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Turin display respects both faith and reason

“This is the Shroud” -- “Questa é la Sindone” -- says the voice through loudspeakers in the Turin cathedral. Not “This is the Shroud of Christ,” for that would be to ignore the carbon-dating tests that suggested a date between 1260 and 1390. Nor “This is what was once believed to be the Shroud of Christ,” for that would be to treat the question as closed and the mystery as solved, which would be just as much of a lie.

Everything about Turin archdiocese’s presentation of its famous “icon” -- they avoid calling it a relic -- is designed to leave the question open.

I found it more than a moment of deep uncertainty -- it evoked solemnity and reverence. The cathedral is darkened, and apart from the side chapels, its baroque decorations have been stripped away or covered up. Blinds of white cloth block out the high windows. Mauve velvet falls in rich folds over everything in sight -- a penitential colour, softened for the Easter season. Quiet organ music forms an audio backdrop. The pilgrims have been shepherded into three files, and those who have stayed furthest from the Shroud as they go up the north nave find they have the closest view at the end.

The Shroud itself hangs behind the main altar in a huge black frame. It is displayed horizontally, as has been customary in its rare public showings (there have been only five over the last century), with the face of Christ sideways just left of center. The Shroud shines as the only illuminated object in a darkened, hushed cathedral.

The marks on the cloth are gentle yet unmistakable. Most visible of all -- apart from the dark scorch marks and the light patches sewn on by loving Poor Clares after the fire damage of 1532 -- are the two crossed hands and the stain from the wound in the wrist.

“Let us pray”, continues the voice in Italian, “O God our Father, the image of the Shroud points us toward the sufferings inflicted on your Son, Jesus ... ” Another translation would be “refers us,” or “reminds us,” or “brings to our mind” the sufferings of Jesus. It is a careful formula.

“He took upon himself the pains of all humanity. Grant that we may know how to see him in every person, to serve him and to announce his love. ... ” These words brought acutely to my mind the third hypothesis about the Shroud: that it is neither genuine, nor a forgery, but an image made by direct contact with the crucified body of someone else, in the 14th century, perhaps a Jew crucified by Christians. This would combine the carbon-dating result with the apparently inexplicable marks not made by any paint or pigment. And if this were so, then the Shroud would indeed drive us to our knees in penitence and in prayer, to see Christ in the pains of others.

Outside the cathedral once more, I delayed, reluctant to leave the vicinity of the world’s most famous icon. (An opinion survey in an Italian paper suggested that more than 90 percent of the world’s population has heard of the Shroud.) Perhaps even more impressive than the Shroud itself is the responsible way the church has presented it. There is just one small bookshop on the way out -- hardly commercial exploitation.

Out of the 40,000 to 50,000 pilgrims who queue to see the Shroud each day, no one pays a penny. It is possible to make a financial contribution, but only if you look rather hard for a collection box. Yet the presentation of the Shroud and the organization of the event is professionally superb and must have cost a small fortune. Not to mention the cost of rebuilding Guarini’s chapel, behind the cathedral, which normally houses the Shroud. The chapel was damaged by the fire of April 11, 1997. The repairs needed are so extensive that they will not be finished before the year 2004.

In the gardens behind the cathedral are a dozen or so stalls selling souvenirs, but an attempt has been made at sobriety. Instead of the colorful display of trinkets near St. Peter’s in Rome, here each stall is hung with regulation white curtains like a medieval tent, and the only color to be seen is brown.

True, you can then buy a Shroud tee shirt, a Shroud shoulder bag, and a Shroud headscarf. The prize souvenir must be the postcard-sized photo that you tilt from one side to the other to see the face on the Shroud opening its eyes and coming to life. Now you see him, now you don’t. If some find this tasteless (and I am one of them), there are others who find it a help to their meditation.

To pass in front of the Shroud you must book in advance and then line up for an hour or more in a long, covered arcade that snakes for 535 meters around the Royal Gardens. The intention is to turn a mere queue into a pilgrimage walk. Notices remind people to keep silence and approach in a spirit of prayer. Before entering the cathedral, a short video highlights exactly what features to look for.

But those who have not pre-booked -- or those like myself who want to hang around afterward -- can enter the cathedral by the central west door without any queuing at all. Sitting or kneeling in the darkened nave, they can gaze for as long as they wish at the illuminated Shroud ahead of them, though they will be too far away to pick out details. A winking green security light, high in the dome, acts as a reminder that everything is under control.

Turin in northern Italy is no peasant place, rich in superstition. It is a city of sophistication and elegance where gracious colonnades and huge piazzas are lined with expensive shops. And yet the forgery/icon/relic of the Shroud seems to fit its surroundings without any sense of disharmony, with neither conflict nor collusion.

The 100 churches around the city are open, and in many of them there are acts of devotion -- a Way of the Cross, a rosary, a midday Mass, a priest sitting ready to hear confessions. Around Turin center there is a rich program of Shroud exhibitions, Shroud museums and free concerts in the evenings.

One exhibition, in the archdiocesan buildings, expressed the wounds of Christ through the sufferings of the modern world: the pierced hands are unemployment; the shoulders bruised by the weight of the cross are the toil of exploited labor; the wound in the side is death in the workplace. Again I recalled the prayer before the Shroud: “He took upon himself the pains of all humanity. Grant that we may know how to see him in every person.”

As I wandered through the city all day, drinking in the peace of my pilgrimage, my thoughts gently turned over the Shroud mystery, now veering toward one theory, now toward another, never settling on one with any conviction. I was puzzled at how the wonders of modern science had been unable to explain how the image could have been produced.

There is the pollen on the cloth from the Holy Land -- never explained. There is the fact of a photographic negative picture -- before photography was discovered. There is the mystery of the holes in the wrists -- when all contemporaries at the time wrongly thought the nails went through the palms. There is the almost imperceptible imprint of a coin laid on one eyelid, dating from the era of Pontius Pilate -- when any forger would have made that piece of data far more apparent.

At night I returned to the cathedral for a packed and reverent 9 o’clock Mass, celebrated with the Shroud as backdrop. Familiar phrases became vivid as never before: “He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died and was buried.”

Behind the congregation, facing the Shroud from over the west door, hung a massive, dark copy of Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper from Milan. Its long white tablecloth, over which Jesus stretches his hands, proclaiming the mystery of his eternal presence with us, mirrored the long, white Shroud at the far end of the church. Some wilder theories of Shroud devotees have even suggested that the Shroud used to wrap Christ was in fact the tablecloth from the Last Supper.

However that may be, the real presence of Christ was with us that night on the altar, midway between the icon of the first Eucharist at one end of the church and the icon of the Passion at the other.

Coming out into the warm night air, I walked back to Turin station past a huge picture of the Epiphany, cast up in colored lights onto the facade of the Royal Palace. This is a city, I thought, that knows how to bring traditional Catholic devotion into the heart of the modern world without betraying either its faith or its reason.

Margaret Hebblethwaite is a theologian, author and assistant editor at The Tablet in London.

National Catholic Reporter, June 5, 1998