TURIN, Italy (Reuters) - Pope Benedict, in a respite from the sexual abuse crisis that has rocked his Church, on Sunday venerated the mysterious linen that some believe was Jesus Christ’s burial cloth and others say is a perfect fake.
The pope, at the end of a day trip to this northern Italian city, viewed the Shroud of Turin, which is on a rare display for several months and expected to attract two million visitors.
“The Shroud is an icon written in blood,” he said after viewing the cloth, which is displayed behind glass in the Guarini Chapel of Turin’s cathedral.
The shroud, measuring 4.4 meters by 1.2 meters, bears the image, eerily reversed like a photographic negative, of a crucified man.
It shows the back and front of a bearded man with long hair, his arms crossed on his chest, while the entire cloth is marked by what appears to be rivulets of blood from wounds in the wrists, feet and side.
Benedict said the Shroud represented “that unique and unrepeatable moment in the history of humanity and the universe” between what Christians believe was Jesus Christ’s death and resurrection. He also said it “totally corresponds to what the Gospels tell of Jesus.”
By comparison, when his predecessor John Paul viewed the Shroud in 1998, he urged scientists not to dismiss the cloth but said it was more a powerful reminder of Jesus’ suffering than a matter of faith.
Benedict’s visit offered him a break from the pedophilia scandal rocking the Church. On Saturday he took control of the Legionaries of Christ, a powerful priestly order in crisis since its founder was discovered to have been a sexual molester who led a double life with several mistresses.
This week, he meets prelates from Belgium, where one bishop resigned last month after admitting he sexually abused a boy.
Scientists have been at a loss to convincingly explain how the image was left on the cloth, which is displayed only several times a century. The last exhibition was in 2000.
Carbon dating tests by laboratories in Oxford, Zurich and Tucson, Arizona in 1988 caused a sensation by dating it from between 1260 and 1390. Skeptics say it is a masterful forgery, made to attract the profitable medieval pilgrimage business.
The accuracy of the tests was challenged by some hard-core believers who said restorations of the Shroud in past centuries had contaminated the results.
After surfacing in the Middle East and France, it was brought by Italy’s former royal family, the Savoys, to their seat in Turin in 1578. In 1983 ex-King Umberto II bequeathed it to the late Pope John Paul.
The Shroud narrowly escaped destruction by fire several times in its history.