“I wanted to show my wife something I had not been able
to get out of my mind…”
– Paul Badde
Recall those great moments of Harrison Ford as archaeologist-adventurer-professor Indiana Jones discovering something amazing, even life-changing, whether it be the Ark of the Covenant or the Holy Grail: Indy’s passion was not in the reward of the priceless relic he was seeking (he never did get to hold onto any of them), rather his passion lay in the search itself, the clues and little details of the puzzle coming together—of a picture forming. And maybe without truly realizing it, Indiana Jones in his great quests was reaching towards the divine, hoping that each new tunnel or map would bring him closer to a fuller image of it. “The search for the Grail is the search for the divine in all of us,” Indy’s mentor Marcus Brody says in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.
The search for the divine in and around us has been the quest of foreign correspondent Paul Badde, whose excitement and passion leaps off the pages of his books exemplifying the Benedict XVI adage, “Whoever has experienced great joy cannot keep it simply for himself. He must pass it on to others.” Whether hunting for the true Veil of Veronica or embarking across Mexico City or Jerusalem for the roots of Catholicism’s imprints on the world and its peoples, the works of Paul Badde are probably best described, quoting how German magazine Der Spiegel termed his book The Face of God, as “gripping cultural thrillers.”
A former instructor of history, Badde retained his historical perspective when he moved into journalism, filing reports as a correspondent for Die Welt from Jerusalem and Rome. For years he was front and center to three pontificates and reporting back to his homeland while pursuing larger nonfiction “cultural thrillers” infused with a personal faith style that resonated with readers. He has revealed a talent of burrowing into the riches of the Catholic faith in a way most historians would probably shun—his faith is too exuberant, too prevalent for the serious academician. Yet it is in this approach that raises Badde’s books above mere academic works: they are invitations to contemplation. Ignatius Press has published three of his major works from German into English, and as we await translations of Badde’s other books, here are profiles of the cultural thrillers by Paul Badde that invite those who open them to enter their mysteries while accompanying the author on his awesome adventures.
Imagine journeying through Italy, in the Abruzzi Region off the Adriatic Coast, and stopping off in a small village for a break, intrigued by the curious name of the local church, Volto Santo di Manoppello, you took a look inside. This is exactly what happened to Paul Badde in Manoppello when he gazed upon the relic of an ancient cloth inside the church named after that relic, the Volto Santo—the Holy Face of Christ. He took some pictures of the strange face on the thin veil. Studying them later he likened what he saw to Acts 9:18, “Meanwhile, something like scales fell from Saul’s eyes…”
Thus began Badde’s quest into Christendom’s love affair with the central tenets of its faith: the Incarnation and Resurrection of Jesus Christ. The Face of God is a whirlwind voyage around the globe as Badde seeks to uncover how this relic landed in an obscure town in Manoppello—and how exactly it was made in the first place. The characters who appear in the book range from the Apostles and Mary Magdalene to Medieval popes, Dante, Padre Pio, a Trappist nun, a Jesuit Renaissance man, John Paul II, and Benedict XVI, who so moved by Christianity’s expression of the man-God that he journeyed to Manoppello on his first private pilgrimage as pope to gaze upon the haunting image on the mussel-silk cloth. That Badde himself was instrumental in prompting Benedict’s desire to visit is an understatement; the book details the wondrous tale of both providence and human inspiration.
The Face of God is Badde’s best-known English-language book, but its success is calculated less in monetary value than by Badde blowing open the vault to a forgotten devotion and its spiritual impact on those who dare to gaze upon the image: he has produced a show on it with EWTN, has inspired a comprehensive blog on the Holy Face, and has become convinced the image of the face of God is steadily returning to the main of Catholic Christianity, especially through the words of the last three popes, including Francis, whose invocation of the forthcoming Holy Year of Mercy is dedicated to “Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe—and living face of the Father’s mercy.”
How can one only write about two millennia of images without showing them? This was the great joy Paul Badde experienced and his wanting to “pass it on to others” that formed the basis for The True Icon, a handsomely formatted book of about 160 pages containing dozens of colored photographs, mostly taken by Badde himself. A picture journey across the Middle East and Europe, Badde continues his quest of searching for the images of Christ, linking the famed Shroud of Turin to the Veil of Manoppello—though such a simple description undermines the scope of the odyssey.
A treat for readers who loved The Face of God, Badde’s focus in The True Icon on holy images in today’s digitally saturated culture of multimedia, video, audio—the ego as star—is a refreshing antidote: Christendom anticipated the return of Narcissus by employing the media of the time to honor the Incarnate God. And yet, as Badde shows, the eternal continues to transcend the visually mundane. “Due to the digital revolution we are facing an Iconic Turn in our times that is spreading the Face of God as in no time before—as the first step of His Second Coming,” Badde says.
As a frequent character in his own books, Badde appears more as an inquisitive pilgrim; The True Icon not only raises fascinating historical trivia that those interested in the Shroud of Turin and other mysterious images “not made by human hand” (acheiropoieta in Greek, a favorite in Badde’s lexicon), it is an example of Badde as apologist, evangelizer. He reminds us that churches are not art galleries, but living, active testaments to an eternal faith. Paging through The True Icon, one is reminded of Thomas Woods’s line from his How The Catholic Church Built Western Civilization: “Many of the great cathedrals that once testified to the religious convictions of a people have in their own day become like museum pieces, interesting curiosities to an unbelieving world.” Paul Badde reminds us of why these images, relics, traditions and tales exist in the first place.
Perhaps Badde’s most beautifully written book is this tale of the Virgin of Guadalupe, the first in his trilogy of volumes on acheiropoieta images. Those of us in the Americas who are quite familiar with the story of Juan Diego and his tilma in 1521 may think we know everything about the story, but seen from Badde’s German eyes—he was totally unaware of the apparition—opens a new horizon to the impact of the image. After reading Maria of Guadalupe, one can only marvel that the revered image is indeed miraculous, its appearance and lasting influence having accomplished what no conquistador, war or formal decree could: the fostering of a new people in an ancient land.
It may seem in hindsight Badde had long planned this series on images, faith and the world today but the reality is far different—perhaps even the result of divine inspiration, surely to the dismay of not a few commentators and theologians who have long dismissed belief in miraculous images. But as he sees it, delving into the story of Our Lady of Guadalupe prepared Badde for the encounter of the Holy Face and his role in reintroducing it on the world stage. “There is no explanation on how I got to that Face of her son otherwise than by her tender hand,” he attests.
As science and the secular rival the Catholic worldview of sacred images—consider the amount of technical scrutiny the Shroud of Turin endures—what Paul Badde is accomplishing is ultimately for the benefit of the Church he loves so much, and perhaps a distant second might be a personal legacy. Yet even if that were the case, he would have tried to be another Dan Brown than remain true to his intuition, and his faith. While we in the English-speaking world have these three to cherish, Badde himself hopes one day his book Heiliges Land—Der Königsweg aller Pilerreisen, Holy Land—The Mother of All Pilgrimages, a meditation on twenty mysteries of the rosary, might appear in English.
“I Had A Friend Called Willy”
Earlier this year, Badde appeared in Catholic news outlets after it was discovered that an elderly homeless man who had graced St. Peter’s Square for years had died. His name was Willy Herteeler, 80 years old when he passed away in December 2014. Badde and Willy had struck up a friendship over the years as Willy was a fixture along the pillars of the square, and Badde himself tells the story in a Catholic News Service video. He describes Willy as a street evangelizer, one who would walk around St. Peter’s asking, “When did you last go to confession? Are you going to communion? Do you go to Mass?”
After Willy died, Badde helped bury the Flemish-born man in a small German cemetery inside the walls of Vatican. That the date of Willy’s death fell on December 12 was certainly not lost on Badde—the significance of that feast day is central to Paul Badde’s own faith journey he has poetically shared with readers worldwide. And for those who do not grasp the meaning of that date in December, it might be best to start with Maria of Guadalupe: Shaper of History, Shaper of Hearts and begin a journey echoing again Marcus Brody: “The search for the Grail is the search for the divine in all of us. But if you want facts, Indy, I’ve none to give you. At my age, I’m prepared to take a few things on faith.”