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Shrouded in mystery

April 14, 2010

On display for the first time in a decade, the Shroud of Turin is perhaps the Catholic Church's best publicity at the moment, even though its authenticity has never been confirmed.

the Shroud of Turin
The shroud is the Catholic Church's most valuable relicImage: DW/Bernd Riegert

1.8 million pilgrims are expected to pour into the northern Italian town of Turin this spring to view the Catholic Church's most valuable relic, the Shroud of Turin, which is on display in the local cathedral until Pentecost for the first time in a decade.

Controversy surrounds the world-famous linen cloth, believed by many faithful Catholics to be the burial shroud of Jesus. Yet no scientific or historical evidence - or even the fact that the Church does not formally endorse the shroud's authenticity - can shake believers' faith. Churchmen and critics alike agree that the Shroud of Turin remains one of the Church's most powerful tools.

Big tourist draw

The Shroud's pull is so powerful - and the waiting lines so long - that the Archdiocese in Turin strongly recommends reserving tickets online to see the relic.

Meanwhile, hotels in Turin are booked out, and souvenir shops are filled to the brim with tourists looking to buy books, stamps and posters of the relic.

Hildegard and Ernst Rump were relieved that they got to see the shroud, even without booking online. After a long drive from the German state of Lower Saxony, the couple still had to wait in line with tens of thousands of other pilgrims to get in. But they felt their efforts were finally rewarded.

The Rump couple from Germany
Millions of faithful, like the Rumps from Germany, will visit the shroudImage: DW/Bernd Riegert

"I'm not completely floored, but I am quite touched," explained Hildegard Rump. "You have to get into it. You need a little quiet time for it to take effect on you."

In fact, the pilgrims are not allotted much time at the shroud, which hangs above the altar. Just three minutes are allowed per person to view the cloth that bears a faint image of a bearded man who has suffered torture to his hands and feet. Through bullet-proof display glass, traces of blood are also apparent on the forehead, where the Crown of Thorns would have been.

Ernst Rump said his short time in the shroud's presence has strengthened his faith.

"For me personally, it's a confirmation of the Revelation and of the message of Jesus Christ's resurrection. Here you've got a few concrete clues as to how it occurred," Rump said. "These aren't things that can turn you into a believer, but they can support and confirm your faith," he added.

Unclear origins

Most historical and scientific evidence, including a 1988 radiocarbon-dating test, have place the shroud's origins at around 1300. Yet, there still remains much about the shroud that is, so to speak, shrouded in mystery.

For example, scientists have determined that the image on the shroud is not made of normal pigments. But they still haven't been able to say what did create the image.

Bruno Barberis, an expert in sindonology, or shroud research, told Deutsche Welle he cannot deny that the image is Jesus: "I don't have a conclusive, final answer," he said. "However, I can say that, with the data we have today, the probability is very high. In ten or twenty years we might be able tell more precisely."

Barberis said he plans to conduct a new dating-test of the cloth that would be more accurate than the carbon dating procedure previously conducted.

As with all relics of the kind, the Church has made no pronouncements as to the shroud's authenticity. According to Turin's Archbishop Severino Poletto, the shroud's provenance is less important than the fact that people believe in it. Their reverence is an important sign of faith, he said, and added that he hopes pilgrims will approach the shroud without prejudice.

Pope Benedict XVI is shown a copy of the Shroud of Turin by pilgrims from Turin
The pope is expected in Turin during the displayImage: AP

The critic

Some see this handling of the relic as deceptive on the part of the Church. Antonio Lombatti, a church historian in Parma , told Deutsche Welle that the shroud belongs in a museum and not in a cathedral.

According to Lombatti, the cloth's first owner displayed the shroud in 1355 in France , announcing that "he was going to display a representation of a death relic and not the true burial cloth of Jesus."

"Even the pope of that time said it was a fake," said Lombatti, adding, "He asked those priests who were going to display the shroud to tell with a loud and clear voice that it was not the true burial cloth of Jesus."

Lombatti claimed these documents were lost for seven centuries, during which time the shroud became, like other relics, an "important instrument for the evangelization of the people."

"They don't say it's the real thing," the historian said, "but the way they show it to the faithful gives the idea that it might be. The way they use the relic is very dishonest towards the faithful."

Good publicity

In any case, the display of the Turin Shroud has garnered the Church some positive press at a time when there is little to be found.

Monsignor Guiseppe Ghiberti, who organized the exhibition for the Archdiocese of Turin, was pleased to see the excitement surrounding the display, which will require a total of about 3000 volunteers. Ghiberti believes the shroud has a particular currency in today's visual culture.

"For the Church it's very important to be able to show something depicting an echo of the Gospels," he said. "The message is just as important today as it was centuries ago."

Clearly, the message is quite powerful for some. Despite the Church's current crises, believers like the Rumps continue to celebrate their faith in the form of pilgrimages. Before their visit to Turin, the couple went to Manoppello to see another shroud, which shows Jesus resurrected, and soon they are planning a visit across the Atlantic to see Our Lady of Guadelupe, a famous Mexican icon.

Authors: Bernd Riegert/ David Levitz

Editor: Jennifer Abramsohn