Notes on don LUIGI FOSSATI, SDB (1920-2007)

After 60 years of priesthood, a keen scholar on the Shroud, on April 11, 2007 (exactly ten years since the fire of the Guarini Chapel, that put in serious danger the integrity of the Shroud) he died at the age of 87. With him another important forerunner of the modern sindonology disappears. Learning about this news, Card. Tarcisio Bertone, Secretary of State of the Holy See, answering to a friend of don Luigi’s, has written: “... I keep of him a vivid memory of dedication and sacerdotal charity”.

He was born in 1920 in Turin, a city for which he felt a particular affection, above all because in Turin the Holy Shroud has been kept for more than four centuries, and he saw its exhibitions in 1931 and 1933. In 1947 he was ordained priest by Card. Maurilio Fossati. In that period he already cultivated Shroud interests and in that year he gave a lecture on the Shroud to the brethren of the theological studentship of Bollengo. He was the first author of film-strips on the Shroud that he prepared with care in 1950 in order to spread the knowledge among young people.

As early as 1961, we find his first important historical study with the title La Santa Sindone. Nuova luce su antichi documenti (The Holy Shroud. New light on ancient documents), in which he published some original documents of the Vatican Register, never made public before. This contribution of his gave new explanations on the reasons of Pierre d’Arcis’ Memorial (used by the adversaries of the Shroud authenticity). Even in the last years of his life, don Luigi, if asked on such a topic, clearly confirmed that it was a disciplinary attitude by the bishop of Troyes, that still today does not have any scientific value (in fact, the bishop never saw the Shroud). The reason of the bishop’s aversion towards the Shroud was because the canons of Lirey showed it to the pilgrims, collecting huge alms, without asking him any authorization. Therefore, it was wrong to state that a bishop of the Middle Ages had already said that it was a false relic. Don Luigi Fossati explained and defended this idea in numerous articles published in the following years. A typical example of these contributions was published in 1969 on the “Rivista di Pedagogia e Scienze Religiose” (“Review of Education and Religious Sciences”) entitled Fatti e documenti del secolo XIV sulla Santa Sindone (Facts and documents of 14th century on the Holy Shroud) (Year VII n. 2, Turin, May/August 1969).

In 1968, in collaboration with Mgr. Piero Coero Borga, then the secretary of the International Center of Sindonology and chaplain of the Confraternity of the Holy Shroud, he edited Conversazioni e discussioni sulla Santa Sindone (Conversations and discussions on the Holy Shroud). Three years later, the LDC published the Enciclopedia della Bibbia (Encyclopedia of the Bible), entrusting don Luigi with the “Shroud” entry (for the history section).

In the volume Osservazioni alle perizie ufficiali sulla Santa Sindone 1969 – 1976 (Observations on the official valuations on the Holy Shroud 1969 – 1976), he made shrewd considerations on the results presented by the experts appointed by Card. Michele Pellegrino.

On the occasion of the 1978 exhibition, he published Breve saggio critico di bibliografia e di informazione sulla Sacra Sindone (Short critical essay of bibliography and information on the Holy Shroud), continuing the already imposing work undertaken by Dervieux, in which he listed and described the main publications issued between the First National Conference of Studies (1939) and the Second International Conference (1978).

In 1981 another publication of his was issued on one of the protagonists of the vicissitudes linked to the first photographs of the Shroud taken in 1898: Don Natale Noguier de Malijay, studioso della Sindone (Don Natale Noguier de Malijay, scholar of the Shroud); a Salesian priest, a physics and chemistry teacher at the High School “Valsalice”, who through the baron Manno obtained from Umberto I the permission to photograph the Shroud for the first time. As everybody knows, an expert, the lawyer Secondo Pia, was entrusted with the picture taking.

Beyond contributing to several reviews, he also contributed to the reviews specialized on the Shroud, such as Sindon and Collegamento pro Sindone, above all on the topic of the existing full-size copies in Italy, on the comparison with the original and their documentary value. Even on this matter, don Luigi’s ideas were clear: answering to those who thought that in the last centuries there had been numerous shrouds in the European churches, he confirmed, with well-grounded arguments, than no copy was in competition with the original.

On the occasion of the 2000 Jubilee and Exhibition (at the venerable age of eighty), he introduced to the public his last work La Sacra Sindone. Storia documentata di una secolare venerazione (The Holy Shroud. Documented history of a centuries-old veneration). The book has the preface of Card. Tarcisio Bertone, then the Secretary of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and emeritus archbishop of Vercelli.

In 2001 he published his last article on Collegamento pro Sindone Internet, regarding the existing full-size copies in Italy, of which he was the greatest expert.

Until some year ago, when his sight still allowed him to do it, don Luigi was working to a research on the Shroud copies realized full size during the last centuries. Until his health allowed that, he followed with a great interest, even if at a distance, the vicissitudes of the Shroud: the 1997 fire, the two last exhibitions in 1998 and 2000, the symposium of Villa Gualino and the other Shroud conferences, the digital recordings, the new publications, the 2002 intervention, etc. He was in phone contact with people engaged in the Shroud world and punctually he asked to have a copy of the last issued publication in order to have it read by his brother don Gianni, who also lived in the Salesian House of San Benigno Canavese (Turin).

Following numerous other Salesians, don Luigi Fossati dedicated time and talent to the spreading of the Shroud culture in order to show to which point God’s love has arrived, allowing the exalting of  the Christian value of the Shroud, which is rightly defined the “Fifth Gospel”. His long and tireless Salesian activity among the young people and the acceptance of God’s plans demonstrated that don Luigi was a true son of don Bosco, but he was also a true sindonologist, who does not remain limited to the pure scientific research, but goes more deeply until dipping himself in the mystery of the Passion of Christ.