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.
For further reading: