“A little science takes you away from God, but much leads you back to Him,” said Louis Pasteur. The story of this doctor is the living emblem.
On 24 May 1998, after kneeling and praying in front of the Holy Shroud in Turin, Pope John Paul II had defined it as a “provocation to intelligence”. And he had urged men of science to investigate that “image, which everyone sees and no one can explain for now”.
That same year a man of science, a doctor, would have flown from the United States to Turin to contemplate in silence the sheet in which, according to tradition, the body of Christ would have been wrapped after being taken down from the cross.
August Accept, this is the name of that doctor. For years Dr. Accepts he had scrutinized the Shroud of Turin with the eyes of a scientist. An intense study, which had definitively convinced him that that linen had actually welcomed the body of Jesus. In front of that image of the crucified face of Christ, Accepts had now gone far beyond the relationship with a mere object of scientific study. For him, an agnostic doctor, the Shroud had become a personal matter, a relationship between an I and a You.
The scientific evidence in favor of authenticity was now overwhelming. But even the two hours spent observing the Shroud in silence alongside other fascinated pilgrims would have marked him forever. “It was overwhelming. Words can’t describe it”remember al National Catholic Register.
His could be described as a homecoming. Indeed, he accepts, having grown up in Huntington Beach in southern California, he had been an active visitor to the local parish in his childhood and adolescence. But things had changed once he set foot in college. At the university he had found himself immersed up to his neck in a rationalist and agnostic environment which had pushed him to abandon the Catholic faith, persuading him that faith and science were incompatible. Later he will marry and his wife, a rather radical Protestant with whom he will have two children, will drag him even further away from any supernatural sign.
All these years though the Shroud remained an object that aroused his curiosity. She had read about it when she was still a teenager. And later, in the years when he was studying medicine, he would make friends with an important scholar of the Shroud: Allan Wanger, of Duke Medical School (North Carolina).
In front of the Shroud with the eyes of the doctor
Of course, Accept’s personal studies of the Holy Shroud focused on his areas of professional expertise: medicine, chemistry and physics. As a doctor of medicine, to Accept the image imprinted on the cloth as one snapshotsa snapshot of the Resurrection, clearly appeared that of a body in a state of rigor mortis, which had not yet begun to decompose. A process that begins about five days after death. It is also a sign that that image was in line with what the Gospels tell about the Resurrection of Jesus on the third day after the crucifixion.
But other fields too – such as that of art – supported the conviction that was gradually maturing in him. His friend, an expert in art history, the Hungarian-born artist Isabel Piczek, he assured him that the image could not have been painted by a medieval painter, as carbon-14 dating led to think. How it had appeared on that cloth was therefore inexplicable.
To God through science
For two years, between 1992 and 1994, Accepts will study the Shroud in depth. And one by one, his questions about his authenticity will be answered. That period, he says, will be for him simultaneously a “process of growth” both in scientific knowledge and in faith. At the end of his investigation he will understand that the time has come to rededicate his life to Christ. «Unlike many in the last century, science has brought me back to God»explains.
After all, it wasn’t Louis Pasteurchemist and founder of modern microbiology, to say that «little knowledge leads away from God, but much leads back to Him»? In fact, Accept’s case is anything but a unique. Several other scientists, atheists, agnostics or non-Christians ended up converting to Catholicism by studying the Holy Shroud and becoming ardent promoters of it. Allan Wanger himself, for example, had converted from atheism. And at least one of his students, Joseph Marino, even became a priest.
The mission of the Shroud
Piczek, the artist (died 2016), had spoken of a mission of the Sheet that wrapped the body of Christ. «The Shroud seems to have one great pastoral missioncausing many unexpected conversions, especially among young people”.
Now convinced that the Holy Shroud was authentic. Accept had to know what the true institution founded by Christ was. His vocation as a scholar spontaneously pushed him to this. Which will lead him to immerse himself this time in theology and Church history studies. When he begins to approach the Fathers of the Church he realizes that he has found the answers he was looking for. And he confesses that he was “happy to find Christ in the Catholic Church. When I began my study, I had no intention of going back to it, but that’s where my truth-seeking process took me.” It is no coincidence, “it is not a coincidence”, he is keen to underline, that the Shroud has been entrusted to the Catholic Church for safekeeping.
A center to tell the story of the Shroud
The Shroud that had brought him home, to that Catholic Church abandoned during his university years, will become a reason for living for him. To the point of pushing him to create, in 1996, the Shroud Center of Southern California: a study center dedicated to promoting the Holy Shroud, where volunteers tell visitors the story of the Shroud, as well as the science and research behind the Shroud. And there are those who melted into tears after one of the tours personally guided by Accept.
One such visitor, named Stephen Shehyn, explains that he felt “in the presence of Our Lord, experiencing both his humanity and his divinity”. At the time Shehyn had recently returned to being a Catholic and his faith, he underlines, was strongly confirmed by his study of the Shroud which he describes as «the fifth Gospel, which confronts us with the reality of Christ’s suffering, death and resurrection”. After that visit, he will return to become a volunteer at the center founded by Accept, adding that his faith would not be shaken even if it were proven that the Shroud was a cleverly crafted forgery.
In faith, facts matter, and how they do
Accept, now 64 years old, invites not to minimize, as do many Catholics who prefer a more experiential and personal faith, the weight of facts in the life of faith. We must not forget, he says, that «the Resurrection of Christ is a fact. Evidence of the Resurrection – including witnesses who had seen the resurrected Christ – was important to early Christians.
Moreover, he explains, there are non-Catholics deeply fascinated by the mystery of the Shroud. Finally, this doctor converted from agnosticism to the Catholic faith encourages «Catholics, especially priests, to approach this Shroud with an open mind and a loving heart. Let the Sudarium of Jesus help you to know and love Jesus and his Paschal Mystery ever more”.