TURIN, Italy (CNS) — Letting go of the “obsession” with the authenticity of the Shroud of Turin can free people to discover the real value of the hotly debated, yet much revered icon, said one of the shroud’s leading historians.
No matter what science and historical research may yet determine about the age and origins of the shroud, the linen cloth bearing the image of a tortured and crucified man “continues to be something that opens a door to the mysteries of the infinite,” the Passion and salvation, Gian Maria Zaccone, scientific director of the Museum of the Shroud of Turin, told Catholic News Service.
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“The position of the church is very clear,” he said during an early unveiling of the shroud for reporters in the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist April 18.
Whether the shroud is or is not the burial cloth of Jesus Christ “is not a matter of faith,” he said.
“It is up to one’s own personal judgment, that is, neither I nor anyone else can tell you that the shroud is authentic or not; each person examines and works out what research has offered” and then makes up his or her own mind, he said.
Church doctrine has long held that any reverence or honor given to a religious object or relic must “be given to what it represents” and not to the object itself, he said.
The 14-foot by 4-foot shroud bears the photonegative image of the front and back of a man whose wounds correspond to the Gospel accounts of the torture Jesus endured in his passion and death. Many Christians hold that it is the burial cloth of Christ.
The shroud has been chemically analyzed, carbon-dated, electronically enhanced and 3D-imaged, and despite today’s advanced technologies, studies have been inconclusive or strongly contested, and no one has yet figured out how the image was made or has been able to perfectly reproduce it, Zaccone said.
The church has never officially ruled on the shroud’s authenticity, emphasizing instead the shroud’s importance in helping people reflect on the person of Christ, the human dimension of suffering and the mysteries of death and everlasting life.
Despite the church’s efforts to emphasize the pastoral — rather than scientific — significance, “the influence of the church did not have much bearing on the people who came” to see the shroud back in 1978 when they did a study on how people saw the shroud, he said.
Though no further surveys have been done, he said he thinks that for many people of faith who visit the shroud today, the belief that the shroud is the real burial cloth of Jesus still “is probably strong.”
Nevertheless, he said, “what I have learned is that when people then find themselves in front of the shroud, the whole issue (of being authentic) collapses entirely and it becomes a question of a relationship” or personal connection with the image and the reflections and emotions it evokes, he said.
“The shroud has something to say to everyone if we know how to liberate ourselves” from what has been called “the obsession with authenticity,” he said.
Still, Maria Margherita, a Turin resident who said she has seen the shroud twice before, said believing it is authentic “makes some difference” to her, but even if it was not, it depicts “a man who suffered on the cross and that is still deeply moving.”
Constance, a young woman from Paris, said she believed the shroud was real. Even though “I am not a chemist and can’t do the experiment myself, I want to believe” it is authentic, she said smiling.
Her husband, Hubert said, “whether it is real or not doesn’t change the faith. You just have something concrete, it’s part of a way you believe in God. It’s nice to have something concrete.”
Ilarion Bogdanov, who is Russian Orthodox, traveled from St. Petersburg, Russia, to see the shroud, which is sacred for the Orthodox community, too, he said.
While the Orthodox and Catholic faiths “are and should remain separate because they have different dogmas, the shroud is (something) in common. It is the shroud of our God, we have a common God,” he said.
Leni Piovan, a resident of Turin, said she has “always believed” the shroud was real. “Think about how many things we believe in in life — things we can’t see,” she said.
She said the shroud was important for her because it showed “the Lord’s passion, what they did to him and this has great meaning for me.”
Reflecting on the suffering and resurrection of Christ “helps us go on in life, it’s something to hold onto,” she said, explaining how she has been in a wheelchair for half a century and doctors had said there was no way she would live after falling comatose three times at the age of 21.
“Now I am 73 and everyone around me is dead — my husband, my family, many friends. … It tells you that life doesn’t depend on human ability, it’s about God’s will.”
Zaccone, the shroud museum official, told the story of how when St. Helen went to the Holy Land in the fourth century to look for the cross of Jesus, there was a widespread belief that the only way to tell Jesus’ cross from the crosses of the robbers crucified with him was to see which cross could resurrect a dead person.
The legend lingered for centuries, he said. According to one historical account, a man questioned a bishop in the early 17th century about what miracles the shroud produced and whether it had raised anyone from the dead.
According to the story, he said, “the bishop replied, ‘I don’t know if in its history the shroud has raised the dead, but what I can say is that, in front of the shroud, many dead souls have risen again in the faith.'”