The 14-feet-long yellowed linen cloth hangs on the wall, protected by inches of airtight, bulletproof glass.
Brownish markings stretching the entire length of the Shroud of Turin are believed to be the outline and injuries of Jesus Christ, imprinted permanently after his crucifixion.
Standing in front of it, the immensity of its importance took minutes to digest, said Bob Siefker, a Center Grove-area resident.
“You’ve been waiting your entire life, you’re finally there, and you don’t know what to do or think,” he said. “After a while, you realize that you’re standing in front of what likely is the burial shroud of Jesus.”
Story continues below gallery
The Shroud of Turin is on display to the public in Italy for about two months. The special exhibition inspired Siefker and a group of parishioners from SS. Francis and Clare Catholic Church in the Center Grove area to take a pilgrimage to Italy for the special showing.
Along the way, the group toured a monastery in the mountains outside Rome, posed next to the Leaning Tower of Pisa and witnessed some of history’s greatest works of art, from Michelangelo’s “David” to the golden baptistry doors crafted by Ghiberti at the Duomo of Florence.
While attending the papal audience at the Basilica of St. Peter, Pope Francis passed a few feet from where they were standing.
“A trip like this gives you a great appreciation of history, and the great sacrifices other Christians made for their faith,” said the Rev. Vincent Lampert, pastor at SS. Francis and Clare. “Coming off of Easter three weeks before, thinking about the empty tomb and the cloth laying there on the ground. Then, going on a trip like this; there it is, right there.”
Since Lampert came to SS. Francis and Clare as pastor in 2003, he has led pilgrimages to Italy and the Vatican every two or three years. The last had been in 2011.
When he and other church members learned that the Shroud of Turin would be on display for two months in 2015, they started making plans to coincide with the exhibition.
The shroud, normally kept in the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist, had last been on public display in 2010. It was not scheduled to be exhibited again until 2025, but Pope Francis requested that it be brought out this year.
The exhibition was done in recognition of the 200th birthday of St. John Bosco, a Turin native who founded an order to care for homeless boys.
Working with Pentecost Tours of Batesville, the church organized a 10-day voyage to the holy sites around Italy, from Rome to Florence to Milan and Turin.
Siefker and his wife, Theresa, had been on a number of pilgrimages organized by Lampert, and helped put the Turin trip together. The combination of the chance to the see the shroud, as well as revisiting some of the country’s major attractions, convinced them to sign up.
“We had been in all of the places that we went as a tour group already. But still, you go into a church you’ve been into 10 times before, and you see things you just didn’t notice before,” Bob Siefker said.
The group comprised of 35 people. While a majority of the group came from the church, the organizer had also opened it up to Catholic diocese in Cincinnati, Ohio, and San Francisco.
Seeing the Shroud of Turin was the driving force behind the tour, and provided a thrill to even the most experienced travelers in the group.
“It was the No. 1 highlight of the trip for me, even more so than seeing Pope Francis,” Lampert said.
The shroud is only displayed until the end of June, and organizers in Turin are expecting 1 million to visit it. Tours have been set up as a journey, where pilgrims arrive and walk nearly half of a mile before reaching the Chapel of the Holy Shroud.
Once inside, a five-minute video explains what to look for in front of the church.
“It’s a spiritual journey. There is music being played and prayers being offered, devotionals are taking place. Then when you get inside, they give you some quiet time to reflect,” Lampert said.
One of the biggest thrills came on the third day of the trip. The group would be in Rome when Pope Francis was delivering his weekly papal audience, and they would get to be part of the 100,000 faithful to witness it.
“The crowds are massive right now, because he’s so popular,” Lampert said. “You see him on the news, and hear the things he’s saying and doing. But then to see him in person is amazing.”
Pope Francis toured the square in the popemobile, waving to the crowds and kissing babies before stopping to give a blessing and short sermon to the crowd.
The SS. Francis and Clare group secured a seat in a section that would give them a clear view of the pope’s passing. Bob Siefker was able to get near the front.
“He came right past, and it was amazing. He stopped to kiss a baby, and I was able to get some good photographs,” he said.
Police and military security forces were a constant in all of the cities the group visited, Lampert said. Threats to Pope Francis from Islamic extremists, as well as from an ongoing influx of immigrants from Northern Africa, has forced the country to take strenuous precautions against terrorist attacks.
The security line to get into the papal audience took nearly two hours, and stringent checks were required before entering any of the cathedrals, monuments and other heritage sites.
“At first it’s a little apprehensive when you see soldiers walking around and they have the gun in their hand, finger right near the trigger,” Lampert said. “But it also reassures you that safety was a primary concern.”
Like much of Italy’s art and architecture is inspired by religion, the pilgrimage blended faith-based activities and traditional tourist attractions, as well.
Every day, Lampert gave Mass, often in a chapel or church hundreds of years old. In Milan, they were able to have services in a chapel that held another holy relic — a nail from Jesus’ cross.
“Even if it’s not actually the nail from the cross, it represents it. That’s the purpose of a relic, to remind you of the event it’s associated with, reminding us of Jesus’ sacrifice for us,” Bob Siefker said.
The trip also built in some free time, so people could discover parts of the cities on their own.
The Siefkers were also able to explore on their own, taking some free time to discover other parts of Pisa apart from the tower and cathedral.
“We walked into town, got lunch and sat on the bridge over the Po River,” he said. “The neatest thing that after five minutes away from the Piazza del Miracoli, where the tower and everything is, there were almost no tourists.”
The group climbed the Holy Stairs, believed to be the same stone stairs from Pontious Pilate’s palace that were transported from Jerusalem to Rome.
They toured basilicas such as St. John Lateran and St. Mary Major, where spectacular architecture, sculpture and adornment make each building into artwork itself to go along with masterpieces by Michelangelo, Bernini and Donatello.
“When you go into the churches, and look at these great paintings and sculptures, you have to think about how at the time, most of society was illiterate,” Lampert said. “It was depicting biblical images that made the stories come alive.”
Lampert had been to Rome many times before, including living in the city for three months. He was so familiar with the layout that he could help the other pilgrims find their way to some of the lesser-known attractions.
“In the evening, when we had free time, I gave walking tours. We’d go out on three- or four-mile walks, to go to places such as the Spanish steps or the Pantheon, the main plazas and some of my favorite gelato stands,” he said.