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‘Obsession’ with authenticity hides Turin Shroud’s real meaning, says expert

The Shroud of Turin on public display (CNS)

Letting go of the “obsession” with the authenticity of the Shroud of Turin can free people to discover its real value, one of the shroud’s leading historians has said.

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, said Gian Maria Zaccone, scientific director of the Museum of the Shroud of Turin at an early unveiling of the Shroud for reporters in the Cathedral of St John the Baptist on 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.

Church doctrine has long held that any reverence or honour 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 four-foot Shroud bears the photo-negative 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.

It went on display to the public on Sunday for the first time in five years and it will remain available for public viewing until June 24. Pope Francis will visit the shroud on June 21 during a private viewing alongside a number of his relatives.

The Shroud has been chemically analysed, carbon-dated, electronically enhanced and 3D-imaged. But 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, emphasising 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 stress the pastoral rather than scientific significance, this 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 it is the real burial cloth of Jesus is probably still strong.

Nevertheless, he said, “what I have learned is that when people then find themselves in front of the Shroud, the whole issue [of it being authentic] collapses entirely and it becomes a question of a relationship” – a personal connection with the image and the reflections and emotions it evokes.

“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.

He 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’s 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.

The bishop is said to have 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.”