Peter Popham: Shrouded in the faith of centuries

The Catholic Church has never officially endorsed the claims of the Shroud's true believers

Share
Related Topics

Pope Benedict XVI has for many weeks been groping for something innocuous to do or say and yesterday found it in Turin, where he gazed reverentially upon an ancient piece of cloth. The prelate running Berlusconi a close second for howlers and foot-in-mouth attacks could not have done anything safer if he had mounted his popemobile and trundled around St Peter's Square, his mouth firmly closed.

Instead he made a pilgrimage to see the Turin Shroud, which is enjoying its first public exhibition for 10 years and has attracted tens of thousands of believers. As all the world knows, the Shroud is claimed by believers to be the cloth in which the body of Jesus was wrapped when it was brought down lifeless from the cross. It is far more likely to be a medieval fraud, but final scientific proof of its provenance continues to be elusive. And meanwhile the Shroud's supporters have no hesitation in repeating those claims. Those prepared to wait in line at Turin's cathedral are given detailed explanations of which parts of the Shroud carry the impress of the crown of thorns, which the nails in the hands, which the nails in the feet.

For the ever more militant army of atheists, this is stuff to make the lip curl. The Shroud, in their view, is almost as certainly as phony as any other medieval relic – and even supposing that the wildest claims are true and that it did once bear the body of "the king of the Jews", so what? Even if the Vatican's medieval researcher Barbara Frale, who starred in Italian TV's coverage of the papal visit yesterday, is right, and the partially legible Aramaic words on the shroud amount to Jesus's death certificate, what difference does it make? If the man bearing that name once lived, he must also have died. If the Shroud is as old as its enthusiasts claim, its survival is close to a miracle, but not a miracle that tells us anything we need to know.

Yet for a Church profoundly wounded by the paedophile disaster of the past two months, shaken to its foundations by the irrefutable evidence of the complicity of high-ranking church figures in the covering-up of the abuse of children, the Shroud is something around which it can close ranks. The Catholic Church has never officially endorsed the claims of the Shroud's true believers. Instead their endorsements of pilgrimages are couched in the careful, defensive language that comes naturally to an institution that has been under siege for centuries. The Pope followed in this tradition yesterday, telling the congregation that "the Holy Shroud eloquently reminds us always" of the sufferings of Jesus. "It mirrors our suffering in the suffering of Christ."

And he was on safe ground. This elitist figure, most at home in the company of other theologians, was speaking to the millions of ordinary believers in words they could follow. The Shroud's enthusiasts argue strenuously for its authenticity, and have poured huge sums into proving it. But the attempt is ludicrous, because its authenticity or otherwise is quite beside the point.

Recently I had the chance to go on Sri Lanka's most famous pilgrimage, to Sri Pada, the peak of a mountain in the south-west of the island that was supposedly visited by the Buddha. Thousands of devout Buddhists set off after dusk and climb the mountain through the night, many of them elderly, most in bare feet. The Buddha supposedly left his footprint at the peak: four or five times life size, we are asked to believe that it has endured for 2,500 years. Nothing could be more laughable. And that helps one to appreciate that the scientific facts of the case are quite irrelevant. On the peak of Sri Pada, as in Turin, hundreds of years of popular devotion build up a mood of spiritual intensity which has nothing to do with scientific facts. Yesterday the Pope was as close as you can get to the heart of the popular religious experience.

p.popham@independent.co.uk



For further reading:

MicroMega: temi.repubblica.it/micromega-online

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Opilio Recruitment: UX & Design Specialist

£40k - 45k per year + Benefits: Opilio Recruitment: A fantastic opportunity ...

Opilio Recruitment: Publishing Application Support Analyst

£30k - 35k per year + Benefits: Opilio Recruitment: We’re currently re...

Opilio Recruitment: Digital Marketing Manager

£35k - 45k per year + benefits: Opilio Recruitment: A fantastic opportunity ...

Opilio Recruitment: Sales Manager

£60k - 80k per year + Benefits: Opilio Recruitment: A fantastic opportunity ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Our political system is fragmented, with disillusioned voters looking to the margins for satisfaction  

Politics of hope needed to avert flight to margins

Liam Fox
David Cameron delivers his speech on immigration at the JCB World Headquarters in Rocester, Staffordshire  

Cameron's speech was an attempt to kill immigration as an election issue

Andrew Grice
Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: ‘We give them hope. They come to us when no one else can help’

Christmas Appeal

Meet the charity giving homeless veterans hope – and who they turn to when no one else can help
Should doctors and patients learn to plan humane, happier endings rather than trying to prolong life?

Is it always right to try to prolong life?

Most of us would prefer to die in our own beds, with our families beside us. But, as a GP, Margaret McCartney sees too many end their days in a medicalised battle
Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night - is that what it takes for women to get to the top?

What does it take for women to get to the top?

Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night and told women they had to do more if they wanted to get on
Christmas jumper craze: Inside the UK factory behind this year's multicultural must-have

Knitting pretty: British Christmas Jumpers

Simmy Richman visits Jack Masters, the company behind this year's multicultural must-have
French chefs have launched a campaign to end violence in kitchens - should British restaurants follow suit?

French chefs campaign against bullying

A group of top chefs signed a manifesto against violence in kitchens following the sacking of a chef at a Paris restaurant for scalding his kitchen assistant with a white-hot spoon
Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour War and Peace on New Year's Day as Controller warns of cuts

Just what you need on a New Year hangover...

Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour adaptation of War and Peace on first day of 2015
Cuba set to stage its first US musical in 50 years

Cuba to stage first US musical in 50 years

Claire Allfree finds out if the new production of Rent will hit the right note in Havana
Christmas 2014: 10 best educational toys

Learn and play: 10 best educational toys

Of course you want them to have fun, but even better if they can learn at the same time
Paul Scholes column: I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season

Paul Scholes column

I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season
Lewis Moody column: Stuart Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

Lewis Moody: Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

So what must the red-rose do differently? They have to take the points on offer 
Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

It's in all our interests to look after servicemen and women who fall on hard times, say party leaders
Millionaire Sol Campbell wades into wealthy backlash against Labour's mansion tax

Sol Campbell cries foul at Labour's mansion tax

The former England defender joins Myleene Klass, Griff Rhys Jones and Melvyn Bragg in criticising proposals
Nicolas Sarkozy returns: The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?

Sarkozy returns

The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?
Is the criticism of Ed Miliband a coded form of anti-Semitism?

Is the criticism of Miliband anti-Semitic?

Attacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But is the criticism more sinister?
Ouija boards are the must-have gift this Christmas, fuelled by a schlock horror film

Ouija boards are the must-have festive gift

Simon Usborne explores the appeal - and mysteries - of a century-old parlour game