Shrouded in Mystery

03-31-2024Pastor's LetterFr. John Bonavitacola

Dear Friends,

The Shroud of Turin is still, well shrouded in mystery. The Shroud is thought by many to be the burial cloth of Jesus. I say, “thought” because no one has ever been able to empirically prove that it is and no one has been able to prove that it isn’t. The Shroud of Turin is the most studied and investigated artifact on the planet. And despite the most sophisticated and highly technical scientific analysis it still refuses to yield its secrets.

Back in the 1980’s after a piece of the Shroud underwent Carbon-14 testing many claimed that since the testing dated the Shroud around the 13th century it was a medieval forgery. That despite also finding that pigments and pollen on the Shroud were from first century plants found in the Middle East and not Northern Italy. As it turns out the pieces of the Shroud that were tested were from patches placed on the Shroud after a fire damaged it around the 13th century. So the test results were correct except for testing the wrong piece of cloth.

But the most perplexing part of the Shroud is how the image made its way onto the Shroud. Even though some brilliant researchers have put many interesting hypotheses forward none of these has been able to fully explain the imprint on the Shroud. Each time someone comes up with a theory someone else is able to debunk it. More importantly no one has been able to completely reproduce the image of the Shroud using any of the artistic techniques that many consider may have been used to imprint the image on the Shroud. The image is a photographic negative, which was only revealed after someone took a photo of it in 1898. The question then arises is if it is a 13th century forgery who was around back then that could have understand what a photographic negative is at a time before the invention of the camera? And why use the image from a photographic negative when shrouds with dead bodies don’t produce such images?

The most recent hypothesis to try to explain the origin of the imprint on the Shroud is that it was caused by radiation (specifically the corona discharge effect). Unlike previous theories of how the imprint was made, scientists have been able to reproduce this technique in the laboratory but only partially. Scientists have been able to reproduce only a few inches of a Shroud like image and even for that they had to use over 500,000 volts! So at this point to reproduce the entire image using such a technique would require voltage of tens of millions of volts of radiation. Of course that would be like exploding an atom bomb. Even if this method could possibly create a forgery, who in the 13th century or earlier had the technology to do such a thing? Still maybe this theory can help us understand something of the physics of resurrection. How is a body able to be reanimated without complete obliteration? Was the Resurrection a massive explosion of energy?

Of course maybe we also have to look beyond science and see the image on the Shroud as linked to the reality of resurrection?

The Shroud of Turin and the Gospel Resurrection accounts despite centuries of rigorous historical analysis and scientific scrutiny still stand as witnesses to the Resurrection of Christ. And still no matter how firm a grounding the Resurrection stories have they don’t necessarily lead to an acceptance of Jesus as Lord and Messiah. Why has that been so for generations? Probably because most of us have our own agendas and if we accept the Resurrection we have to also accept what goes along with it: belief in Christ and in his continued presence in his Church.

Just as the Shroud can be taken as a medieval forgery, so the Resurrection stories can be taken as delusions of the grief stricken followers of Jesus. Which leaves us with the only truly effective convincing evidence of Jesus Resurrection: the witness of lives changed by an encounter with the Risen Lord. And either we evidence that in our lives as Christians or we leave ourselves open to being doubted as forgeries or medieval hangovers of a superstitious past.

Yes it is good to ponder and investigate the science behind Resurrection for somehow deep within the laws of physics may be hidden the possibility of how molecules can be reanimated. We however can only go so far since the only known resurrected person is Christ who has ascended back to the Father, which makes it difficult to subject to laboratory experiments! So the only known subjects that can be studied, as Paul says is the believer who carries around in his body the death and resurrection of Christ.

So it is much more of a convincing proof if the imprint of the Crucified One is imprinted on our lives than on a linen cloth.

Happy Easter!


Fr. John B