Father Barron, having just returned to Rome from viewing the Shroud of Turin in Turin, Italy, reflects on his experience for the Word on Fire readers:
I’m just back from an extraordinary day trip to see the greatest relic in the Christian world, the Shroud of Turin.
As you probably know, the Shroud—the cloth reputed to be the burial shroud of Jesus himself—is displayed only very rarely.
When I heard that the members of the faculty of the North American College were heading north to see it, I knew I had to join them.
When I was a teen-ager, back in the late seventies, I read all I could about the Shroud.
There was an explosion of interest in this mysterious object after the scientific investigations done on it in 1978, by a group of analysts associated with NASA.
These specialists determined that the markings on the cloth—showing the back and front sides of a man who had been brutally beaten, scourged, crowned with thorns, crucified, and pierced through the side—were not made from any sort of pigmentation or artistic device.
They resulted, instead, from a chemical reaction comparable to a scorch.
They confirmed what had been known for many decades, namely, that the marks that we see are a kind of photographic negative, so that when the shroud is photographed, the negative becomes a startlingly detailed and realistic portrait of the crucified man.
The anatomical and historical details—including the myriad gashes from the scourging, the flow of blood, the presence of Pontius Pilate coins on the figure’s eyes, the wounds in the wrists and not the hands, the presence of a pony-tail running down the man’s back, bits of pollen that are unique to the region around Jerusalem, etc.—are remarkably accurate, and impossible for a medieval forger to have known or even guessed.
All indications were that this was the burial cloth that had been wrapped around the crucified body of Jesus.
In 1988, of course, carbon-14 tests were done on a small sample of the shroud in order to determine whether it was indeed from the first century, and I, along with countless others, was frankly shocked to learn that three separate labs concluded that the Shroud dated from the 13th or 14th century. It seemed as though, despite all the evidence to the contrary, it was a medieval forgery. But yet so much remained puzzling. How could even the cleverest of medieval fakers have managed to get so many details so right and to have produced, in photographic negative no less, an image that no artist of the time was even vaguely capable of creating? Then the skeptics began to come forward. A number of specialists have been arguing for the past many years that, for a variety of reasons, the sample used for the C-14 tests were problematic. Some speculate that the sample was taken from a section of the shroud that had been handled by many people in the course of its history and thereby contaminated; others held that the fires to which the cloth had been exposed had skewed the readings. But the most persuasive argument was made by one of the scientists who had originally analyzed the Shroud in 1978. Through careful microscopic studies of bits of the sample that the labs had preserved (what is actually used in the C-14 test is destroyed in the process), he discovered that interwoven with the original fabric were threads of cotton from a much later date, probably introduced when the Shroud was being repaired in the late Middle Ages or early modern period. This would clearly explain, he said, the results from the 1988 tests.
At any rate, it was with all of this background in mind, that I came to Torino yesterday finally to see the Shroud with my own eyes. What was immediately impressive (and deeply moving) was the sheer size of the crowd, patiently waiting in endless, snaking lines to see the relic. Estimates are that, in just over a month, already two million pilgrims have come. (I began to wonder whether reports of the death of Christianity in Europe aren’t perhaps a tad premature.) The day we went was cold and rainy, and yet the thousands stood under umbrellas and swathed in all sorts of rain-gear. Just next to us in line was a group of very lively Italian school-kids, probably 11 or 12 years old, and behind us was a contingent of pious Polish pilgrims, bearing a statue of Our Lady and singing hymns. As we approached the cathedral, the hubbub of the crowd died down and a reverential silence fell over us.
Just before entering the building, we were shown a brief film which indicated the various sections of the shroud and highlighted the markings. Then we entered the duomo. I could spy the Shroud from a distance, displayed over the main altar and brightly illuminated. When our turn came, a group of about fifty of us were ushered into an enclosed area right in front of the relic, and there we were allowed to remain for about three minutes. I admit that it was one of the most extraordinary religious experiences of my life. The marks on the Shroud—including the blood stains—are clearly visible, which means that the brutal reality of the Passion is clearly visible. Staring at the Shroud, I was brought vividly back to that squalid little hill outside the city walls of Jerusalem in the year 30 where a young man was tortured to death. But then the face of the figure comes into focus—that strange, haunting, noble, peaceful face, which discloses, at the same time, the depth of human misery and the fullness of divine mercy. In the face of the crucified God, the full drama and poetry of Christian faith is on display, the Answer which is anything but an easy answer, the Word which surpasses the words of any philosopher. As I stood before the Shroud, I found myself praying for everyone I love and especially for Word on Fire team, for all of my wonderful colleagues who are doing everything in their power to bring the message the crucified and risen Lord to the world.