Chapter 1 (Day 1: early afternoon)
Peter Johns was restless on the flight from London to the Mediterranean island of Malta. He had flown from home in Las Vegas, his USA residence the previous day.The journey had taken some 10 hours and even though his first class seat provided the utmost in in-flight comfort he found the journey stressful. He had watched two full length movies before his eyes closed and he thankfully fell into a deep sleep.
He had overnighted at the Mariott Hotel at Heathrow in London before boarding his Air Malta flight to the tiny Island that was his destination. The aircraft was full and he was seated next to a ravishing young model who insisted on sharing her recent fashion assignment with Peter despite his obvious lack of interest during the 3 hour flight. He could not get Father Victor’s letter out of his mind. Appologizing, he pretended to fall asleep. It had been over fifty years since Peter and Victor had last met face to face. Father Victor, a member of St. Peters and St. Pauls Missionary Society, had been the societies keeper of the ancient crypt and the adjoining catacombs where St. Agatha had lived during her stay on the Island. Tradition holds that during her persecution by the Roman Emperor Trajanus Decius AD 249-251, St Agatha and her friends fled from her native island of Sicily and took refuge on the small Mediterranian island of Malta. The cave was located in the ancient Maltese city of Rabat, adjoining the ‘Silent City’ of Mdina built high on a hill in the center of the island
At their last meeting several years earlier Peter had noticed that his old friend looked every bit his age; his walk slow and determined, his thick lens glasses telling the story of his near blindness, his shoulders stooped as if carrying some invisible weight.Victor was now the curator at St. Agatha’s Catacombs and Museum. Like Peter, he was now in his seventies, and much had happened to them both over the ensuing years since they had started excavation on the site in the early 50’s
Peter had been a freelance photographer working on assignment for Associated Press on the island in the early 50’s when a dispute broke out between the then Prime Minister Dom Mintof and the islands Governing country, Great Britian, over the fate of the Maltese Dockyards.
Peter’s photographs of the ensuing disruption graced the front pages of every National Newspaper in the World. It was at this time that he was assigned to accompany Cambridge University’s archaeological team on the dig they were undertaking at St. Agathas. At the time, he had been commissioned by the Maltese government’s Centeral Office of Information, to record all the art and other archaeological treasures that were stored in churches and archives across the Maltese Islands of Malta and Gozo; many pricless treasures left on the Island by the departing Knights of St. Peter who subsiquently became known as the Knights of Malta, at the time of their departure some 200 years earlier.
For nearly five years, Peter had worked alongside Victor, the novice priest assigned by the missionary order of St. Peter and St. Paul, whose monastery was located above St. Agatha’s Crypt and Catacombs, to oversee the excavation work. Victor and Peter had become close friends, a bond that had lasted over the years, supported by occasional communication and the usual birthday and holiday greetings. They were the same age and their birthdays remarkably were seperated by only a few days.
After leaving Malta in the mid-’50s, Peter had returned to Cambridge to teach photography to archaeological students and, after a few years in Ireland, eventually ended up moving to Australia.
Australia had been good for Peter, and his background with the Archaeological Department at Cambridge University gave him the credentials to launch a career in broadcasting that would last some forty years. Initially, he produced a series of three-minute shorts for radio, which eventually evolved into a television series on mysteries from around the world, both archaeological and occult. In 1987 Peter was hosting a two-hour Saturday night program for radio station 2CH in Sydney, Australia. Among his guests, via telephone from around the globe, were members of a scientific team labeled the STURP group (Shroud of Turin Research Project), brought together by the US-based Brooks Institute to travel to Turin, Italy, and carry out a series of scientific tests on one of Christendom’s most venerated artifacts – the Shroud of Turin, the cloth in which Christ was said to have been wrapped following his crucifixion, before being laid to rest in the tomb, according to Jewish tradition, two days prior to his ascension.
The Shroud had always held a fascination for Peter because of the unique, inexplicable composition of the image. There had been no explanation for the fact that the image on the cloth appeared as a photograph negative. This startling discovery was made on 28 May 1898 when, following a public exhibition, Secondo Pia, an Italian amateur photographer, took the first photograph of the Shroud of Turin. Thus began a new era of scientific research.
When Secondo Pia was developing that first commissioned photograph of this most venerated object, he was stunned to witness the first and only recorded image of the face of Christ as it appeared in the tray of solution before him. What he had photographed was a negative that now appeared in a positive form in his developer tray. Since that date in 1898, the world had been fascinated with this remarkable image and the cloth that the Church only allowed to be exhibited once every twenty-five years. When it had been exhibited to the general public in 1978, millions stood in line for hours just for a glimpse of this miraculous cloth. Since then, the Shroud had been exhibited in 1998 to commemorate the 500th anniversary of the consecration of the Turin Cathedral, and in 2000. The next public exhibition was scheduled in the year 2025.
One by one, live on his radio show on Sydney’s Radio 2CH, Peter interrogated the individual members of the STURP group in a series of interviews over two successive nights. Their opinion was almost unanimous. All but one of the scientific investigative team was convinced that the cloth was all that the Church and historians claimed it to be – the actual burial cloth of Christ.
This was the official finding, despite the fact that they were unable to explain the manner in which this remarkable image had been recorded in negative form on the Shroud. What they officially reported (with the one disenting voice) was that the image on the Shroud was definitely not a Painting!
Peter was aware that Father Victor had obtained a copy of these now famous interviews which had recently been digitally re-mastered and made available to collectors via one of the team’s members, Barrie Schwortz, whose website at http://shroud.com is now recognized as the definitive source for information on the Shroud.
Father Victor, it appeared, had a personal connection with the Shroud that Peter had been completely unaware of! Victor, Peter pondered, may very well hold the answer to what had puzzled the world of Shroud followers and believers since1988, when the cloth had been subjected to carbon dating. 10 years after the STURP team had released their findings the church finally consented to allowing carbon dating of a piece of the shroud so that the date of the cloth could be established.
The result had conclusively shown the material to have a carbon date of between 1200 and 1500 A.D., ruling out any possibility that it had once held the body of the Savior.
How, Peter – and millions of believers – wondered, could a group of esteemed scientists (the STURP group) have got it so wrong?
The answer to this and the composition of the miraculous image on the cloth were alluded to by Father Victor in his letter to Peter, which arrived the day before Peter was to visit Malta to address the members of the recently formed Shroud Society. The group had learned that in the year 1204 A.D., French knights of the Crusader Order of Knights Templar, known as ‘the Poor Knights of Christ and of the Temple of Solomon’, brought it to France; on the way they must have stopped at Malta to acquire fresh water and food. The Shroud Society planned to hold their annual convention at each of the locations that the Shroud was reported to have visited. Malta was chosen as the first of these. As the keynote speaker at their inaugural convocation, Peter had been asked to present his lecture on his interview recordings.
A group of Limmo Drivers greeted arrivals at Luqa Airport and Peter was quick to spot an immaculately attired gentelman holding a sign that read “Dr. Johns”.
Whenever he visite the island Peter insisted he be accomodated at the Radisson SAS Hotel at St. Julian’s Bay. Winston J. Zahra, the Managing Owner had become a personal friend of Peter’s quite apart from the fact that the magnificent property was one of the finest resort properties on the island.
As he settled into his room, Peter wondered what his friend of fifty years, closeted within St. Agatha’s, had unearthed that could be of such significant value to his personal investigative studies. Exhausted as he was after his long flight, Peter found his brain whirling with the facts he was so familiar with. He mentally ticked them off.
At a press conference held in Turin on 13 October 1988, Cardinal Ballestrero, Archbishop of Turin, made an official announcement: the results of the three laboratories performing the carbon dating of the Shroud had determined an approximate date of 1325 A.D. for the cloth.
At a similar press conference held at the British Museum, London, it was announced that the cloth dated back to somewhere between 1260 and 1390 A.D. Newspaper headlines across the world immediately branded the Shroud a fake and, more importantly, declared that the Catholic Church had accepted the results. This was disputed when, on 28 April 1989, Pope Peter Paul II, being interviewed by journalists on a plane journey during the papal visit to Africa, guardedly spoke of the Shroud as an authentic relic, while insisting that the Church had never taken a formal stand in this regard.
On 30 September of that same year, one of the world’s most prestigious scientific publications, The New Scientist, reported the findings of the scientific workshop at East Kilbride: “… the margin of error with radiocarbon-dating ... may be two or three times as great as practitioners of the technique have claimed”.
Three independent universities had conducted the carbon dating process and all had come up with roughly the same conclusion – that the cloth was no older than 1200 A.D. Even allowing for the recognized margin of error, the cloth originated at the latest in the mid-1500s, at the earliest in the 900s.
Now, almost 20 years later came a startling revalation from the renound Los Alamos National Laboratory in the USA, that the actual piece of cloth that had been removed from the shroud was made of cotton! All serious shroud officinardoes knew that the shroud was a linen fabric – how could this be?
According to a recent report that Peter had read in the scientific journal Thermochimica Acta, Raymond N. Rogers, a Fellow of the Los Alamos National Laboratory, claimed the sample tested in 1988 was from a medieval mend in the cloth.
Peter opened his briefcase and shuffled through his papers to locate the one he wanted. It was headed:
Studies on the radiocarbon sample from the shroud of Turin
Raymond N. Rogers Los Alamos National Laboratory, University of California, 1961 Cumbres Patio, Los Alamos, NM 87544, USA Received 14 April 2004; revised 14 April 2004; accepted 12 September 2004. Available online 16 November 2004.
That’s the one I’m looking for, Peter confirmed, as he continued reading:
In 1988, radiocarbon laboratories at Arizona, Cambridge, and Zurich determined the age of a sample from the Shroud of Turin. They reported that the date of the cloth’s production lay between A.D. 1260 and 1390 with 95% confidence. This came as a surprise in view of the technology used to produce the cloth, its chemical composition, and the lack of vanillin in its lignin. The results prompted questions about the validity of the sample. Preliminary estimates of the kinetics constants for the loss of vanillin from lignin indicate a much older age for the cloth than the radiocarbon analyses. The radiocarbon sampling area is uniquely coated with a yellow-brown plant gum containing dye lakes. Pyrolysis-mass-spectrometry results from the sample area coupled with microscopic and microchemical observations prove that the radiocarbon sample was not part of the original cloth of the Shroud of Turin. The radiocarbon date was thus not valid for determining the true age of the shroud.
Peter again found himself wondering how all of this tied in with the intriguing letter from Father Victor. There were so many facts, and no discernable link. What could be important enough for his old friend to contact him so urgently after so many long years?
Chapter 2 (Day 1: midafternoon)
Peter took out Father Victor’s letter and, for the umpteenth time, read the carefully worded document:
27 February 2005
It has been many years since we last communicated, and much water has passed under both our bridges. It was with great interest that I listened to your recorded interviews with the STURP group. You would of course not be aware, but several years ago fate brought the Shroud and I together under somewhat amazing circumstances. In 1990 I had the pleasure of meeting His Holiness Pope Peter Paul II and he had expressed his admiration for the work I have been doing over these many years since your departure, on preserving the ancient treasures that abound here on this tiny island. He confided in meand explained that a plan had been put in place by the papal administration to protect the integrity of the sacred cloth and preserve forever this remarkable treasure. He asked for my assistance in implimenting the plan, which I had no hesitation in giving.
I have recently become worried that a member of my staff here has compromised this secret and urgently need your advice and guidance. I feel sure, in view of our long-standing friendship, that I can rely on your discretion and your advice.
Please call me as soon you get here, at the number mentioned above, and we can arrange a meeting. I have much to tell you.
May God bless you.
And the letter was signed simply Victor.
Peter reached for the phone and dialed the number Victor had given him.
“Minn hemm?” Victor answered in Maltese.
Peter immediately recognized Father Victor’s voice. “It’s Peter Johns,” he answered. “How are you, Victor?”
There was relief in Victor’s voice as he recognized his old friend.
“I’m fine – good to hear your voice. I was hoping you’d call.”
Cutting through the usual preliminaries, Peter asked, “When would you like to meet, Victor?”
“As soon as possible.” Victor’s voice held an undercurrent of urgency.
“I’m free this evening if you wish,” Peter said. “If you prefer, we could meet here in my hotel room. That way, we won’t be overheard. I believe the matter you wish to discuss is confidential?” He was wary about even hinting at the subject matter that he knew Victor was anxious to discuss.
Victor was evidently relieved at Peter’s obvious caution.
“That would be great, Peter. Where are you staying?”
“The Radisson in St. Julians, room number 235. Would 7 o’clock be okay?”
“Thank you, Peter. That’ll be fine.”
Peter hung up and started to unpack, knowing sleep would elude him. It was 4 pm – he had plenty of time to shower and grab a bite. He couldn’t imagine what startling news Victor might bring, but he knew from the urgency in his old friend’s voice that the matter was both important and critical.
There seemed no logical explanation as to how a missionary priest could have relevant information on any aspect of the Shroud mystery. If, as Father Victor had mentioned, his involvement began with a meeting in 1990 with Pope Peter Paul II, Peter needed more information on the man who had become the longest serving Pope in history.
Perhaps some quick research would give him a clue. Peter opened his laptop and typed:PopePeter Paul II – Malta.
He read with interest the speech made by His Holiness on his arrival in Malta:
“The memory of my first visit, eleven years ago, spontaneously comes to my mind. I remember my meetings with the priests and religious, the workers, the intellectuals, the families and the young people. I remember the Co-Cathedral of Saint Peter in Valletta, the Marian Shrines of Mellieha and Ta’ Pinu on the Island of Gozo. I remember the Bay and the Islands of Saint Paul, and in particular the ancient Grotto, venerated as the place where he stayed.”
Peter had been aware of the Pope’s deep interest in everything scientific and his support for Catholic scientists. He recalled how his speech before the Pontifical Academy of Sciences on 22 October 1996 had resulted in headlines around the world.
Peter typed in the new keywords, hit the search button again, and read the pontiff’s speech:
Truth cannot contradict truth
... For my part, when I received those taking part in your academy’s plenary assembly on October 31, 1992, I had the opportunity with regard to Galileo to draw attention to the need of a rigorous hermeneutic for the correct interpretation of the inspired word ...
Taking into account the state of scientific research at the time as well as of the requirements of theology, the encyclical ‘Humani Generis’ considered the doctrine of ‘evolutionism’ a serious hypothesis, worthy of investigation and in-depth study equal to that of the opposing hypothesis ... Today, almost half a century after the publication of the encyclical, new knowledge has led to the recognition of the theory of evolution as more than a hypothesis ...
What is to be decided here is the true role of philosophy and, beyond it, of theology.
Peter needed some air. He shut down his laptop and headed for the street. A short walk before he met with Father Victor wouldn’t do any harm.
As he strolled down the hill to St Georges Bay. Despite numerous new establishments, bars and shops somehow the island never seemed to change. A soft mediterranian breeze brought back memories of the beautiful climate that Malta enjoyed for so much of the year. It was for this reason the island had become such a popular tourist destination for visitors from Great Britton, fed up with the rain and cold that was so much a part of the British way of life. Peter glanced at the towering edifice of Villa Rosa, perched high above the small sandy beach, with its imposing gardens stretching down the bayside. Peter had fond memories of this majestic property. He and some of his friends had opened a bar for British servicemen there in the ’50s. Peter remembered the gardens with empty animal cages that had once held exotic animals from around the world. Malta was then an integral part of Britain and still occupied by British garrisons. The Airport – Luqa – was the British Air Force staging post for the Middle East. The siege of Malta during World War II had been well documented. The British flag flew proudly over the island for nearly 200 years until it became independent in 1964. Today Malta is a proud member of the EU.
Peter was tempted to continue his stroll around the bay to Dragonara Palace, though he had read that it was now converted to a five star hotel and casino. It would have to wait. There were more urgent matters at hand. He turned and walked briskly up the hill to his hotel and his reunion with a dear friend.
After a quick shower, Peter went down to the dining room. Knowing that Malta was famous for its fresh seafood, he ordered salmon, his favorite fish. He was not disappointed. He felt the familiar craving for dessert, but doubting he could do it justice in his present restless mood, decided to tie up a few loose ends instead.
Back in his room, he took a few minutes to contact the convention organizer and set up an appointment to discuss his presentation, scheduled for the closing dinner to be held in three days’ time. They agreed to meet the following morning at the breakfast launch to be held at the Mediterranean Convention Center in the heart of Valletta. He also called the curator of the Wignacourt Museum in connection with some restoration work he would be handling on one of the replicas of the Shroud.
That out of the way, Peter settled back in anticipation to await the friend he hadn’t seen in half a century.
Chapter 3 (Day 1: evening)
The discreet ringing of his door bell startled Peter out of a light doze. He opened the door to his old friend.
For a few minutes time stood still as the two men embraced. Their birthdays were separated by only two days and they had often celebrated them together. Despite their closeness in age, there was a marked difference in the ravaging effects of time. Victor’s stooped shoulders and thinning hair showed every bit of his 74 years. His pale face looked haunted and, despite his thick glasses, it was clear that he had trouble seeing. Peter thought that the years underground in the labyrinth of catacombs and crypts had taken a heavy toll on Victor’s body. His heart went out to his dear friend.
“You look good, Victor,” Peter said as their warm embrace ended.
“I wish that were so, my friend – the years have not been kind to this tired old body. You, on the other hand, look just as you did fifty years ago!” The two men spontaneously burst into laughter. The brief tension was gone – they were just two friends reunited at last after many long years.
“I’ve ordered us some wine to mark this occasion,” Peter said. “We’ve a lot of catching up to do, Victor.”
Victor squinted as he examined the label on the bottle. “Ah, Malta Heritage. Splendid! You’re right. We have much to discuss.”
For the next half hour they briefly discussed their ups and downs on the sea of life and the reasons for Peter’s visit to the island. Victor abruptly brought their conversation back to the matter in hand and the reason he was now in need of his old companion.
“Peter,” said Victor, his voice suddenly taking a somber note. “I have a very serious situation and no one I can turn to. I hope you don’t mind me confiding in you, even though we haven’t seen each other for so many years. I know I can count on your discretion.”
“Of course, Victor, I’m only too pleased to help if I can. I must confess I’m at a loss as to exactly how I could possibly be of service, but I’m sure you wouldn’t have written the letter you did and arranged such a quick meeting if you did not feel there was something I could do. You have me intrigued, especially if it involves the Shroud. Tell me more!”
From the anxious look on Victor’s face, Peter knew this was no trivial matter.
Victor removed his glasses and polished them slowly, as he met Peter’s eyes. “As you know, my life has been devoted to preserving our treasures from the past. Since we parted fifty years ago, I have spent almost every day in the service of our Lord, locating and preserving, as far as I could, those fragments of our past that lie at our feet everywhere one turns on this small island.
“My work apparently did not go unnoticed, and when Pope Peter Paul II visited us here in 2001 he was apparently impressed by my efforts. I was amazed to find a message scrawled in his own hand awaiting me on my return to my quarters one day, requesting that I call on him at the Presidential Palace where he was staying. I wondered what His Holiness could possibly want of me.”
“That was indeed a great honor! But do go on.”
“When I got there, I was ushered into his quarters and he immediately instructed those present to leave and told them that under no circumstances were we to be disturbed. You can imagine the thoughts that went rushing through my brain as this great man beckoned me to be seated next to him. He took my hand and asked if I would join him in prayer. As we knelt together, I couldn’t help but be overpowered by his great spirit. There was no doubt in my mind that this was God’s disciple on earth.” Tears welled up in Victor’s eyes as he relived those precious moments. He blinked them back, mopped his brow and put on his glasses, obviously at a loss over how to proceed.
“Go on, Victor,” Peter encouraged, feeling an unbelievable excitement building inside him. It was almost as if he was reliving the moments as Victor described them.
“His Holiness spoke briefly about my devotion to my work and my calling, and said that I had been chosen to help preserve one of the Church’s greatest treasures. He explained that what he was about to confide in me was to be a secret that must remain between us and was only known to a very few chosen members of his personal staff. The relic in question was of course, as you’ve possibly guessed, the Holy Shroud.”
Victor took a healthy sip of wine.
“I knew little of the Shroud before that time,” he went on. “I knew, of course, of its existence and never for a moment doubted its authenticity, as it was an esteemed relic of the church. On reading on your website of your interviews with the STURP group, I bought the discs and listened with great interest to the findings of the scientists involved. I had the pleasure of meeting Father Peter Rinaldi in Turin at a seminar some years earlier, but didn’t know of his role in the preservation of the Shroud.”
Peter thought how pleased he had been with the interview he had done with Father Rinaldi, the man appointed by Rome to be keeper of the holy relic and to whom the Pope was said to have confirmed that the face on the Shroud was that of Christ.
“His Holiness,” Victor said, “told me that the Church had been pleased by the results presented by members of the investigative team, despite the one dissenting voice of Walter McCrone. He went on to say, however, that there was serious concern that the cloth would suffer greatly if it were subjected to further tests and exposure. This was heightened by considerable pressure to expose the cloth to the carbon dating process. Segments would have to be cut from the cloth in order for the tests to be carried out – a procedure His Holiness was totally opposed to.”
“I can understand why,” Peter muttered.
“So could I,” Victor said. “The Pope went on to explain that after much prayer and pondering over this matter, he had concluded that little would be proved by carbon dating verification. He, members of the Church, and now the STURP team, all believed that this was the cloth in which the Savior had been wrapped at the time his body had been placed in the tomb. This relic is now truly one of the gospels; the only real evidence that Christ suffered in the manner the writings of the disciples had stated. Contact with the Shroud is as close as one can come to touching Christ himself!”
He paused, as if uncertain how to continue. “The Pope reasoned that if the carbon dating were to show the cloth to be other than a first-century relic, there would still be no explanation for the remarkable image or how it got there. There would still be those who would insist on further tests. If, for whatever reason, the tests showed that the cloth were to be of a much later period, this would do little to shake the faith of the true believers … however, His Holiness felt that it would put an end to such tests if those of little faith were satisfied that it was indeed a fake.”
Victor paused to sip his wine. Peter listened in amazement. He had heard rumors of the Pope’s intense interest in the Shroud. Still, he could hardly believe what he was hearing from this old friend seated before him.
“You know, Victor,” he said thoughtfully, “Father Rinaldi mentioned an occasion when he was in the presence of His Holiness. He told me that the Pope had turned to him, pointing to a picture of the face on the Shroud, and said in hushed tones, ‘Whenever I look on this face, I know I am looking at Him – it is the Lord!’ I thought at the time that this was an amazing admission from one who so many believe speaks for God.”
Victor nodded slowly, in unspoken consent. “His Holiness proceeded to explain to me that after much contemplation and prayer it had been decided that this most holy relic be removed from public display and any further possible harm. The dilemma arose as to how to explain this without appearing to be afraid of the outcome of further tests. A number of scenarios were contemplated and discussed, until it was suggested that the Church replace the original with a ‘true fake’ and –”
“Wait a minute,” Peter interrupted. What do you mean by a ‘true fake’? A replica?”
“Well, word had reached Father Rinaldi that an actual copy of the original, almost indistinguishable from the real one, had been made by none other than Leonardo da Vinci, whilst he served as Grand Master of the Priory of Sion,” Victor explained. “The Pope told me that Father Rinaldi had undertaken the task of finding this copy to replace the actual Shroud in the cathedral in Turin. The original was to be brought to His Holiness at the Vatican for safekeeping.”
Peter sat absolutely still, dumfounded. He could hardly believe his ears. Here, at last, was the explanation for all his misgivings. How had the STURP team got it so wrong? The simple explanation was that they hadn’t! But Leonardo da Vinci? Peter knew there was a series of replica shrouds in existence – about thirty-eight in all, as far as he knew. In fact, he was scheduled to undertake the restoration of one of them this week. It was housed in the Wignacourt Museum in the same city as Father Victor’s St. Agatha’s Catacombs – Rabat.
Whenever such a reproduction was obtained, Peter recalled, the Shroud was held in veneration by the faithful. He knew of such reproductions in several countries: there is one in Belgium and another in Argentina; two in France and two others in Portugal; thirteen in Spain and nineteen in Italy, besides the original Shroud of Turin.
Apart from the Shroud of Rabat, another of these reproductions, held in Spain, was of particular interest to him, as he had had the opportunity some years ago to visit it. It was obtained through the good offices of a Grand Prior of the Knights of Malta.
Francisco Lucas Bueno, Bishop of Malta and Grand Master of the Religion of St. Peter in the year 1650 A.D., obtained a copy from the Royal Savoy Family. On 8 October 1652, he sent the Shroud to Saragossa to the Lord Receiver of St. Peter who, in turn, entrusted it to Antonio Bueno and Andres Martinez of Campillo de Aragon. They gave it to the people of Campillo. This relic, Peter recalled, is kept over the altar in a chapel constructed for the purpose and is guarded by two strong doors in gold.
Victor had been closely watching Peter’s face for a reaction as he unfolded the events of that dramatic first meeting with his beloved pontiff. He noticed the look of total amazement on Peter’s face switch to one of almost total disbelief.
“I know how incredible all this must seem to you, Peter, particularly as you’ve been so close to the investigative work that has been carried out. It’s why I felt that, in light of the disaster I am about to unfold, you were just about the only person I could trust with the true facts.”
“I think this calls for a top-up,” Peter said, reaching for the bottle of wine and refilling their glasses. “Please continue, Victor.”
“I must confess that I was not prepared for what followed. His Holiness rose from his chair and walked toward a silver casket placed on the coffee table in front of him. To my continuing amazement, he opened the box and carefully displayed the contents. There before me was the holy relic – the burial cloth of Christ! I dropped to my knees, overcome with uncontrollable emotion.” Victor paused, as if unable to continue. His eyes blurred with unshed tears.
Peter felt a prickle of alarm. Victor was obviously under deep emotional stress. What could possibly be worrying him so? he wondered. He was soon to find out.
Chapter 4 (Day 1: late evening)
“Victor, my dear friend,” Peter said soothingly, moving across and placing a comforting arm around Victor’s shoulder. “I can understand how overwhelmed you must have been.”
Victor removed his glasses and fumbled for a handkerchief to wipe his eyes.
With obvious effort, he continued. “His Holiness told me that after much contemplation he had personally selected me and the island of Malta to safeguard this remarkable treasure. Having withstood the onslaught of many nations and been home to the Knights Templar, there was no better fortress than this to protect this most Holy of Holies. He had even selected the location! The sacred grotto of St. Paul. As I’m sure you’re aware, St. Paul and St. Luke were prisoners on their way to Rome to be tried for political rebellion, when their ship floundered on the rocky coast of Malta, somewhere to the north of St. Paul’s Bay. They sheltered for the winter in a cave near Rabat and were cared for by the locals who, as the apostle recorded, were renowned for their hospitality.”
Peter recalled the speech made by the Pope on his second visit to the island in 2001, when he had specifically mentioned the sacred grotto. In a speech that had been widely reported, the Pope had said:
“I remember the Bay and the Islands of Saint Paul, and in particular the ancient Grotto, venerated as the place where he stayed.”
“You mean to tell me, Victor, that the actual Shroud is right here, on the island?” Peter gasped, his mind reeling under this incredible news.
“Well … that, my dear friend, is just the problem. I don’t know!”
Noticing the bewildered look on Peter’s face, he hastened to explain. “You see, ten days ago the Shroud vanished. I was the only one on the island who knew the whereabouts of the precious cloth, or so I thought. As I didn’t want to draw attention to my interest in it or my close inspection of it, I would secretly visit its location once a week to check on its safety. Ten days ago, I went as usual and to my utter amazement and dismay the casket was … was gone.”