Cathedral of St John the Baptist, Turin, Italy

Cathedral of St John the Baptist, Turin, Italy


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Mystery Worshipper: Mandy Lion
Church: Cathedral of St John the Baptist
Location: Turin, Italy
Date of visit: Saturday, 10 April 2010, 7:30pm

The building

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 renovated.

The church

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 neighborhood

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 plentiful supply.

The cast

The woman who led the prayers (the only publicly led aspect of the occasion) was not named.

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 personally?

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 atmosphere?

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 service?

"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 service?

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 what?

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 coffee?

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 another visit (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 Christian?

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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