Monday, January 28, 2008

Don't know much about incorruptibles?

This Sunday, January 27, was the memorial of St. Angela Merici, who like many other saints and beati (or "blesseds"), has been declared an "incorruptible." Essentially, this means that though St. Angela died centuries ago, her body has not decayed, nor was it ever embalmed, mummified, or in any other way deliberately preserved. Naturally, the phenomenon of incorruptibility draws a great deal of skepticism from secularists, other Christian denominations, and even certain Catholics, who believe it to either be a ruse perpetuated by the Church or a merely natural phenomenon.

Interestingly, the bodies of incorrupt saints do not undergo rigor mortis; rather, they remain as flexible as if the deceased were only sleeping. Incorrupt bodies are also miraculously free from the odor of decay, and many are reported to give forth the "Odour of Sanctity," an inexplicable sweet or flowery aroma. (This phenomenon has been cited in reference to St. Teresa of Avila, St. Therese of Lisieux, St. Rita of Cascia, and St. Pio of Pietrelcina, among others.) Sometimes, the body only remains incorrupt for an unusual amount of time (as in the case of St. Francis Xavier), and in other cases, only certain parts of the body do not decay (as in the case of St. Clare of Assisi, whose skeleton remains perfectly preserved, though her flesh turned to dust before her body was exhumed).

The Church used to cite incorruptibility as one of the two miracles required for the canonization of a saint, but this is no longer the case, since some bodies which were at first thought to be "incorruptible" turned out to have been embalmed or preserved by a natural cause, as in the case of Blessed Pope John XXIII (below). When John XXIII's body was exhumed after his beatification in 2000, it appeared to be extremely well-preserved. (I can personally attest to this; I saw his body on display at St. Peter's in 2003.) Church officials, however, have attributed his preservation not to a supernatural cause but to the lack of oxygen in his sealed coffin, so he has not been declared an incorruptible.

The body of Bl. Pope John XXIII at St. Peter's in Rome

St. Bernadette's body, on the other hand, lay in a damp grave for thirty years before it was exhumed and found to be incorrupt. Before being buried again, her body was washed and re-clothed, and this washing process is believed to have been the cause of the discoloration in her face which became apparent the second time her corpse was exhumed in 1919. For this reason, a light wax mask was made to cover her face (below) before her body was put on display to the public. Her body remains intact today, despite the fact that she died in 1879.

St. Bernadette of Lourdes at Nevers, France

Here is a list (which is by no means exhaustive) of incorruptible saints and beati with whom you may be familiar:
  • St. Agatha of Sicily
  • St. Angela Merici
  • Bl. Anne Marie Taigi
  • St. Bernadette of Lourdes
  • St. Catherine Laboure' (d. 1876, pictured)
  • St. Cecilia
  • St. Charles Borromeo
  • St. Clare of Assisi
  • St. Edward the Confessor
  • St. Ferdinand III (King of Spain)
  • St. Francis Xavier
  • St. Francis Xavier "Mother" Cabrini
  • St. Jean Vianney
  • St. John Bosco
  • Bl. Margaret of Castello
  • St. Margaret Mary Alacoque
  • St. Rita of Cascia
  • St. Teresa of Avila
  • St. Vincent de Paul (d. 1660, pictured)
You can find additional information about incorruptibles online, but let me caution you: many of the articles are authored by anti-Catholic skeptics or by people who haven't done their homework and who confuse the names of incorrupt saints with the names of those whose relics are merely popular objects of veneration. (The Wikipedia articles on incorruptibles are prime examples of the latter mistake.)

In closing, let us remember a few important things: first, that supernatural phenomena - instances of incorruptibility, apparitions, miracles and stigmata - are meant to simply encourage and edify the faithful, not to take the place of Sacred Scripture and Tradition as the cornerstones of our faith. In other words, we must take care not to become obsessed with these phenomena. Second, we must keep in mind that none of these phenomena are considered dogma; in other words, no Catholic is obligated to believe in them. So, while some of us might be fascinated by the veneration of incorruptibles and other relics, we need to be sensitive to the fact that some of our brothers and sisters may find the practice strange or even disgusting, and they are in no way obligated to take part in it.

St. Angela Merici, pray for us. All you angels and saints of God, pray for us.

No comments: