In your youth, particularly at this time of year, when friends and relatives would gather for dinner at the homestead, you were probably cautioned to discuss neither politics nor religion at the dinner table. Bring up either and you are courting dispute and discontent.
To that list you might now add the Shroud of Turin, a piece of linen cloth three and a half feet wide and a little over 14 feet long. To those of a particular Christian faith, this aged fabric is the cloth in which the body of Jesus Christ was wrapped after his crucifixion and from which he emerged at the moment of the resurrection on the third day.
To those of a more skeptical faith, it is an object worthy of pious veneration. Genuine, perhaps, but perhaps not. To those whose skepticism flows to cynicism and those not of the Christian faith, it may well be interpreted as a great and ancient medieval fraud, a hoax of elaborate and artistic proportions.
This simple fact is indisputable: This piece of cloth and its embedded image of a man, whose record can be traced quite clearly to the year 1390 and perhaps earlier, this shroud has been preserved, studied, examined, revered, embraced, denied and enshrined more than any swatch of fabric in human history.
Now a vast archive of science, literature, history, art and documentation dealing with the Shroud of Turin—so named because it has been preserved in the northern Italian city of Turin (or “Torino,” in Italian) for 700 years—has found a permanent home just up the road in Wabash, in a beautiful, 8,000-square-foot, Tudor-style building built by Wabash native and industrialist Mark Honeywell in the 1920s. This library of materials is on the grounds of what was the Honeywell estate, later the Wabash Country Club, north of Wabash on State Road 15.
It is in the custody—indeed, it is the life blood—of a transplanted Boston Italian, a man not only of faith but also of determination. His name is Richard Orareo. He is a 77-year-old retired school psychologist who embraced both the history and the theology of the shroud when he was a young man and he has devoted much of his life and most of his resources to assembling everything and anything he can find and afford relating to the cloth, including a life-sized photograph printed on fabric: A three-foot by 14-foot photographic replica which will soon be on display in the Wabash building he purchased a couple of years ago.
So how does a Bostonian Catholic with an obsessive interest in an Italian religious artifact get to Wabash, Indiana? It’s a long and convoluted story. Suffice it to say that he rankled some powerful people in his hometown and impressed at least one powerful person in Wabash: The late Richard Ford, philanthropic arm of the Ford Meter Box family in Wabash until his death earlier this year.
The Shroud itself—and there is no likelihood that it will ever come to Wabash, by the way—goes on display only rarely in Turin; a half-dozen times over the last 125 years, but it is to be displayed from April 19 to June 24 of the coming year, with a much-publicized visit planned by Pope Francis. As a technical matter, the Shroud is owned by the Catholic Church in Vatican City, but has always—well, at least for 700 years—been in the safekeeping of the cathedral in Turin.
It has been analyzed and examined during each new age of technology, including by carbon dating, which was inconclusive. It wasn’t until as recently as 1898 when it was photographed for the first time and the photographer, using large glass plate negatives, looked at the images and saw that, in photographic negative reversal, the image was clearly that of a man who had been badly beaten and probably died in excruciating pain.
Among the scientists who have examined the cloth and the image, an American put it this way: “We’ve tested every method we can think of and none of them work. It seems like we have proven that the Shroud doesn’t exist. The only problem is that it does. In the end, it’s still there…staring at us.”
Because absolute authentication has never been made—and perhaps never will be—the Catholic Church has withheld judgment for nearly half a millennium. The Church has never claimed the Shroud to be the burial cloth of Jesus, but has encouraged pious reverence, stopping just short of endorsement.
For Richard Orareo all this is of no matter. He is a man of faith and says he does not question, but devotes himself to the sea of literature and art around the Shroud. Posters, paintings, sculptures, promotional literature from previous showings—all are in his collection, along with more than 1,000 books of both religious and scientific origins. All in all, he believes his to be the largest collection in the United States and the third-largest on the planet.
He sums up his life’s work thusly: “I believe it to be a totally authentic image of the body of Jesus Christ,” he says, “the big mystery is the source of the image…and science and technology have not yet caught up with the Shroud.”
“Whatever happened in that tomb brought life back in some form and physically and chemically changed that cloth. It is, finally, a statement of faith.”
Ed Breen, co-host of “Good Morning Grant County” on WBAT radio, has been reporting on life in Indiana for 48 years.