Q: 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?
On January 16, 2001, Cardinal Sodano, Secretary of State of the Holy See; Cardinal Noe, Archpriest of St. Peter’s Basilica; and Leonardo Sandri, opened the tomb of then-Blessed Pope John XXIII, who was beatified on September 3, 2000. (Pope St. John XXIII died on June 3, 1962.) The identification of the mortal remains is part of the normal canonization process. The mortal remains of St. John XXIII were to be transferred from their tomb in the crypt beneath St. Peter’s to a new tomb upstairs in the basilica itself at the altar honoring St. Jerome. Pope St. John Paul II ordered the transferal to affirm the holiness of the late pontiff and to enable the faithful to more easily venerate him.
When the inner casket was opened, Cardinal Noe said that the face of St. 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.
In weighing these phenomena, other mitigating factors must be taken into account. For instance, the body of St. Pope John XXIII was kept in a marble sarcophagus that contained three caskets — one of oak, one of lead and one of cypress. Although the body had not been embalmed, it had been sprayed with some chemicals so that it could be displayed prior to burial. Nazareno Gabrielli, a technician with the Vatican Museums, stated, “When he died, some measures were taken for the display of the body for the veneration of the faithful. It also should not be forgotten that the remains were kept in three caskets, one of which was sealed lead.” Therefore, probably little oxygen penetrated the caskets and affected the remains. (After the body was officially recognized, it was sprayed with an anti-bacterial agent, and the casket was hermetically sealed.)
In all, incorruptibility remains a sign of the holiness of the life of the individual. The bodies of St. Bernadette Soubirous (1844-1879) and St. Catherine Laboure (1806-1876) remain incorrupt, even though their bodies had not been embalmed and had been exposed to various elements for years prior to their exhumation. Therefore, one safely could see the hand of God in the preservation of the body of St. John XXIII, but what is more miraculous is the holy life he lived.