CLEARWATER — In the mid-1970s, Wayne Phillips saw a television program telling the story of the Shroud of Turin, a centuries-old linen cloth that bears the image of a crucified man.
At first, he was miffed. Years of Catholic schooling — Jesuit High School in Tampa and Notre Dame University — and he had never known about this artifact? (He would later learn that it was a delicate subject at the Vatican.)
A doctor, he has a curious mind. A mind shaped by logic and by science. But as a Catholic, he understands some beliefs are still a mystery.
He yearned to reconcile both and know the truth in his mind and in his heart. So Phillips began his own decades-long investigation to determine the shroud's authenticity.
There have been many ups and downs in this journey. But today, Phillips says without hesitation: “I believe it is real.”
Now he wants to share his knowledge with others.
In his spare time, at no cost, the Clearwater allergist gives seminars designed for the layman on the shroud's history.
In the past three years, he's made that PowerPoint presentation for packed audiences in Catholic and Protestant churches, schools and organizations nearly 60 times.
He details highlights of the 100 scientific facts that he and others say support their conclusion that the shroud did indeed wrap the lifeless body of Christ before the Resurrection on Easter morning 2,000 years ago.
Phillips, 67, doesn't attempt to convert, just educate, carefully referring to the image as the “man in the shroud.”
His conviction is not based on faith; he says science gave him the answers.
“I've never found anything in my life that connects my beliefs to science,” Phillips says, “until the Shroud of Turin.”
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It is arguably the most studied religious artifact of all time — and one of the most controversial.
Is it a witness to the Resurrection of Christ or a medieval fraud? People on both sides of the argument contend they have enough proof to make their case.
One fact cannot be disputed: It is a 14-foot-long, 3-foot-wide linen cloth, dotted with blood and bearing an image of a man who suffered physical trauma.
The shroud has reputedly been in the possession of royalty, bishops, popes and even the Knights Templar. It has been studied, poked, prodded and examined by scientists, researchers, religious leaders, scholars and doubters. It is the main focus of hundreds of organizations worldwide and the subject of thousands of studies and books.
The shroud's iconic image is venerated by many Christians, specifically Roman Catholics.
Conversely, it has been mocked by disbelievers, landing on the cover of tabloids such as the National Enquirer and satirized on an episode of “South Park.”
Pat Linse, co-founder of The Skeptics Society, calls the shroud “a highly stylized, somewhat amateur rubbing. It's like Big Foot. Every time someone comes up with a new theory or whatnot, it's gets a big flurry of attention.”
Linse has no problem with believers who hold the shroud sacred as an article of faith.
But when people claim they have scientific proof that it's real, they had better be prepared to stand their ground against the critics. For the 100 facts in the shroud's defense, Linse says, “we can counter with 1 million that show it's a fake.
“Europe is full of stories and tales about icons like this,” Linse says. “They've found enough crosses from the 'real' crucifix to build Noah's Ark.”
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After a circuitous journey that began in Jerusalem around 30 A.D. (if you're a believer), the shroud ended up in Turin, Italy, in 1578. It's still there, in a bulletproof case in the royal chapel of the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist.
Public displays in the modern era are rare. The last one was in 2010. The next one wasn't supposed to be until 2025, but Pope Francis caught the faithful off guard in December when he moved it up to next year, authorizing a three-month public exhibition that will begin April 19.
“The image, impressed upon the cloth, speaks to our heart,” the pope said, though he stopped short of declaring it an official church relic. “The face in the shroud conveys a great peace; this tortured body expresses a sovereign majesty.”
Wayne Phillips intends to make the pilgrimage to Turin. That was a no-brainer for him.
He was among the 2.5 million viewers who went four years ago to see the relic that captivates his attention daily. He expects it will again be a profoundly spiritual experience.
“The church keeps it alive because humanity can't prove it's real,” Phillips says. “It can't prove it's not, either.”
He understands the doubters.
His lifelong friend, Ralph Ruso, a retired Hillsborough County educator and school administrator, is one of them.
Phillips and Ruso grew up together in Seminole Heights and Davis Islands and served as best man at each other's weddings. Ruso has been to three of Phillips' presentations, learning something new every time.
But does he believe?
“It's still a mystery to me,” Ruso says. “I can't say it's real. What I do like is that there's this ongoing process of studying it and trying to figure it out. I love Wayne's passion for it. He says there's hope for me yet, but I'm not there.”
Phillips says even his wife of 44 years, Bridget, a devoted Catholic, thinks he's “insane” (she really doesn't), and only one of their four grown children has come to one of his talks. He's fine with that, because the shroud is his obsession, not theirs.
And they understand that it is his nature to be meticulous. When the kids were young, he was their soccer coach. After practice, he would show them videotapes he made of them on the field, giving pointers on how they could improve.
“All my friends hoped he would take an interest in on-shore fishing for snook and redfish, because he would be the type to study the tides and figure everything out in advance,” says his son, Michael, who works in private equity finance.
Michael Phillips isn't surprised by his father's intense interest in the shroud. The elder Phillips' other hobby gets similar attention: the former Notre Dame Glee Club member came in second to the late Karen Carpenter in a national talent contest, and he sings in his strong tenor as a cantor at his parish church and at weddings.
“My dad has the kind of brain that when he finds something intellectually stimulating, he goes all in with it,” Michael Phillips says. “He's pragmatic, he's reasonable and he knows how to organize information.”
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Wayne Phillips has lost track of the hours he spent studying every document he could get his hands on.
His zeal caught the attention of the elite Shroud Science Group, a cross-disciplinary organization of more than 130 doctors, scientists and historians who share information and host conferences worldwide.
Phillips says he was invited to join partly due to his training as an allergist — he has a particular interest in the pollen found on the shroud.
“I rarely put my 2 cents in,” he says, chuckling. “I'm afraid of getting blasted for being an idiot.”
In 2012, he completed a yearlong program to earn his diploma in the Specialization of Shroud Studies through the Vatican Apostolorum College.
That same year, he completed five 30-minute programs that aired on EWTN's “Women of Grace” syndicated show. And videos of two presentations he's made at Jesuit High School are on YouTube.
Despite his conviction, the ride has been like a roller coaster at times.
In 1978, two years after Phillips saw the documentary, a team of American scientists banded together for the Shroud of Turin Research Project.
They were not predisposed to putting their stamp of approval on it; according to Phillips, most were in the group were agnostic, and only two were Catholics.
After five days of repeated tests, sample taking, photographs and X-rays using state-of-the-art equipment, they eventually determined the shroud “showed no evidence of the hand of an artist” and that its image was of a “real human form of a scourged, crucified man.”
“Shroudies,” as enthusiasts like Phillips are sometimes called, were elated.
But in 1988, laboratories in Zurich, Oxford and Arizona performed carbon-14 dating on a small corner of the linen. All three came back with a date range of 1260 to 1390, declaring the cloth to only be 600 to 700 years old.
A story in The New York Times called the shroud a fake.
“I was completed destroyed,” Phillips says. “Just devastated. A dozen years into this, and I felt like I had been duped.”
Still, a small part in him wouldn't let go. As much as he relied on science, what if the testing proved flawed?
The debate continued, though the naysayers felt the case was closed.
Then, in 2005, a scientific paper concluded that the sample used to test the shroud's age in 1988 was taken from a rewoven area, rather than an original swatch of the linen. Therefore, the radiocarbon date was not valid for determining the shroud's true age.
Resurrection once again for the shroud. Eventually, Phillips took on the mission of restoring its reputation through his talks.
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Phillips always arrives in a coat and tie, the same professional look he has in his medical office. He brings his own equipment, including an 8-foot-wide projection screen.
Phillips offers three different presentations: 30, 45 or 90 minutes. He follows with a 10-minute question-and-answer session, but he is always willing to stay later.
“It can be overwhelming, all the information,” he admits.
Some people come back multiple times to keep absorbing. Because of Phillips' connection to the Shroud Science Group, he is constantly fine-tuning the talk with up-to-date developments.
Bridget Phillips jokingly says her husband's passion for the shroud “keeps him out of trouble.”
She says she doesn't need the scientific data to confirm that it's real.
“It makes it more interesting, but with or without it, I believe it is Christ's image,” she says.
Phillips says he got the Catholic Diocese of St. Petersburg's blessing a few years ago to speak at local parishes.
He hopes one day to create a small “Shroud Army” composed of directors of religious education who will teach the basics in classes to members and new converts.
More importantly, he wants to reach out to teens and young adults so they will have educated answers if they get in religious debates at college.
“That's an age when you're encouraged to question. I know — I was at Jesuit and Notre Dame,” he says. “It's also an age when youth tend to fall away from their faith. Understanding the shroud is one way of proving that our faith is for real.”
At a recent presentation at St. Lawrence Catholic Church in Tampa, occupational therapist Paul Scaglilone of Odessa said he arrived as a “leaner” toward believing in the shroud's authenticity.
By the time he left, he was convinced the burial cloth is the real deal.
Aida Rodriguez, also in the audience, isn't quite there yet. The personal injury lawyer, a 1982 graduate of Tampa Catholic, was skeptical at first.
As Phillips made his case for its authenticity in a logical and convincing matter, she became more intrigued to that possibility. Her 77-year-old mother, on the other hand, needed no prodding.
“How much more proof do these people need?” she asked her daughter.
Walter Poff came for a second time. The retired corrosion engineer and consultant says “anyone with a lick of common sense” would know the shroud is miraculous.
He always believed “something just wasn't right” with the 1988 carbon-14 dating. And like Phillips, he says Christ left the linen as proof of his crucifixion and resurrection.
“How could anyone deny this?” Poff asks.
Yet there is one test that cannot be conducted. And for that reason, the Catholic Church cannot sign off on the shroud.
It is impossible to get a DNA sample from the risen Christ, Phillips says.
“It won't happen in my lifetime; it won't happen ever,” he says simply.
So he will continue to be an ambassador for a relic that may never be fully recognized by his church.
He's OK with that, because he doesn't need that final piece of proof.
He just believes.