In Front of the Shroud: Neither Iconoclasts Nor Fundamentalists

by Orazio Petrosillo - Journalist
(from "Collegamento pro Sindone" - September/October 1996)
Copyright 1988 - All Rights Reserved
Reprinted by Permission

Cover of the rare "Missa Sacrae Sindonis" (1692) from the collection of Emanuela Marinelli
Digital Scan by Maurizio Marinelli

To illustrate the position of the Church about the Holy Shroud of Turin, I consider some preliminary statements necessary. The first one is this: if the Turin Shroud is an archaeological object, a sheet with an image and some blood stains, it is therefore necessary to realize a rigorous analysis of the object. Science must autonomly, and obviously in a multidisciplinary context, provide the evidence for the authenticity or not of the Shroud. In general, a relic's authenticity, even if a relic of our Lord, is an essentially historical fact and remains such also after the approval of the Church, which however doesn't decide to give its approval - above all in a solemn way like the concession of the liturgical feast, the office and the mass - without the reasons that let it cautiously and seriously move to that. We are in a historical field, of historical and scientific pertinence; it could not become in any way a dogma of faith.

When one speaks about the Shroud's authenticity, it is necessary to come to an understanding and to distinguish two authenticity levels. One of them guarantees that the object in question is not itself a fake, an imitation of something else, a handwork made to deceive. Also at the hypothesis that it is medieval, the Shroud would always remain an unicum. We don't have in the world any cloth with vaguely similar characteristics to those that are observed on the Turin relic. It is a linen sheet that has wrapped a dead body for about 30-36 hours and on which blood stains have been impressed through contact transferring on it 700 small and large wounds and, by vertical projection of the figure, the frontal and dorsal image of a naked body, with the wounds of a very abundant scourging (about 120 hits with two scourges), of a helmet of thorns that have perforated the skullcap in fifty or so points, of blows and hits on the face, of the transport on the shoulders of a large piece of wood, of a crucifixion with nails in the wrists and in the feet, of a lance transfixion to the right flank after death. We haven't adequate scientific answers yet about the physical and chemical mechanism that produced such an image.

If, assuming the completely unlikely hypothesis that it is medieval, the Shroud would always remain still authentic in itself and not a forgery. It would be however, the most mysterious object that came to us from the Middle Ages. And at the state of the facts, indeed prodigious. Evidently, we are not so much interested in this authenticity level. But if science shows that that sheet is dated back to the first century, the Shroud and evangelical data convergence is so high that there is an astronomic probability level that that Man is Jesus of Nazareth. His capital execution had quite unusual details - like the thorns helmet, the lance hit instead of the crurifragium, a single sepulture with a sheet instead of the common grave of executed men - so much so that already the agnostic Ives Delage, at the beginning of this century, stated that there is a possibility in ten billion that that Man is not Jesus. Other statisticians speak about a possibility in 200 billion.

Faith doesn't enter therefore into the verification course of the Shroud's authenticity. It must be clear that faith in Jesus Christ doesn't depend at all on the Turin cloth's authenticity. The faith in Christ Man-God, dead and risen for our salvation, is connected with the apostles preaching, with the revelation transmitted to us by the Church and made effective by sacraments. The present pontifical custodian of the relic, Cardinal Giovanni Saldarini, in a dossier given to Italian bishops on May 13, 1996, has clarly repeated that "faith is not founded upon the Shroud's authenticity and never has it been mentioned as evidence of Christianity's truth. That's why - he added - the believer is completely free and serene in his searching, while incredulity could feel uncomfortable if, on an historical and scientific examinations basis, it must be forced to conciliate itself with the conviction of being in possession of the true sheet in which Christ was wrapped".

However, let me say that, if the Shroud is authentic, as I am absolutely convinced and as Pius XI and Paul VI were, and very convinced is John Paul II, then this relic is not irrelevant for my faith. I cannot ignore it or, worse, despise it. If it is authentic, it is an object that testifies o me in a mysterious way, but with the eloquence of its 700 sores, Christ's passion and death. Not only that, but it also bears mysterious signs that don't contrast at all with the resurrection: in fact, that body doesn't present the minimum putrefaction signs, the contact with the sheet lasted 30-36 hours, the exit of the body from the sheet and bandage wrappings happened without deforming the blood clots, as if the body itself suddenly became "mechanically transparent" and the sheet, falling back on itself, crossed the body volume receiving the image through a kind of radiant effect.

The double excesses of whoever wants to devalue it and of whoever wants to overestimate it should be avoided. We don't need either iconoclasts or fundamentalists of the Shroud. We need to avoid iconoclasm and cripto-protestantism preconceived attitudes as if having an icon-relic of Christ must be a priori rejected. We need therefore to avoid a confusion of planes, at first between science and faith and then, once ascertaining the relic's authenticity, not to let it become an object of faith in any way, although it is the only real relic of Christ together with the Cross.

To tell exactly about the term 'relic': like the etymology says, relic in the strict sense is whatever remains of a human body and part of it. In a ampler sense relics are the objects that were in contact with a person because they have almost absorbed its eminent virtues. As for the term 'icon', from the Greek "eicon", it means image. We use it here in the generic sense of image, surely not to mean a sacred painting of Oriental kind, because it is scientifically certain that the Shroud image is not a painting.

We also must avoid false superiority attitudes like fideism. It is necessary to study and to know this object that about twenty scientific desciplines have treated for decades. There are some believers that, also with noble intentions, despise this relic and each speech about seeing and touching. If it was depended on them, to Thomas that looked for resurrection's physical evidences, Jesus should have answered disdained with a sermon about adult faith that doesn't need signs. Instead Christ gave the physical evidence that the disciple looked for, that is he stooped to his level. I have made a comparison with Jesus' pedagogic method that didn't disdain physical signs, I don't want to insert the Shroud surreptitiously between Christological evidences.

There are agnostic researchers, as well as scientists of the Jewish faith and Protestants that are convinced about the Shroud's authenticity, accepting it as Jesus of Nazareth's funeral sheet. There are also priests, above all biblicists, and bishops that ostentatiously take no interest in the Shroud, first of all because they don't know it and they don't want to have the humility to learn about this object that is a Christ act of love for us; second, because they are obsessed by the risk that the relic attracts to itself the attention owed to the Lord there represented. The fear is legitimate but there is no way to avoid it.

The Catholic Church, in general, is serene in front of the Shroud. She knows that faith is not based on it. She let full liberty to the scientific research. The same cult that is directed to the relic is always a relative cult that doesn't stop to the relic materiality, but it refers to the person and to the mystery which the relic belongs to, or it is supposed to belong: in our case to the person of Jesus Christ and to his passion, whose signs are impressed on the relic.

The Shroud has always been lovingly kept. I don't have the time to enter into historical matters concerning the "mandylion" of Edessa, which "mandylion" or "handkerchief", was none other, according to many researchers, than the Shroud of Turin folded in eight, so as to make appear only the face and that has been the prototype of all Byzantine icons of Christ face - the "acheiropoietos", that is, not made by human hand - since VI century on. The "mandylion", that IX century texts assure bearing a whole figure and not only a face, was solemnly transferred to Constantinople in 944 and every August 16 the Orthodox Church celebrates its translation feast. It remained in St. Mary of Blacherne church until the crusaders sack in 1204.

In 1353 in Lirey, France, the Shroud's historical course begins again. After a century it passes to the Savoy's hands and there remains until 1983 when, as deeded in Umberto II's will and testament, it became the property of the Holy See. Already during the first exhibitions of the Holy Shroud in Lirey, the sheet was shown to the believers "with great reverence by two priests wearing albs, stoles and maniples in a place just appointed for this, high and well visible, illuminated by alight torches". The solemnity with which the Shroud was unfolded was the conviction sign of the relic's authenticity. It was in vain opposed because of polemics with the sheet's owners, by the bishop of Troyes, Pierre d'Arcis.

The dukes of Savoy, and particularly the blessed Amedeo IX, showed signs of deep devotion granting to Rome privileges for the chapel where the Shroud was kept and indulgences for the visitors. Although with usual prudence expressions - "ut dicitur, ut creditur, ut praefertur, ut facta testantur" - (and after all the relic was not surely subjected to the long series of scientific examinations of this century), the Pontiffs had a great consideration for the Turin cloth to start from Paul II, Sistus IV and Julius II that in 1506 founded the Brotherhood and approved the first Shroud officiating and mass, fixing on May 4th the liturgical feast, that is the day after that of the Holy Cross recovery. Clement VIII in the first five years of `600 approved a second mass.

Splendid, it is the prayer-collect that follows that of the Corpus Christi: "Oh God, that on the Holy Shroud, in which your very holy body deposed from the cross was wrapped by Joseph, have left your passion traces: accord propitious that in virtue of your death and sepulture we deserve the glory of the resurrection". The conviction that the Shroud was a relic, so clearly expressed in this prayer and supported by its owners since its first appearing - Fr. Luigi Fossati, Shroud historian, observes - appears by the letters that the papal nuncios at the Savoy's sent to Rome reporting about the solemn celebrations on May 4. In a precious publication of Mons. Pietro Savio, very rich of documents, are mentioned no less than 102 nuncios' letters and almost in all of them recur the expressions: "Very Holy Shroud", "Very Holy Sudarium", "Very Holy Relic".

The peak of the cult manifestations rendered to the Shroud in the past could be considered the double homage of Pius VIII, on November 13, 1804 in a private exhibition, while he was passing through Turin in his journey to Paris for the crowning of Napoleon and in the very solemn one on May 21, 1815, when he returned to the Savoy capital during the uproar of Napoleon's "one hundred days". In this series of historical recalls the memory of Pius XI's answer to cardinal Maurilio Fossati could not be ignored, who in sight of 1931 exhibition had confided to him some perplexities about the adverse Protestants propaganda. The Pope intervened resolutely: "Don't worry: we speak in this moment like a scholar not like the Pope. We have personally followed the studies on the Holy Shroud and we became convinced of its authenticity. Some opposition was raised, but they are not consistent". The 1931 exhibition was a real triumph of the Shroud and for the Redemption Holy Year, just two years later, Pius XI wanted a new exhibition. During the last years of his life, Pope Ratti often spoke in public about the Shroud image as if, contemplating it, he was preparing himself to see Jesus' visage, face to face.

Paul VI was in perfect agreement with his great predecessor. In his message for the Shroud's first television exhibition on November 23, 1973, he said: "Whatever is the historical and scientific judgment that capable scholars will express about this amazing and mysterious relic, we could not refuse to express our good wishes that it is worth to lead visitors not only to an absorbed and sensitive observation of the outward and deadly features of the Savior's marvelous figure, but it could also introduce them in a more penetrating vision of its recondite and fascinating mystery".

What should we say about John Paul II's veneration for the Shroud? It moves me talking about it, because I'm a direct witness. The presents know that on September 1, 1978 he went to Turin to venerate the relic during the great exhibition that saw in 40 days over three millions pilgrims. This first visit was followed by another on April 13, 1980, when he could watch it closely, kiss and venerate it in an exhibition only for him. And during the concelebration in front of the cathedral presented like a precious treasure of the city this "unusual and mysterious relic like the Holy Shroud" and defined it: "Unusual witness - if we accept many scientists arguments of Christ Passion, Death and Resurrection. Mute witness, but in the same time surprisingly eloquent".

Through those strange mysteries that happen inside the Church, it is not comprehensible how a cardinal of Anastasio Ballestrero's level, in addition the Shroud's custodian for 13 years, had always had an inexplicable reluctance to consider the Turin cloth a relic and this well before the radiocarbon test. Besides, that October 13, 1988, even if not accepting the medieval response - like many people erroneously believe - but entrusting it to other scientists evaluation, he let himself go to declarations that, if rightly pointed out that faith doesn't depend at all on the authenticity or less of the Shroud, didn't reveal unfortunately either an adequate consciousness of the relic value or a perfect agreement with the quoted pontiffs' mens.

To dispel the misunderstanding that Ballestrero had reduced the Shroud to a simple icon, on April 28, 1989, during the flight to Madagascar, I asked the Pope in front of my collegues a question without possibility of misunderstanding: "Is the Shroud an icon or a relic?" Also guessing the critical reference to the custodian, the Pope didn't have hesitations: "Certainly it is a relic, it could not be changed. If it would not be a relic, these faith reactions, that surround it and that also show themselves stronger than the evidences, we say than the counterevidences of scientific order, could not be understood". Today, after the long series of objections to the scientific validity of the radiocarbon tests' medieval response, the Pope would strengthen his statement more. And when prof. E. Marinelli and I gave to the Holy Father the Polish edition of our book and provoked his Shroud feelings with a question, we heard this splendid confidence: "It is very important the apostolate through the Shroud. Because the Lord left us it close to the sacraments".

Nobody will wonder, then, when cardinal Saldarini asked the authorization for an exhibition in 1998, one hundred years after the first photograph that gave a turn to the Shroud scientific research, or to fix it only for the 2000 Holy Year like a spiritually enriching way to live the Jubilee, the Pope decided with enthusiasm for the double exhibition. From the Church's point of view toward this relic, the Universal Shepherd attitude is clear.

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