A New Era for the Shroud of Turin

Interview With Expert Father Gianfranco Berbenni

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By Paolo Centofanti

ROME, FEB. 15, 2008 (Zenit.org).- Leaked information about a BBC interview to air on Holy Saturday reports that Christopher Bronk Ramsey, director of the Oxford Radiocarbon Accelerator Unit, thinks the 1998 tests on the Shroud of Turin should be re-evaluated.

The 1988 carbon-14 tests -- done in the Oxford laboratories -- dated the shroud in the Middle Ages, thereby negating that it could be Christ's burial cloth.

ZENIT spoke with Capuchin Father Gianfranco Berbenni, professor of "Science and Theology Regarding the Holy Shroud" at Rome's Regina Apostolorum university. In this interview, he comments on the long history of research on the shroud, as well as photographic reproduction made for display at this summer's World Youth Day.

Q: How do you see these possible new elements related to the Holy Shroud and to a possible disproving of the 1988 carbon-14 analyses?

Father Berbenni: Going beyond the leaked information, I think that a new era of investigations about the Shroud is opening; 20 years have passed since those scientific studies.

Q: Did Ramsey form part of the 1988 analysis team?

Father Berbenni: He worked in the laboratory in which the analyses were done. We could say that this is a new generation of scientists who are joining the research on the Shroud. Many of the older generation have left us, even physically, and this new generation rightly is taking up again the investigations, also because of a refining of the methods and instruments for archaeological dating over these years.

Some have even spoken about a kind of conspiracy, as if the $1 million offered for verifying the non-authenticity of the Shroud could have motivated the scientists, let's not say to falsify, but at least to direct the final results.

Perhaps this could be considered a bit of "scientific gossip." Little credit should be given to rumors when they do not have serious proof. The problem perhaps is that both sides, the one favorable to the Holy Shroud and the other against it were very much in conflict. Perhaps both sides brought to the surface their best arguments in that period. Both probably need to historically review those events.

Q: Regarding your statement about "scientific gossip," how do you evaluate the communication and information generally published about the Holy Shroud and up to what point do you think that at times it is used to make a circus of the information?

Father Berbenni: One of the weak points, recently examined as well in the International Center of Turin, is indeed ensuring the quality of information related to the Holy Shroud. Because of this a good press office is fundamental in order to give journalists trustworthy materials. It is, therefore, more than anything, a task of organizing communication. Information, if incomplete, becomes more easily manipulated.

Q: Therefore the manipulation of information can even be involuntary?

Father Berbenni: About the willfulness of it, there are many hints, but beyond the hints, there are no proofs.

Q: What do you think about the photographic enlargement being made of the Holy Shroud to be displayed in Novara, Italy, and then for World Youth Day in Sydney? Do you think that it can run the risk of trivializing the Holy Shroud?

Father Berbenni: The essential thing is that this initiative of the enlargement maintains that elegance of communication that the Holy Shroud has always brought to its surroundings. Thus this is a very good initiative; the essential thing is that a non-superficial tone is protected.

Q: Is there anything new in the studies about the Holy Shroud?

Father Berbenni: Beyond the intervention regarding protecting the preservation of the Holy Shroud, in these days, I think the Church does not intend to accelerate, at least at the moment, new investigations. The essential thing is its optimal conservation, something that has been verified for almost 10 years with its placement in the new, and splendid chest.

Q: Are there misunderstandings about the theological meaning of the Holy Shroud?

Father Berbenni: Sadly this is one of the weakest areas right now, in the popular and social perception of this cloth. In part because of the conflict that has sometimes marked it.

It is a splendid cloth, but is always at the center of aggravated discussions with a cultural character, and at times even about theological positions.

Q: Can you speak to us about the scientific or chemical theories about the way in which the image of the Holy Shroud could have formed?

Father Berbenni: Substantially there are two major schools. Our center in Rome, which is inclined toward accepting a normal physical-chemical formation, and the majority, at least presently, of the scientific positions, in which there are groups with hypotheses going from the mysterious, because they do not yet have demonstrated bases, to the esoteric.

Investigations about the formation of the image are very linked to the characteristics of the investigations of the STURP [Project of Investigation of the Shroud of Turn] from 1976 to 1988, but with some presuppositions.

The important thing is that they continue investigations without exaggerated positions of "scientific fantasy" but with freedom of investigation.

Regarding ourselves, we would suggest returning to much simpler, "normal" hypothesis, given that we always have available the high resolution photo of the negative of the Holy Shroud, which until 2002 was not analyzable except in small parts. It helps in that which refers to the technical aspects of formation of the image.