According to an Italian monk, the real reason the Holy Shroud was hidden in a remote monastery in southern Italy during World War II was to protect it from the thieving hands of the Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler.
Officially the famous linen cloth, also known as the Shroud of Turin and believed to have wrapped the dead body of Christ, was secretly sent south by its owners, the Savoy royal family of Turin, to keep it safe from wartime bombings.
Now, on the eve of a rare public display of the Shroud, the Rev. Andrea Davide Cardin, the librarian at the Montevergine Abbey where the Shroud was concealed from 1939 to 1946, says it appears there was another reason to hide the holy relic: to keep it out of the hands of Hitler, who was said to be interested in the esoteric and the occult.
Cardin, a Benedictine monk, told the Italian paper La Stampa that he was preparing an exhibit on the Shroud in his library when he came across a document that he believes shows the Shroud was actually hidden from Hitler.
When it was returned to Cardinal Maurilio Fossati at the Turin Cathedral in 1946, according to Cardin, Fossati wrote in a church document that hiding the shroud had been the right thing to do "because the invader had been in a hurry to ask questions."
Other historians and Shroud experts are skeptical, but Cardin tells an intriguing story.
In a recent interview with the Italian Magazine Diva e Donna, Cardin said that when Hitler visited Italy for seven days in May 1938, he did not go to Turin where the Shroud was kept in the Cathedral, but "Nazi officials asked unusual and insistent questions about the Shroud and where it was kept."
This alarmed the Savoys and the Church, says Cardin, and the King thought the Shroud would be safest in the Vatican. But according to Cardin, Pope Pius XII did not feel the Vatican was safe and it was decided that the Shroud should be hidden in the Abbey of Montecassino.
"Luckily that plan changed," says Cardin. The Abbey of Montecassino was razed to the ground by Allied bombs in 1944.
In September 1939, the Shroud was secretly slipped out of Turin and taken to the lesser known Abbey of Montevergine, where it was hidden under the altar of a small chapel. "Hardly anyone knew the secret," says Cardin.
"In 1943 the Germans came to Montevergine and searched the abbey, and the monks retired to pray where the Shroud was hidden," Cardin recounts. "An officer, seeing them in prayer, gave orders not to disturb them, and that was why the holy relic was not discovered."
The Shroud returned to Turin in October 1949, when the monarchy in Italy no longer existed. But on his last day as king of Italy, Umberto II of Savoy, had given orders that the Shroud be returned to Turin to the care of the archbishop of Turin, Cardinal Maurilio Fossati.
As Fossati departed Montevergine with the Shroud, the monks had a last prayer, says Cardin, to be allowed to see the Shroud. Fossati smiled, and allowed it, for just a few minutes.
The Holy Shroud will be exhibited in the Cathedral of Turin for the first time in 10 years from April 10 to May 23, and Pope Benedict XVI will travel to see the relic on May 2. The Pope approved a special viewing 15 years ahead of the scheduled display for the 2025 Holy Year.
Millions of people from all over the world are expected to go to Turin to see the Shroud, a linen cloth that bears a faint negative image of the front and back of a long-haired bearded man who appears to have wounds in his feet, wrists and side that correspond with the wounds of Christ's crucifixion.
The authenticity of the Shroud's intriguing image has been a matter of debate for centuries, with scientists unable to explain how the image was made. The most recent scientific tests on the cloth indicate it is likely to be a medieval fake.
The Catholic Church does not have an official position on the authenticity of the Shroud, but has authorized its veneration as a relic or icon of Christ's passion. A number of Popes, including John Paul II have expressed their personal belief in its authenticity. Pope Benedict XVI is expected to express his belief about the Shroud when he visits in May.