The Question of IncorruptibilityREV. WILLIAM SAUNDERS
It was reported a few years ago that the remains of Pope John XXIII were incorrupt, but there was a debate over whether this was a sign of sanctity or simply due to regular preservation methods. Could you please explain the significance of this further?
When the inner casket was opened, Cardinal Noe said that the face of Blessed Pope John XXIII appeared "intact and serene." The official report stated, "Once freed from the cloth that covered it, the face of the blessed appeared intact, with the eyes closed and the mouth slightly open, and bearing the features that immediately called to mind that familiar appearance of the venerated pontiff." The pope’s hands, still holding a cross, were also preserved.
While trying to avoid any sense of the macabre, such an investigation is integral to the canonization process. Prospero Cardinal Lambertini (later Pope Benedict XIV, 1675-1758) wrote a five-volume work entitled De Beatificatione Servorum Dei et de Beatorum Canonizatione in which he included the chapter De Cadaverum Incorruptione. This work remains the classic reference for such matters. The only incorrupt remains considered extraordinary and thereby miraculous would be those which had not undergone some preservation process but had retained their lifelike color, freshness and flexibility for many years after death. Spiritually, such a sign is indicative of the person’s mortal remains being prepared for the glorious resurrection of the body. Although the Church is very reluctant to accept incorruptibility as a miracle in itself, it nevertheless does testify to the holiness of the person.
Coupled with incorruptibility is the sign of "sweet odor," a phenomenon in which the body or the tomb of a saint emits a sweet odor. In the Old Testament, a sweet-smelling odor was a metaphor used to indicate a person pleasing to God and holy in His eyes. Usually, the odor is unique and cannot be compared to any known perfume. Cardinal Lambertini posited that while a human body may not smell bad, it is highly unlikely, especially in the case of a dead body, for it to smell sweet. Therefore, any odor of sweetness would have to be induced by a supernatural power and be classified as miraculous. Note, however, that the devil too can induce the "sweet odor," so this sign must be corroborated by the overall holiness of the life of the person.
Rev. William Saunders. "The Question of Incorruptibility." Arlington Catholic Herald.
This article is reprinted with permission from Arlington Catholic Herald.
Fr. Saunders is pastor of Our Lady of Hope Parish in Potomac Falls and professor of catechetics and theology at Christendom’s Notre Dame Graduate School in Alexandria. Father has been writing his weekly "Straight Answers" column for the Arlington Catholic Herald since 1993. The above article is one of those "Straight Answers" columns. Father Saunders is the author of Straight Answers, Answers to 100 Questions about the Catholic Faith, a book based on 100 of his columns and published by Cathedral Press in Baltimore.
© 2006 Arlington Catholic Herald
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