A tiny woman dressed in black and stooped with age dropped to her knees and gingerly began to crawl up the 26 Holy Stairs in Rome. She paused at each step to pray or to kiss the crucifix of her rosary after touching it to a spot where Christ's blood supposedly fell.
The stairs, which are across the street from Rome's St. John Lateran church, are among hundreds of relics and venerated objects in Italy linked to Jesus or saints that have inspired the faithful for centuries.But these relics have come under new scrutiny in the Italian media since the Roman Catholic Church announced in October that scientists had determined the Shroud of Turin, perhaps the most famous of all, cannot be the burial cloth of Christ as many believed.
There is no proof, only tradition, to support claims the marble steps brought to Rome once ascended to Pilate's palace in Jerusalem and that Jesus, bleeding from Roman whips, tread on them.
Still, the old woman's painful climb up the crowded stairs underscores that for many Roman Catholics such objects are a cherished link and that the church can consider religious symbolism more important than questions of authenticity.
"Relics are the means, the physical mean of rediscovering or keeping in touch with the history of the faith," said Monsignor Robert Sarno, an official with the Vatican's Congregation for the Causes of Saints.
"It is a means of strengthening one's faith, which in essence is a closer relationship with God."
After carbon-14 tests showed that medieval weavers made the cloth in the Holy Shroud, Italian newspapers noted the same method could date what are believed by many to be fragments from the cross on which Christ died, thorns from Christ's crown or blood of St. Januarius of Naples.
The newspapers noted that about 70 sanctuaries around the world claim to have drops of milk from the Virgin Mary's breast, while innumerable others lay claim to fragments of the cross or the hair, fingernails or tears of Jesus, and that there are at least 30 "genuine" nails from the crucifixion.
Church officials say it does not expect a "witch hunt" for false relics or a purge of reliquaries.
Sarno said, however, he sees no reason the church would not agree to such scientific tests on relics if the authenticity was seriously questioned.
"We have to rid ourselves of the idea that the church is afraid of science. There can be no contradiction between faith and science. Faith and science both come from God," he said.
Scientists and others outside the church have long been intrigued by the origin of the Shroud of Turin's faint, haunting image of a man who appeared to have been whipped, speared, crucified and crowned with thorns.
Although some revered it as the actual burial cloth of Jesus, the church never recognized it as a relic. Instead it was considered a cherished object, one treated with respect because it could be linked to Christ.
Cardinal Anastasio Ballestrero, who as archbishop of Turin is caretaker of the shroud, said in October he had no reason to doubt carbon-14 tests that indicate the cloth was made between the years 1260 and 1390.
But he said the shroud remained a powerful symbol. Ballestrero and other church officials point out that the other scientists determined that the shroud was not the work of an artist. And since the mystery of the creation of its image perists, church officials do not rule out it could still be the work of God.
The point Ballestrero and others seek to make is that the spiritual value to people like the devout old woman struggling on the stairs in Rome can outweigh historical questions about objects such as the shroud, the steps, fragments of the cross and the myriads of saintly relics.
Still, Sarno emphasizes that historical verification of relics is "a necessity."
"A relic is an authentic, verifiable piece of history which has theological significance and spiritual meaning for the individual faithful," he said.
"It refers to the mysteries of faith and the purpose is to arouse, strengthen and increase the faith of an individual who uses that object to reach the Lord."
He notes that the church "condemns idolotry" and that the church frowns on the idea that a relic can serve as something other than an instrument to strengthen the faith.