Pope John – incorrupt
The body of Angelo Roncalli has been moved to a new resting place but this process has allowed his devoted followers to marvel at what has been called his last miracle
by Renzo Allegri
AN EMOTIONAL CROWD paid homage to Pope John XXIII whose remains were displayed in St. Peter’s Basilica on June 3rd, the thirty-eighth anniversary of his death. It seemed as though time had stood still. People flowed emotionally past his body, just as in 1963, during the three days prior to his funeral. Then, Pope Angelo Roncalli had just died. Now, thirty-eight years have passed since his death, but his face is just the same: serene, almost smiling, and perfectly preserved.
The fact that his body had remained incorrupt for 38 years after his death made headlines all over the world when it was discovered on January 16th, of this year.
Pope John was beatified on September 3rd of last year. He was born in Sotto il Monte in the province of Bergamo, Italy and enjoyed great popularity during his lifetime. He continues to be well loved even after his death. His tomb, which used to be in the crypt of St. Peter’s, has always been the site of pilgrimage for the devout, who have increased in number after his beatification. For this reason, Pope John Paul II decided that the remains of his illustrious predecessor be placed in a tomb in St. Peter’s Basilica, so that people could find it with greater ease.
Opening the tomb
According to ancient rules of the Church, when the remains of a saint are moved from one place to another, the body must undergo a ‘recognition’, which is a legal verification, before witnesses and a scientific committee, that the translation actually took place and that the remains placed in the tomb really belong to the saint.
This ancient practice was followed for the movement of John XXIII. The recognition took place on January 16th, in the presence of Angelo Cardinal Sodano, the Vatican Secretary of State, who represented John Paul II, along with Virgilio Noè, President of the ‘Fabbrica’ of Saint Peter’s, Monsignor Vittorio Lanzani, Secretary of the ‘Fabbrica’, and with them various other prelates, notaries, and experts, among whom was Dr. Renato Buzzonetti, the personal physician of the pope, and member of the medical commission examining the cause of sainthood, and Dr. Nazareno Gabrielli, director of the Research Department of the Vatican Museums. It was a delicate task, which required many hours of work. First the travertine marble tomb was opened; next, the first oak casket; then the second casket made of lead, which proved to be very difficult to open; a blow torch was needed to open it. In the end, the lead gave way, and workers began opening the third casket in cypress, which contained the mortal remains of John XXIII.
Everyone felt an incredible emotion when the body of the pope was found intact. Pope John had been buried in a white pontifical tunic, and after 38 years, he was still there, incorrupt, intact, as if time had stood still. No one expected anything of the kind. It looks like he’s sleeping, commented Cardinal Sodano. Then there was a long emotional silence. Everyone was enraptured by his face which showed a serene peacefulness and the hint of a sweet smile which was one of the distinguishing characteristics of the ‘Good Pope’, as Pope John was affectionately called by his devotees, one of the sweetest and most loved popes in the entire history of the Church. Moments passed before everyone returned to doing their various tasks in order to proceed with the notary act of the recognition. In that act, signed by cardinals, physicians, technicians, and everyone else present, we read: The face of the pontiff appears intact, the eyes are closed and the mouth is slightly open, with features which immediately call to mind the familiar countenance of the venerated pope.
The news was kept secret and only revealed two months later, on March 24. In a flash it travelled around the world creating great excitement and enthusiasm. It is a miracle, the last miracle of Pope John, wrote many newspapers. Vatican authorities tried to slow the enthusiasm. Fr. Ciro Benedettini, assistant director of the Vatican Press Office officially stated: It is true, it is a rare happening which took place in the past for others who died in an atmosphere of saintliness, but this does not authorise us to believe that it is the result of supernatural intervention, since it can also have a scientific explanation.
But there continued to be great interest. Doctors and scientists appeared in the mass media speaking about past examples of incorrupt remains of people who were not saints and offered explanations as to how the phenomenon could happen: absolute lack of humidity, lack of oxygen due to the triple caskets which enclosed the body, special conditions of the ground. But, usually, in these cases as the scientists themselves admit the skin of the deceased becomes tough like leather, takes on a dark colour and assumes the aspect of a mummy.
It has been said that doctors went to great pains to chemically preserve Pope John’s body. It was June, and Rome was hot. Due to the pope’s immense popularity it had been decided that his body would be available for viewing until the day of his funeral, held on 6 June. Professor Nazareno Gabrielli, the director of Research at the Vatican Museums, who was present during the recognition, remembered: When Pope John XXIII died certain measures for the viewing of his body and for allowing the faithful to pay their last respects were taken in the few hours immediately following his death. At the time, Professor Gennaro Golia was an assistant at the Anatomy Department of the Medical School of the Catholic University in Rome. He confirms that he was asked to perform the operation of preserving the pope’s remains and carried out this duty using a technique of his own invention. This was not intended to be true ‘embalming’, as some have insinuated. True embalming requires removing the body fluids and all of the internal organs from the body, including the brain. While Prof. Golia’s ‘treatment’ of the body was supposed to temporarily stop the degeneration process, it was never meant to preserve the body forever. This treatment cannot explain the present incorrupt state of Pope John XXII. As was mentioned, Cardinal Sodano upon seeing the body of the ‘Good Pope’ exclaimed that He looks like he’s sleeping. And Cardinal Noè, also present during the recognition, later stated I had the impression that he had just died the day before.
Instead, in the case of incorrupt saints, the body is preserved in a fresh and elastic manner, as if it were someone who was asleep. There are hundreds of cases throughout the world: Saint Bernadette Soubirous of Lourdes, for example, who died in 1879 at the age of 35 in the convent of Nevers, in France. Thirteen years earlier she had become a nun. Her body, perfectly preserved, is enclosed in a glass casket in the church at the convent. Her face is beautiful, even though when she died it was devastated by disease. In Paris, France, the hands and eyes of St. Catherine Labourè are preserved. This nun lived from 1806 to 1876, and had the privilege of seeing and touching the Virgin Mary, thus her eyes and hands were saved from corruption. In Padua, the incorrupt tongue of Saint Anthony (1195-1231) is still preserved. He spent his young existence preaching the Gospel, and his tongue inexplicably escaped decay. In Turin, there is Bl. Francesco Faà, mathematician, architect, and engineer, a man who used his precious brain to serve good and others. In 1988, one hundred years after his death, during the recognition of his remains for the process of beatification, his brain was found to be intact. This fact greatly shocked scientists considering that the rest of the body had deteriorated, while the soft tissue of the brain is usually the most easily decomposed.
Theologists observe that death and decomposition are the result of sin. Adam, while he was in the Garden of Eden, before disobeying God, was not destined for death. Jesus Christ, the new Adam, came into this world to redeem mankind and free us from death. Of course, man continues to die, but Jesus promised resurrection at the end of the world, and He rose again in fulfilment of that promise.
The saints, especially those who have lived their lives without sin, could have been granted the privilege of incorruptibility as was Adam while he was in the Garden of Eden and as an indication that Jesus’ promise of resurrection will be fulfilled.
This might be the case of Pope John XXIII. His personal secretary Msg. Loris Capovilla, who knew him well, has often reiterated his certainty that Pope John had never committed a single sin during his earthly existence. He was convinced that Pope John preserved his baptismal purity throughout his life. Passages from Pope John’s diary, his ‘Journal of the Soul’ support this idea. The pope writes a note thanking God and the Blessed Mother for having kept him from committing serious sins. This is an exceptional but little-known fact about this greatly loved pope. While outwardly he might have seemed happy, jovial, and merry as well as a lover of good food, in reality he lead a severe and rigorously ascetic life.
Naturally, as Fr. Ciro Benedettini, Vatican spokesman, and various doctors have also said, the fact that his body remained incorrupt after death can due to various causes. But if the Church officially allowed the mortal remains of Pope John XXIII to be displayed for veneration in transferring his body from the crypt to St. Peter’s Basilica, it means that she believes his body has been ‘preserved’ not in an ordinary way or through the action of chemical agents, but through ‘miraculous intervention’: a heavenly ‘sign’ of holiness, granted to the ‘Good Pope’, best known for calling the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) and for initiating a period of major renewal and reform of the Catholic Church.