The Turin Shroud just won’t go away. The Telegraph has two articles (at least presenting different sides of the issue, which you would never read in an Italian newspaper) about a group of Italian scientists who claim the shroud is “authentic”. Funny word, that. Authentic what? Authentic fake, or authentic burial shroud of a man who lived around the beginning of the Common Era?
Whenever I read of scientists confirming miracle stories, I begin thinking either they aren’t very serious about science or they’ve been duped by personal faith. One thing you almost never hear about Jesus iconography is that no one has anything other than a speculative idea of what he may have looked like. There are no contemporary headshots of him. So, even if this were indeed Jesus’ actual burial shroud, how could we ever know such a thing? What evidence could possibly corroborate such a hunch? None. None at all.
Yet the Turin Shroud won’t die. Thankfully, it inspired a tweet I am proud to have tapped:
One of the perks of living in Italy is that, no matter where you end up, you are in the realm of miracles. They happen all the time here. But like UFO sightings, hauntings or any other paranormal activity, miracles never seem to happen to me. I wonder why that is.
Not long ago we were having dinner with some friends when one mentioned that the Virgin Mary had appeared in our local church last year. There had been a big brouhaha over it on television, and apparently the Vatican is now doing whatever it is they do to “verify” the supposed breach of all known laws of reality. We might be living in the next Lourdes, or Medjugorje, for all we know.
According to RAI’s Massimo Giletti, who hosted the relevant television special, one of the “seers” of Medjugorje (one of the six people who supposedly saw the Virgin Mary appear the Herzegovina town in 1981) was at the church of our modest hamlet for some commemorative prayers. An elderly woman who was attending took out her cell phone to film the service for her daughter. When she got home and watched the results, there was “a luminous figure” in the foreground. The woman sustained later that there was “no one there” while she was filming.
Miracles often begin their lives this way. Let’s take a closer look, though.
First, Assisi is a place known for one of the best-loved saints in Catholic canon, St. Francis. Everything near Assisi is bathed in the glow of this humble man, and our town is no exception. He was akin to the Italian Jesus (or was until Padre Pio usurped his throne). It’s a very suggestive place, even for a skeptic.
Second, we are in the presence of religious believers. Who else goes to church to see a religious celebrity like the woman of Medjugorje, anyway? So two very essential elements are in place for miracles to happen.
What would be truly astonishing is if the woman had filmed something quite unrelated to the Catholic faith. Joseph Smith maybe, or a Hindu deity. That would’ve at least been worthy of scrutiny. That she filmed the Virgin Mary is prosaic; it’s expected in a place already saturated with Virgin Marys. They are on the walls, in paintings, on street corners, in people’s houses and in their wallets. There should be nothing surprising if she “appears” on someone’s cell phone.
The imageitself is very suggestive — at least to me — of Princess Lea from Star Wars. There is a famous scenein the movie where she appears in a hologram projected by R2-D2. Supplicating, she says, “Help me, Obi-Wan Kenobi. You’re my only hope.” It’s an astonishing resemblance. So how do we know it wasn’t Princess Lea in that church?
We don’t, any more than we know it was or wasn’t the Virgin Mary. Because for a vague white glow to be either of those two presupposes an enormous amount of supporting evidence, which we just don’t have. We’d need to establish their historical existence, first of all. One is a minor character from a book written thousands of years ago and full of all sorts of things we know to be fanciful, falsified and just plain fraudulent. The other is from a movie made comparatively recently, in 1977. The actress Carrie Fisher — who played Princess Lea — is still alive, giving a slight edge of probability to our admittedly absurd hypothesis.
I could go on, but I’m only trying to establish the idea that miracles are in the mind of the credulous. When enough people begin believing these things, the Vatican authorities step in and “verify” them, creating a moneymaking publicity machine in the process.
One could say that not all supposed miracles are accepted by the Vatican, thereby suggesting that there are some criteria by which miracles are tested for veracity. As they are by definition unfalsifiable, though, it really appears to be a matter of shrewdness. The case of Padre Pio is a good example. The Vatican actively opposed his cult for decades, until it grew too large to be ignored. So they incorporated it. Now, as they say, he’s more popular than Jesus and almost every Italian knows someone who has been “miraculously cured” by him. I know I do.
I’m daily amazed that adults are susceptible to such obvious nonsense. What doesn’t amaze me, though, is that Italian state-television cynically plays to this credulity. They know their public, and they will do just about anything to keep them as uninformed and complacent as possible.