows us that Christianity isn’t just a belief system, but a way of life. Her one gesture encapsulated the simultaneous call to faith and action, and it also taught me that every gesture, no matter how small or large, matters. I think of St. Veronica weekly as I log onto Zoom to teach my third grade CCD students who are preparing to receive the sacraments of Reconciliation and Holy Eucharist. Each week, as we pray and learn together, I realize these lessons help assuage their fears and stress during this pandemic and assure that God loves and protects each one of them. Although I don’t have a real veil on hand, I feel that I am comforting their anxieties just with a smile, positive words, and focus on the Lord. I think that even in these small ways, I am doing what Jesus would want me to do, and what St. Veronica showed us in a real and beautiful way.