About two weeks ago, I had the extraordinary opportunity of seeing the Shroud of Turin. During the summer I spent in Jerusalem, I learned a great deal about the Shroud. At the Notre Dame Center in Jerusalem, there is an exposition on the various scientific investigations of the Shroud. Without fail, a tour through that well-designed display deepens the experience pilgrims have of their encounter with God. In learning to give tours of the exhibition, I developed a keen interest and devotion to the Shroud.
When the opportunity arose to actually see it, I was willing to do anything I could to get there! And it almost didn’t happen.
The men in my year of studies at the North American College decided to make it a class trip. We were going to take the train to Turin, stay the night, see the Shroud, and return to Rome. As we approached the date, a nationwide railway strike was announced for precisely the time we intended to go. We immediately shifted plans, intending to travel by plane. Unfortunately, the volcano in Iceland (with the completely unpronounceable name) disagreed with our plans. Suddenly with travelers stranded all over Europe, the airports north of Milan closed, and all of the rental cars on the entire continent sucked up by business travelers trying to reach Spain and open skies, we found ourselves at a loss as to how to make it to see this most precious relic of the Passion.
But, divine providence was merely preparing us for the powerful experience in store. Rather suddenly, the Italian train strike melted away because of the increased traffic the volcano caused. The winds also shifted and airports opened all the way to the British Isles. Our seemingly insurmountable travel difficulties vanished, and we found ourselves in Turin.
I stayed with three other men near the train station. We arose painfully early on Saturday morning, intending to arrive an hour before the 7 a.m. Mass at the cathedral and pray in front of the Shroud. The Church was late in opening so we stood outside in the spitting rain with a group of Italian religious sisters. As I waited in the dark, anticipating the moment when I would see the image of the man on the SHroud, I could not help but feel grateful to the priest who introduced me to the intriguing science of the Shroud in Jerusalem. I was about to see the cloth that touched the broken and bloodied body of Jesus Christ, the cloth that bears a miraculous image made not by water, paint, sweat, or dirt, an image that sits on the surface of the cloth, an image that has remarkable photographic properties, an image that baffles scientists to this day and can be explained only with the most fantastic of scientific theories—or by simple faith in the Resurrection.
Finally the doors opened. Directly in front of me was a dramatic display with the Shroud of Turin. Even from fifty or sixty yards away, the image of the man was clearly visible. We prepared for Mass. As the priest elevated the sacred host and the people proclaimed the Agnus Dei, I was struck by the fact that the sacramental blood of Christ was being shown just in front of the corporeal blood of Christ, that the icon of the sacrifice of the Cross was the backdrop to the drama of the sacrifice of the Mass. Mass is an unbloody re-presentation of the one sacrifice of Christ on the Cross, truly placing us in the presence of the salvific events of history. This unbloody sacrifice that places each of us at the foot of the cross was occurring in the presence of the bloodied evidence of the Passion, Death, and Resurrection of Jesus Christ found on that most pure linen. It was a profoundly moving moment.
Later, when we had filed through the long line of somber and recollected pilgrims for a chance to see the Shroud up close, once we had finally made it to the point where we could glimpse the cloth that bears Christ’s image, it was impossible to remain unmoved. I watched my classmates—these men who would stand at the altar of sacrifice and echo Mary’s fiat in their own lives, men who would be Christ’s instruments of mercy on earth. I watched the expressions on their faces, the evidence in their own person of the love they had for this God-made-man who came to suffer and die for them, for us. I watched them as they showed their worthiness to be ministers of Christ, staring at the relic of Christ’s Resurrection and experiencing the power of his love, desiring to share that same love with others.
And then it was my turn. Hardly able to breathe from anticipation and joy, I found myself directly in front of the image’s head. When people see the Shroud, some are mesmerized by the wounds of Christ’s hands, some are pierced by meditating on his side which flowed blood and water, some are chastened by the scourge mark, and some consider the cruelty of the mocking crown weaved of thorns and disdain.
But I looked upon the face of God and lived. It was not the blood, the evidence of torture, or the indications of unbearable pain that moved me, but the peace I found in his face. There is surely evidence of hatred in the Shroud; there is no evidence of hatred in the man. There is evidence of scorn in the Shroud; there is no evidence of scorn in the man. There is cruelty and masochism on the cloth; there is nothing but love in the face.
Here was evidence not of pain, but of love: the depths of love. Love so great it cannot be understood. I saw the face of Jesus Christ. I saw the face of immeasurable love. I saw it in the sacred host of Mass. I saw it in the ministry of the priest-celebrant. I saw it in my brother seminarians who proved the depth of their own devoted encounter with Jesus. I saw it in the emotional pilgrims. And I saw it in the face of Jesus in the Shroud.
I looked upon the face of God and lived. He looked upon me and loved.