TURIN, Italy — When the Shroud of Turin goes on display in Turin Cathedral beginning April 19, Pope Francis will be among the millions of visitors expected to see and venerate what is believed to be the burial cloth of Jesus Christ. Walking in the footsteps of St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI, Pope Francis will venerate the shroud on June 21, days before the exhibit closes on June 24.
Surely, countless people will be moved, including those renewing belief in God and those wanting to enter the Catholic Church after seeing the shroud. In the past, others have traveled that road of spiritual renewal, whether Catholic or not.
Mark Antonacci, the founder and president of the Resurrection of the Shroud Foundation, is a leading authority on the shroud and a major speaker at conferences — quite a change from his starting point: He was baptized a Catholic, his father’s faith. But since his father never went to church, his mother, a Methodist, raised him in that tradition. He went to church every Sunday, but once in college, he became agnostic.
“Thirty-three years ago, I was a young agnostic lawyer in my early 30s and came across a summary of … the findings of the Shroud of Turin Research Project, deducted from their examination of the shroud in 1978,” said Antonacci, referring to an article from 1981.
“It really bothered me,” he recollected. “I found myself pacing a couple of hours in my apartment. Finally, mid-step in the midst of the pacing, I stopped. It hit me: What’s the problem here? It’s a win-win-win situation every way you look at it. It seemed to threaten my moral and philosophical foundations that I had formed in mind, but then I came to realize it certainly was an improvement and gave me a good perspective on everything.”
“It was very sobering indeed,” Antonacci explained. “The evidence is just remarkable, like nothing ever seen. It could not be forged. The attorney in me took over. The evidence from the shroud made me realize there is an objective and independent evidence to confirm that every element of the Passion, Crucifixion and Resurrection occurred in precisely the ways described in the Gospels.”
He began researching the shroud in depth while preparing a presentation on it for lawyers. Instead of the short summary necessary for the presentation, he gave “a detailed analysis, like a lawyer would do.” This was the start of his book The Resurrection of the Shroud (M. Evans and Co.), which was published in 2000. Antonacci also began the foundation (TesttheShroud.org) to advance the research and publication of results in all areas related to the Shroud of Turin.
Antonacci did return to his Christian roots, but not as a Methodist. He considers himself a nondenominational Christian.
His second book, Test the Shroud, is due for release in late spring 2015, and his foundation’s name will change about that time to the Test the Shroud Foundation.
“Now, at 65, I’m working on it harder than when I was 32,” he said quite happily about his concentration on the shroud.
Persuaded by Pictures
In 1978, Barrie Schwortz was the official documenting photographer for the Shroud of Turin Research Project (STURP), which undertook the first scientific examination of the cloth. The Vatican considers its findings as official scientific data.
“Obviously, it had an impact on me,” said Schwortz, a congenial gentleman who speaks with the naturalness of an old friend.
In 1978, he spent five days alone in the room with the shroud photographing it. At the end, he did not have a clue how to answer any of the questions about the findings. Obviously, it was like nothing he had ever seen, despite his extensive knowledge and experience.
The shroud “forced me to confront my own faith,” he said. He “was raised in an Orthodox Jewish home,” where God was part of daily life, but as a teen, he left his faith and God. Then along came his experiences with the shroud, which caused him to look inside himself for what he believed.
“It reconnected me to my own faith in God,” Schwortz affirmed. “How many Jews can say the Shroud of Turin called them back to God?” he added. “I’m still Jewish, but I perceive myself as a messenger who brings this to a broader audience.”
Indeed, Schwortz has done so over 35 years, as he focuses on bringing the shroud to as many people as he can. He founded the Shroud of Turin Education and Research Association, Inc. at Shroud.com, the premiere website on the subject.
“Even though I’m not a Catholic, I taught for three years at the [Regina Apostolorum] Pontifical University in Rome,” he said. It was a master’s-level course on the Shroud of Turin, which he might be reviving there soon. “For a Jewish guy, I get around a lot in the Catholic world!”
Schwortz lectures extensively both nationally and internationally. Encountering the shroud changes people, he attests, including bringing about conversions.
“The answer is many,” he said. “I know the shroud has had an impact on people — very many of them.”
“I’m saying something in those talks, reaching people’s hearts, just sharing my story,” Schwortz said with conviction. “It’s a testimony, if you will, how this has reconnected me to my own faith, which you wouldn’t expect. Maybe God, in his infinite wisdom, says this isn’t just for Catholics — this is for everybody.”
During lectures, he also gets the chance to correct Protestants’ mistaken notions about this being a graven image. The shroud, he stresses, is not artwork.
“Coming from a guy like me,” he said, they listen, which helps non-Catholic Christians to regard the shroud with an open mind. One Baptist minister emailed Schwortz, telling him he had to re-evaluate his own position on the shroud and had come to accept it must be real.
For a Baptist to have a change of heart after listening to “an old Jewish photo guy means the message of the shroud is in what I say,” Schwortz said. Still, his biggest support is from Catholics, many of whom saw his appearance on EWTN.
“This is exactly why I was in that room in 1978 with that piece of cloth,” he believes. “It was not for me; it was for you. It’s had a great impact on my life. God picks the right guy for the job, but I would never have thought that in my early days.”
Father Joseph Wolfe of the Franciscan Missionaries of the Eternal Word interviewed Schwortz on EWTN Live in 2013. He began the program reminding viewers that on Aug. 15, 1981, “Mother Angelica put EWTN on the air for the very first time.” She decided to begin EWTN’s programming by broadcasting a documentary on the Shroud of Turin.
Father Wolfe shared with the Register how “learning about the shroud had an impact on [his] own life.” As an engineering student in the late 1970s, he first learned about the shroud from a lengthy article with photos about scientists who were allowed to examine the shroud. The magazine was titled NOVA.
“I was captivated by the shroud,” he said. “We were assigned to give a persuasive speech that semester in a speech class, and my speech was on ‘Why the Shroud of Turin Was the Burial Cloth of Jesus Christ.’”
He still can recite the opening line from this first persuasive speech in college: “Consider the proposition that the Shroud of Turin is the actual burial cloth of Jesus of Nazareth.”
“I thought it providential that I was giving scientifically oriented engineering students scientific evidence for the resurrection of Jesus,” said Father Wolfe, who earned an “A” for the speech.
“Of course, it solidified my own faith,” he said. Knowing and studying the shroud “confirms me in my own faith. To see there is evidence for what we believe shores up your own faith.”
Father Wolfe puts reason and faith together. “God has given us a mind able to know truth, and our belief in the Resurrection is not just pie-in-the-sky hope, but based on archaeological evidence, historical evidence, human testimony to the point of martyrdom and also our faith that reaches beyond the limits of our human reason with divine light to see farther. Our faith is not contrary to reason; it sees farther. And they agree. Both lead us to Truth.”
He sees the shroud as evidence for the scientific facts behind Jesus’ existence, suffering and resurrection, because even our modern technology cannot find a way it could possibly have been forged.
On the one hand, the shroud is “not necessary for our faith, but it’s one more archaeological pointer to the truth of our faith,” he said. On the other hand, “it shows us that our faith is not unreasonable. These things can help us respond to the light of faith.
“I would see the shroud as a preparatory thing for people to respond in faith to God and to his Son, Jesus Christ.”
Susan Tassone, author of the bestselling Day by Day for the Holy Souls in Purgatory (OSV, 2014), viewed the Shroud of Turin during its 1998 exposition.
“I remember the silence,” Tassone recalled. “I was awestruck. I couldn’t say a word. It was overwhelming to see it up front face-to-face. The shroud made me realize the brutal sufferings of Jesus — Jesus was beyond brutally beaten. It made me realize the suffering — beyond belief — that he went through for our sake. You felt it was just for you he did that.”
Looking back, she believes God took her to the shroud, plus several major shrines around the world, to prepare her to eventually write eight books on the souls in purgatory.
As for the shroud, “It built up my faith,” affirmed Tassone. “And it definitely challenges nonbelievers.”
Julie Stanton of British Columbia, Canada, was raised an evangelical Christian. In 1975, when she was a teenager, her family lived in Florence for six months, and she got to see many cathedrals and churches, including in Turin.
The shroud was not on official display, “but behind the glass — in its own case,” Stanton remembered.
“I got a sense of warmth, a sense of mystery and awe that certainly impacted me,” she recalled. “It certainly was memorable.”
Stanton came to realize “the shroud was another connection to Jesus that was venerated, honored and loved, so much that there was this beautiful cathedral, and then reverence that was shown to the shroud throughout the ages.”
Naturally, the Shroud of Turin affected her. So, she said, did the great reverence and honor Catholics showed to bodies and relics of saints in many other beautiful churches she visited in Italy. The sense of awe just entering these churches “was something that led me to investigate further the kind of faith that would maintain the beauty and reverence for these things,” she said.
As a Protestant, she struggled to understand the sense of devotion she admired so much in Catholics and how it was traditionally connected to relics and saints, with sacramentals like holy water, the Sign of the Cross, veneration of relics and asking saints’ intercession — and most of all the Virgin Mary. Even before becoming a Catholic, she loved St. Thérèse of Lisieux and the fact that her chosen name was Thérèse of the Child Jesus and the Holy Face.
All this led to her conversion to the Catholic Church in 1986. Over the years, Stanton has gone to a number of the displays of the facsimile of the Shroud of Turin and to hear speakers discuss the sacred cloth.
Little wonder those who come in contact with the shroud are changed, attesting to what Benedict XVI said after venerating the shroud in 2010: “When we leave this holy place, may we carry in our eyes the image of the shroud; may we carry in our hearts this word of love and praise God with a life full of faith, hope and charity.”
Joseph Pronechen is the Register's staff writer.