Shroud of Turin Leads to Conversions, Founding of Shroud Center
“The Shroud seems to have a great pastoral mission, causing many unexpected conversions,” says the founder of the Shroud Center of Southern California, “especially from among young people.”
“To them [Christ] presented himself alive after his passion by many proofs …” (Acts 1:3)
In 1994, after years of intensive study, California physician August Accetta reached his conclusion about the Shroud of Turin. In his mind, the scientific evidence was overwhelming. The Shroud, indeed, is the burial cloth of Jesus Christ. As he gazed upon the image of Christ’s crucified face, miraculously imprinted on the Shroud and preserved through the centuries, he knew he had to confront a personal issue that he had been pondering over the previous two years of his study: How could he remain agnostic?
The Shroud of Turin is taken out periodically to be venerated by the faithful. In 1998, Pope St. John Paul II knelt in prayer before the Shroud and later remarked that it is “a challenge to our intelligence … an image that everyone can see but no one can yet explain.”
Accetta also made the journey to Turin that year, observing the Shroud in reverential silence for nearly two hours with other spellbound pilgrims. He recalled, “It was overwhelming. Words cannot describe it.”
Dr. Accetta grew up in Huntington Beach in Southern California, and was an active parishioner in his parish as a teen, and later became the parish’s youth minister. In college, however, he immersed himself in scientific study alongside many agnostics who considered religion and science incompatible. In time, he came to share their view. He married a fundamentalist Protestant, Stacey, with whom he had two children. He joined her church and enjoyed the fellowship there, but had little supernatural faith.
Throughout this time, the Shroud remained a curiosity to him. He first read of it as a teenager and later, in medical school, developed a friendship with a prominent Shroud scientist, Allan Wanger of Duke Medical School in North Carolina.
The Shroud is said to be an ancient burial linen 14’3” long and 3’7” wide. On the front and back are faint, blood-stained images of a 6-foot, 175-pound man who bears the same wounds as those inflicted upon Christ as described in the four Gospels. Approximately 700 wounds of various sizes appear on the body, signs of a brutal death. To those who accept its authenticity, it offers a graphic and compelling insight into the sufferings and death of Jesus Christ, and a “snapshot” of his Resurrection.
The first written description of the burial cloth comes from the 14th century by a French crusader who described it in a report to Rome. It was moved to Turin in 1578, and for centuries attracted large numbers of pilgrims. An Italian photographer, Secondo Pia, first captured it on film in 1898 and made a startling discovery that would touch off a flurry of scientific investigation — the negative produced a white, ghostlike image of far greater clarity than the original.
The investigation culminated in an intensive 1978 study by a team of 40 scientists, led by Colorado physicist John Jackson. The results were generally favorable to the Shroud’s authenticity. A decade later, however, carbon-14 dating placed the Shroud’s origin between 1262 and 1390, thereby making it a clever forgery. Many scientists disregard these findings today, however, believing the single carbon-14 test sample to have been contaminated and the scientific method used flawed.
While the Vatican takes no official position on the Shroud’s origins, it has encouraged the faithful to venerate it as an image of the crucified Christ.
Accetta’s Personal Studies
Accetta’s personal studies of the Shroud centered on his areas of interest: medicine, chemistry and physics. As a doctor of medicine, for example, Accetta sees in it an image of a body in the state of rigor mortis, but which has not yet begun to decompose, as would occur five days after death — consistent with what Scripture says about Christ’s Resurrection on the third day after his crucifixion.
Yet others with different backgrounds bring new perspectives. Hungarian-born artist Isabel Piczek (1927-2016), for example, who was a friend of Accetta’s, was an expert in art history. She concluded that the image could not have been painted by a medieval artist, and that its appearance on the cloth is unexplainable.
Studying the Shroud intensively between 1992-1994, Accetta’s questions about its authenticity were answered one-by-one. This period was simultaneously a “growth process” for his faith, and by 1994, he knew it was time to rededicate his life to Christ. He observed, “In contrast to many in the last century or so, science brought me back to God.”
Yet Accetta’s conversion is not unique. There are many examples of Shroud scientists who were atheist, agnostic or otherwise non-Christian before their study, and have since become Catholic and ardent promoters of the Shroud. Wanger converted from atheism, and at least one scholar, Joseph Marino, became a priest.
Piczek said, “The Shroud seems to have a great pastoral mission, causing many unexpected conversions, especially from among young people.”
Convinced that the Shroud once bore the body of Christ, Accetta wanted to know which of the world’s thousands of Christian denominations was the one Christ founded. Studious by nature, Accetta dove into studies of theology and Church history. When he began reading the works of the early Church Fathers and saw Catholic doctrine in their teaching and practice, he knew he had found his answer: “I was exhilarated to find Christ in the Catholic Church. When I began my study I never intended to return to it, but that’s where my process of truth-seeking led.” He stressed that it is “no coincidence” that the Shroud is entrusted to the care of the Catholic Church.
Shroud Center of Southern California
With the zeal of a convert (or in his case, revert), he resolved to make the Shroud of Turin a household name. In 1996, he founded what is today the Shroud Center of Southern California, located at the Santiago Retreat Center in Silverado in Orange County, California. Its exhibits and volunteers tell the story of the Shroud, including the science and research behind it. It has drawn many volunteer tour guides through the years, including Stephen Shehyn, who was given a tour by Accetta and left in tears.
“I felt I was standing in the presence of Our Lord,” he said, “experiencing both his humanity and divinity.”
Shehyn had only recently returned to the Catholic Church at the time, and found his faith greatly affirmed by his study of the Shroud. He described it as “the fifth Gospel, which makes us confront the reality of Christ’s suffering, death and resurrection.” He returned to the Center as a dedicated volunteer. He added, however, that his faith would not be shaken if the Shroud were proven a fraud.
Yet not all have been receptive to the Shroud. In a few instances, Accetta learned of Catholic organizations that hosted anti-Shroud speakers, which he has approached and offered to present the contrary position, from a purely scientific point of view. They declined.
“Some Catholics prefer a faith that is experiential and personal, rather than one based on fact,” he opined. “But the Resurrection of Christ is a fact. Proofs of the Resurrection — including witnesses who had seen the resurrected Christ — were important to the early Christians.”
The negative response of some Catholics has been a great disappointment to Accetta, especially since he has encountered much enthusiasm from non-Catholics. His apostolate received a boost, however, when Norbertine Father Francis Gloudeman of St. Michael’s Abbey showed up at his door one day. He was delighted a priest had shown interest, and invited him to become the Center’s spiritual director. He accepted. Father Francis remarked, “When friends come into town, I have another place to take them besides Mission San Juan Capistrano — the Shroud Center.”
He added, “In encourage Catholics, especially priests, to approach this Shroud with an open mind and loving heart. Let this burial cloth of Jesus help you to know and love Jesus and his Paschal Mystery more and more.”
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