Veiled in mystery, the Shroud of Turin, one of the world’s most famous religious relics, is on display starting today for 70 days — the longest time in its history.
There have been only four expositions of the shroud in the 20th century. It last went on display in 1998.
The shroud, a piece of herringbone twilled linen cloth measuring 14.5 feet by 3.9 feet, is believed by many Roman Catholics to be the cloth in which Christ’s body was wrapped after his crucifixion. The Vatican, which now owns it, is not sure about its authenticity but regards it as a powerful aid for the faithful.
On the first day of its Jubilee Year display, about 6,000 youths visited the shroud for prayers led by Severino Poletto, the archbishop of Turin and custodian of the shroud.
At the ceremony, Poletto said the Church is open to new scientific study of the shroud. "The Church is not afraid of science," he said, echoing a statement by Pope John Paul II last year.
Italian TV broadcast live from the Turin cathedral as clerics presented the icon in an aluminum and plastic frame before pilgrims from around the world. Many of the pilgrims had just arrived for the pope’s World Youth Day in Rome.
On Sunday, Poletto will preside over a Mass celebrated with other bishops from the region, and more young Catholics will visit through the day, most delegates of the World Youth Day ceremonies. The shroud will go on display for the general public on Aug. 26.
So far, 345,000 people from all over the world have reserved tickets to see it. The number of people visiting this year is expected to exceed the 2.5 million who came to see the shroud in 1998.
Imprint of a Man Crucified
Bearing the faint imprint of a man and the apparent signs of wound marks that correspond to those Christ suffered during his crucifixion, the shroud has been the focus of a great deal of debate over the centuries.
It has, however, never officially been a relic for the Catholic Church. Pope John Paul II, who visited the shroud in 1998 for the second time, and prayed in silence in front of it for some time, called it “an icon of the suffering of the innocent of all time” and “an extraordinary witness to the suffering of Christ.”
On entering the Cathedral, however, he did first kneel and pray in front of the Eucharist — where, he said, the faithful find “ the real, true and substantial presence of Christ” — before kneeling in front of the shroud.
On that visit, he said no one can explain the shroud right now and that its authenticity was for scientists to decide.
‘Shroud Tourism’ Is Born
The history of the shroud can be fairly accurately traced since 1349. That was when a French nobleman, Geoffrey de Charny (or Charney), wrote to Pope Clement VI telling him he intended to build a church in the small French town Lirey and to display the shroud there.
The first public display came around 1355. News of the “miraculous shroud” spread rapidly, special souvenir medallions were struck and shroud tourism was born.
In 1356, de Charney died fighting the English at the Battle of Poitiers. His wife Jeanne de Vergy and her son Geoffrey II inherited the shroud — and a whole lot of trouble.
The local bishop of Troyes, Henry of Poitiers, who did not look kindly upon the growing popularity of the relic, ordered the shroud to be destroyed.