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|1947: Cathedral of St John the Baptist, Turin, Italy
Cattedrale di San Giovanni Battista, Turin, Italy.
Roman Catholic, Metropolitan Archdiocese of Turin.
The church is built on the site of Turin's ancient Roman theatre,
and a section of the theatre's semicircular stone seating can
be seen on the north side of the cathedral. Dedicated to St
John the Baptist, the patron saint of Turin, the church is a
basilica, and was built in the late 1490s on the site of three
earlier churches in an early renaissance style. Next to it stands
an impressive 60 metre campanile, which was built some 30 years
before the church. The facade, fashioned of white Carrara marble,
is particularly handsome, especially when lit by the afternoon
sun. But the interior is gloomy, an effect not helped by the
dark pews that fill the nave. The cathedral is remarkable in
that among its artifacts is a very old linen cloth that appears
to bear the likeness of a crucified man. Although we have no
extant record of this cloth dating back earlier than the 14th
century, many believe the image to be that of Jesus and the
cloth to be Jesus' burial shroud. The Holy Shroud, as it is
called, was brought to Turin in 1587, and a special chapel for
it, the Chapel of the Holy Shroud, was completed in 1694 to
house it. The chapel is built where the apse would have been,
and is elevated above the rest of the building. It was damaged
in a fire that broke out one night in 1997, and is still being
The cathedral is a constant destination for pilgrims and tourists
due to the presence of the Shroud of Turin. When the Shroud
is not on display (which is most of the time), a large photograph
of it can be seen in the first chapel on the right-hand side.
During the current display of the Shroud (10 April to 23 May
2010), the normal parochial functions of the cathedral, including
mass and confession, are taking place in a couple of local churches.
The church is on the modestly sized Piazza S. Giovanni and is
in the historic centre of Turin. Surprisingly, though, it is
the only remaining example of renaissance architecture in the
entire city. Turin was home to the House of Savoy, Italy's royal
family. To the east and south of the cathedral are extensive
royal gardens and the imposing and grand Piazza Castello, which
contains the city's medieval castle. The castle is now fronted
by the elegant Palazzo Madama, a baroque royal palace from the
early 18th century. Caffeterias, ristorantes and bars are in
The cast: The woman who led the prayers (the only publicly led aspect of the occasion) was not named.
The date & time: 10 April 2010, 7.30pm.
What was the name of the service?
Passio Christi, Passio Hominis: Exposition of the Holy
Shroud. We were there during the first two hours of the exposition.
How full was the building?
Packed. The queue of pilgrims to see the Shroud stretched back
all the way through the Royal Gardens, behind the cathedral.
It ended up in the north aisle of the cathedral, where Shroud
volunteers directed the traffic. However, the nave of the church
was full of people too, who were able to get a distant view
of the Shroud.
Did anyone welcome you
None of the Shroud volunteers (there were several thousand of
them in Turin for the opening, many wearing strange, Bavarian-style
felt hats with feathers – possibly in honour of the Pope?
I wondered) welcomed me as I stood in the queue. But considering
that they were directing about 3,000 people in and out of the
cathedral every hour, I'm sure that "Buona sera, che piacere
vederti!" wasn't exactly at the top of their agenda.
Was your pew comfortable?
There was nowhere to rest one's bottom.
How would you describe the pre-service
In the queue there was a warm and good tempered atmosphere.
Everyone around us (I was there with my son) was Italian. There
were clusters of nuns, friends on a night out, families with
baby strollers, all chatting amiably as they waited for the
queue to get moving again. No one seemed to be preparing themselves
for an intense religious experience. The doleful portraits of
Christ displayed along the queue walkway, shouldering crosses,
wearing thorns, dripping with blood, didn't seem to have any
effect on the mood of the crowd. As we entered the back of the
cathedral itself, there were signs reading "Silenzio", and at
this point the people around me became quieter and more expectant.
What were the exact opening words of the
"Lord Jesus, in paying my tribute to the Holy Shroud, my heart fills with joy because I see in that sacred, mysterious linen all the signs of your suffering and your passion, as revealed in the Gospels." These were the opening words of the prayer, prayed in Italian, as we stood before the Shroud.
What books did the congregation use during the
No books were used, but a leaflet gave the words of the prayer in five European languages: Italian, English, French, German and Spanish.
What musical instruments were played?
The only music was in a short video we were shown before entering
the cathedral. The video gave a tour of the Shroud image and
showed what we would be seeing in the complex image on the linen.
As the video zoomed in on the marks of flagellation, the wounds
of crucifixion and the battered face, lush and emotional music
swelled. This was the only emotionally manipulative moment in
the whole experience. It was in real contrast to our actual
viewing of the Shroud itself, which was beautifully underplayed.
Did anything distract you?
On our way through the cathedral precincts, a traffic light system controlled the movement of the faithful. A red light, and we all waited patiently. A green light, and we surged forward. Even though we were in Italy, I didn't spot anyone trying to jump the lights.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or
The only devotional moments of the pilgrimage happened when
we reached the head of the queue, in the north aisle of the
cathedral. Our batch of pilgrims (my estimate: 300 of us) was
shepherded onto three tiered platforms, the lowest platform
at the front and the highest at the back, so we all had a clear
view of the holy linen. Each tier was comfortably filled, rather
than crammed in. Once we were settled, a woman standing to the
right of the Shroud quietly prayed a short "Prayer for the Holy
Shroud" written by Cardinal Poletto, the Shroud's custodian.
The woman's voice was calm and mournful, and when she had completed
her prayer, we were given a generous two minutes standing silently
before the relic, gazing on the image and thinking our own thoughts
or praying our own prayers.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
Mercifully, there was no sermon.
Which part of the service
was like being in heaven?
Standing before the Shroud of Turin and knowing that so many
people before me, and before the times I live in, have stood
there contemplating the violence of Jesus' execution and the
mystery of his death. Books and articles about the Shroud focus
on the "whodunit" issues of this piece of ancient
or not so ancient linen (as one might imagine,
controversy abounds over whether the relic is genuine or a clever
forgery), but the simplicity of the few minutes standing in
front of it focused my thoughts on Jesus of Nazareth lying in
the darkness of the tomb, caught between the terror of the cross
and the joy of the resurrection.
And which part was like
being in... er... the other place?
Not really hellish, but I couldn't read the mood of the people around me. To my disappointment, no one made any obvious sign of reverence, such as the sign of the cross or genuflection. If people truly believe this to be the burial shroud of Christ, surely there would be some tears or more?
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
This wasn't possible, as pilgrims were immediately exiting the
church through the south aisle, which was like a motorway as
people moved toward the door.
How would you describe the after-service
Unsurprisingly, considering the vast crowds, nothing was on
offer, so we walked across Piazza Castello and down to Via Giuseppe
Verdi. There we found a cafe that was serving a buffet supper
at tables on the side of the street. It was warm enough to sit
out and eat, so we joined the crowds there for a really excellent
supper with beer and discussed what we had just seen and experienced.
How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
2 Roman Catholicism isn't really my kind of faith. Unless
I was living here and eating, breathing and sleeping in Italian,
most of the services would go over my English head.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a
Yes, very much so. It put me in touch with the ancient and eccentric roots of my faith, which is always a good thing for me. I came away wanting to continue the attempt to be a follower of Jesus.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
Never mind seven days. I don't think I will ever forget seeing
with my own eyes the dignified and mysterious face on the Shroud.
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