by Pat Lythe
I was to accompany my husband on a business trip to Geneva, with a quick visit to an institution
in the northern Italian city of Turin.
I was puzzled as to why it was difficult to book accommodation there in mid-June, as Turin is not known as a tourist town in the summer. Then the city site explained it all — Pope Francis was to visit for one and a half days, to close the exhibition of the shroud, which is only on display once every 10 years. Wow! That was a bonus. I did find accommodation and was also able to make an online booking to view the shroud on the last day of the exhibition.
I turned up at the given venue at 10am (my appointment was at 11) and walked into a park and began what the diocese had planned as a “pilgrimage”.
Once my registration was approved and I had been security scanned — no sticks, weapons, spray cans, etc., I began the approximately 1.5 km walk to the church, through a series of covered walkways which displayed prayers and pictures of recently canonised Italian saints, and more of those about to be beatified.
It was also 200 years since the birth of Don Bosco, who was born in Piedmont and died and is buried in Turin. He was also featured on the walls of the pilgrimage trail.
Along the trail were violet-vested volunteers ready to answer questions, although not many spoke English. We were kept in smallish groups and just before we entered the cathedral we were shown a short video that explained, through subtitles, the various elements of what you see on this piece of cloth, which may or may not have been wrapped around Jesus as he was taken down from the cross.
The shroud
The wounds made by the nails in the hands and feet, gouts of blood from the crown of thorns, the stripes on the back from the scourging and the wound in the side were all marked by blood stains. The shroud itself had been burned at some stage in the 16th century after which it was transferred to Turin for safe keeping, so there are burn marks on it as well.
The jury is out as to whether this really is the burial cloth in which Jesus was wrapped, but whether or not it is authentic, it is regarded as a holy relic that calls to mind the suffering and death of Jesus.
We were finally ushered into the pitch dark church where the shroud, encased in a glass case, was at eye level before us. It is very faded, which is why it is so seldom displayed, and without the video it might have been difficult to discern the elements, but it was profoundly moving. After 5-7 minutes of contemplation we were moved out to make room for the next small group.
Outside, the excitement of the “pilgrims” was obvious, chattering animatedly; signs showed us to various chapels for Confession or adoration, while down the side street were numerous shops hawking postcards, pictures, tablemats, cups, anything featuring the shroud. I just walked slowly back to our accommodation.
Next day, Saturday, we took the round-Turin sightseeing bus, getting off at significant places. I had always thought of Turin as an industrial town, home to the Italian motor industry (Fiat), but we were pleasantly impressed with the stunning piazzas, leafy avenues, the River Po, magnificent buildings, and many sculptures. Scores of young people were pouring into the city with backpacks and sleeping rolls on their backs, getting ready for the visit of the Pope the next day. Welcome posters, flags and banners were all over the city.
On Sunday we were up early and the city had thrown a cordon around its centre; no vehicles except police and ambulance cars. We joined the crowds of people streaming on foot towards the city centre. (It felt a bit like the Pied Piper.) Barricades were at many corners, an indication that El Papa would pass that way some time that day. We arrived in the central piazza at 8am and were in the front of the crowd when Pope Francis passed by an hour later on his way from the shroud. He lights up when he sees people and was giving his security detail heart attacks as he kept stopping the popemobile to caress a child or a disabled person.
He was to celebrate an open air Mass in the biggest piazza, the Vittorio Emmanuel, but we had seen that it had no shade, and an hour and a half standing in 35 degree heat was beyond me. However, huge screens had been erected in several of the other big squares, and we found a shady spot, close to the screen, for the Mass. Orders of service were handed out and Communion was also distributed. For many of the packed spectator-congregation crowd (more than 100,000 in the main square and as many again in the others), it was a reverent occasion, people joining in the singing, blessing themselves and taking everything in.
We were to fly out later that afternoon, so made our way back to the hotel, passing on the way a church where Pope Francis’s father had been baptised. It was staffed by eager volunteers keen to share that fact.
We came upon another set of barricades, with people waiting; with no English speakers to tell us
what was going on, we joined the expectant group and yes, after 10 minutes, Pope Francis emerged from the archbishop’s house where he had had lunch. So three close encounters in one day — a bonus indeed.
The Pope’s visit was wall-to-wall TV at the airport as we waited for our flight home, and the BBC had details, in English, of what he had been doing; meeting with workers, closing the shroud exhibition, meeting young people and members of the Don Bosco fraternity, as well as connecting with cousins of his own who lived in Turin.
It was indeed blessedly serendipitous that we were there that weekend.
Pat Lythe is the head of the Pastoral and Parish Support Group for Auckland diocese.