Editor's note: The following is the first of a four-part series about the Shroud of Turin.
Many of the faithful sincerely believe that the Shroud of Turin is the actual burial cloth of our Lord, Jesus Christ. Without declaring its authenticity, Pope John Paul II has clearly attested to the value of the Shroud. For instance, in 1980, the Holy Father stated, “The Holy Shroud, the most splendid relic of the passion and the resurrection.” Almost ten years later, in April 1989, he was asked by reporters during an in-flight press conference on the way to Madagascar about the Shroud, and he responded, “It certainly is a relic!” Again, almost ten years later, when asked if the Shroud was genuine, the pope said, “I think it is!” (as reported in Columbia, 1998). The Holy Father has visited the Shroud both in 1978 and most recently June, 1998.
His predecessors have also viewed the Shroud favorably. Pope Pius XII stated, “A precious treasure, the Holy Shroud, which displays, both to move and comfort us, the image of the lifeless body and tortured face of Christ.” And Pope John XXIII declared, “Digitus Dei est hi” (“The finger of God is here”).
However, to believe that the Shroud is the actual burial cloth of the Lord is not a matter of faith. No Catholic is bound to believe it is. As Cardinal Saldarini of Turin stated, “It’s not Christ, but something that brings us back to Him. Salvation is not in the Shroud, even if it truly wrapped the martyred body of Jesus, even if it was mysteriously given by God to His Church. Salvation is that which is given to us by Christ” (Columbia, June 1998).
Nevertheless, the Church has been the official guardian of the Shroud for the House of Savoy, the former ruling family of Italy. In 1983, the Savoy family willed the Shroud to the Holy Father with the Archbishop of Turin serving as the Pontifical Guardian for the Conservation and Veneration of the Holy Shroud.
Part of the uncertainty as to the authenticity of the Shroud arises from its historical record. Of course, the Shroud is believed to be the burial cloth used by Joseph of Arimathaea to wrap the body of Jesus for burial. Documentation shows that the Shroud indeed was displayed in the cities of Jerusalem, Edessa (500) and Constantinople (1092). King Louis VII of France venerated the shroud in Constantinople in 1147. In August 1203, Robert de Clari, a French crusader, reported seeing the Shroud in Constantinople. Although some gaps appear in its historical whereabouts, the Shroud has maintained a consistent presence.
After Robert de Clari’s testimony, the next historical citing places the Shroud in France, having passed to the possession of the De Charny family of Lirey. Probably the Shroud was obtained during the Crusades and brought to Europe. The first public exhibition of the Shroud, held full length, occurred in 1357, sponsored by the Canons of the Cathedral of Lirey.
In March 1453, Margaret de Charny gave the Shroud to the House of Savoy, and it was kept at the Chapel of Chambery Castle (June 11, 1502). The Shroud survived fire on December 4, 1532, but was burned at its folded corners when its silver reliquary began to melt. (Today, one can see the patches applied to the Shroud because of the burn marks.) Finally, the Shroud was moved to the Cathedral of Turin on September 14, 1578, where it has since remained in the Royal Chapel
During the Medieval period, other supposed shrouds were reported and displayed, such as in Chambery, France; Lierre, Belgium; and Acireale, Sicily. However, each of these was clearly a copy, produced by an artist’s hand.
The real scientific investigation into the Shroud began in May, 1898, when Secundo Pia photographed the Shroud. When he was developing the film plate, he discovered that the negative image is actually the positive, and vice versa: basically, when one looks at the Shroud with the naked eye, he sees a light yellow-brownish figure of a man; but when one looks at a photographic black and white negative, he can see the image in greater detail.
Pia’s discovery sparked great interest in the Shroud. In more recent times, extensive research has been performed on the Shroud, beginning with the STURP (Shroud of Turin Reserach Project) team in 1978. Next week, we will review these findings.
Fr. Saunders is pastor of Our Lady of Hope Parish in Potomac Falls and a professor of catechetics and theology at Notre Dame Graduate School in Alexandria. If you enjoy reading Fr. Saunders' work, his new book entitled Straight Answers (400 pages) is available at the Pauline Book and Media Center of Arlington, Virginia (703/549-3806).
(This article courtesy of the Arlington Catholic Herald.)