Disclaimer

NOTICE: I am a practicing Catholic, active and in good-standing with my local parish, who professes faith and loyalty to the Church and our Holy Father. This "little work" is purely a personal expression of that faith and loyalty, and not an officially recognized ministry in the Diocese of Honolulu. ~ Peter


Wednesday, May 23, 2012

The Mystery of the "Incorruptibles"


The incorrupt body of St. Bernadette Soubirous, the famous
Marian visionary of Lourdes, France.

I’ve been reading about and studying the lives of the Saints (and other saintly Catholic figures) for almost 30 years now… and I am not only edified by their lives of heroic virtue, but also constantly amazed by the wonders performed by God on their behalf; the Stigmata, Levitations, and the phenomenon of Incorruptibility have fascinated me for a long time now. In fact, the very first Saint I ever learned about – St. Bernadette Soubirous of Lourdes – introduced me to the mystery of the “Incorruptibles” and her wondrously preserved body is arguably the most celebrated case of incorruption in Church history.

For readers who are not familiar with the term, “Incorruptibles”, it’s a word that was popularized by a best-selling book of the same name by author, Joan Carroll Cruz, who documented many cases of incorruptibility in her 1977 book. The title of Cruz’s book has since become closely associated with a select group of Catholic mystics whose physical remains were found mysteriously preserved after their deaths; often many years after the holy person died. In St. Bernadette’s case, her incorrupt body was discovered 25 years after she passed away in 1879, during the ritual exhumation related to her Cause for Canonization.

Joan Carroll Cruz wrote about 100 cases in the Incorruptibles book, but through my personal research, I’ve found dozens of other cases that were not included in her book. In my humble opinion, there are 175+ documented cases of incorruptibility in the world, and I have no doubt that as more deceased holy people are investigated for Sainthood, additional cases will be reported in the future. Just to give the reader a sampling of some of the pious souls identified as Incorruptibles, included in their ranks are Bl. Angela Astorch, Bl. Anna Maria Taigi, Bl. Anna Rosa Gattorno, Bl. Anne Catherine Emmerich, St. Annibale di Francia, St. Catherine of Siena, St. Catherine dei Ricci, St. Catherine Laboure, Bl. Colomba Gabriel, St. Francis Xavier, St. Germaine Cousin, Bl. Jacinta of Fatima, St. John of God, St. John of the Cross, St. John Marie Vianney, St. Juliana Falconieri, St. Lucy of Syracuse, St. Maria Maddalena de Pazzi, Ven. Maria of Agreda, Bl. Maria Gabriella Sagheddu, Bl. Maria Vittoria Fornari-Strata, Ven. Mariana de Jesus Torres, Bl. Marie Deluil-Martiny, St. Paola Frassinetti, St. Peregrine Laziosi, Bl. Pier Giorgio Frassati, Bl. Pierina Morosini, St. Padre Pio, St. Rita of Cascia, St. Rose of Lima, St. Rose of Viterbo, St. Teresa of Avila, St. Teresa Margaret of the Sacred Heart, St. Veronica Giuliani, etc.

The wax image of St. John Neumann, enclosed in his
shrine-reliquary (click on photo to view a larger image)
There are a few Saints who were misidentified as incorrupt but this is most likely due to the devotional practice of enshrining life-sized wax statues of the Saint - called a “Simulacrum” - in glass-sided shrines. These figures enclose relics of the Saints (e.g. bones) within them, and because of their realistic appearances, they are sometimes mistaken for real bodies. A couple of Saints who have been incorrectly labeled as Incorruptibles are St. Frances Xavier Cabrini (d. 1917) and St. John Neumann (d. 1860); both have their relics enshrined in the United States, at New York and Philadelphia, respectively.

Natural Mummies?
In the last two years, I’ve seen a couple of interesting science-based documentary TV shows that featured the Incorruptibles, and which have tried to explain the phenomenon in natural ways. Unfortunately, these shows also referred to the blessed remains of our preserved Saints as “natural mummies”, which I believe is highly misleading. Sure, many of the Incorruptibles of the distant past now look similar to the mummies of old (darkened and dry) but there’s one major factor that Science conveniently ignores – how the preservation of the bodies were effected despite conditions that would normally have contributed to their decomposition.

In cases of mummification, there are two methods of preservation: deliberate and accidental. The most popular examples of deliberate mummification are the mummies of Egypt. Ancient Egyptians used specific organ removal and dehydration methods, along with resins and spices to purposely inhibit decay and achieve remarkable preservations of their deceased... but the mummified corpses all appear desiccated and rigid, and the skins dark and leathery in texture.

Ancient Egyptians practicing mummification.  The human cadaver
is depicted with its brain and internal organs being removed.

Accidental preservations occur when the deceased are interred in conditions that inhibit the growth of bacteria that cause decomposition. Examples would be mummies found in dry caves or desert areas, or those found in the snowy mountain peaks in Europe and South American countries; the native people may not have intended to preserve the corpses, but the environmental conditions were conducive to preserving them. Again, these types of mummies are often dry in appearance like their deliberately preserved counterparts.

Although not strictly referred to as mummification, another form of preservation is chemical embalming or the use of artificial preservatives to conserve the body. This method can preserve the body for short periods of time or sometimes indefinitely. Some readers may have seen the “Bodies” exhibit that displayed dissected human bodies that were preserved using a method referred to as “plastification”. These corpses were very well-preserved, but their conservation was clearly achieved through artificial means.

The preservation of the Incorruptibles, on the other hand, should not be attributed to deliberate or accidental mummification; they were never embalmed or preserved through any artificial or natural processes, but rather their conservation, the Faithful believe, should be credited to a higher power – GOD.

The incorrupt body of St. Luigi Orione
Some may argue that many of the older Incorruptibles look too much like regular mummies so how can God really be behind their preservation? In such cases, we have to keep in mind that when most of these bodies were initially disinterred, and their preservation first discovered, documented records frequently stated that they appeared as though the individuals were merely asleep or newly buried. The remains were then often displayed in poor conditions and venerated as sacred relics with many candles burning nearby and pilgrims frequently touching them. After centuries of such exposure, the bodies eventually darkened although they maintained their state of preservation. Modern cases of Incorruptibles such as St. Catherine Laboure (d. 1876) and St. Luigi Orione (d. 1940) still have bodies that are in pristine condition, and will probably remain so for a very long time given today’s conservation methods and the careful manner in which they are displayed for public veneration.

Preserved Against the Laws of Nature
In almost all the cases of the Incorruptibles I’ve read about, their preserved bodies were found in conditions that would have induced normal decomposition. Again, citing St. Bernadette’s body, when her tomb was first opened, the rosary in her hands was found rusted to pieces and the crucifix tarnished by moisture present in the tomb. Some parts of her clothing were also deteriorated from the moisture yet her body was described as perfectly free of corruption, odorless, and most importantly, free of any artificial means of preservation; according to Science, there’s no reasonable explanation as to why St. Bernadette’s body did not follow the normal course of decomposition. In addition, the Saint died from advanced tuberculosis, which ravaged her internal organs and should have hastened decay… yet her internal organs were also found intact!

St. Catherine of Bologna
The above phenomenon is not unique to St. Bernadette; there were many other Saints whose remains were discovered mysteriously preserved despite having been entombed in adverse conditions. To cite two more examples we have St. Catherine of Bologna (d. 1463), a Poor Clare nun, who was initially buried directly in the earth without the benefit of a coffin... yet her body never decayed and is now displayed in a seated position in her shrine; the same treatment was given to St. Charbel Mahklouf’s remains after he died in 1898, and it was even unearthed submerged in a shallow pool of muddy water, but it also defied corruption. If that wasn’t remarkable enough, the bodies of many Incorruptibles have exhibited other mystical phenomenon, which are even more astounding than the fact of the bodily preservation.

Miraculous Relics
Besides defying the laws of nature by remaining inexplicably preserved, the major relics of the Incorruptibles have displayed miraculous properties definitely not documented in ordinary mummies. These mystical signs include the following:

The seated body of Ven. Maria
Electa of Jesus in Prague
Life-like Flexibility – several Incorruptibles, despite being centuries-old, retain their flexibility and the supple feel of live flesh. The body of Ven. Maria Electa of Jesus (d. 1663) in Prague was still flexible many years after the discovery of its preserved condition; the sisters of her Carmelite monastery were able to seat her body in a chair and it is still viewed in the same position up to the present day (like St. Catherine of Bologna, mentioned above).

During my visit to Rome in September 2005, I venerated the body of St. Paola Frassinetti (d. 1882) and one of the sisters from her congregation informed me that her flesh, at the time of my visit, was still soft and the limbs flexible despite the body’s darkened appearance. They could easily change the habit worn by the body because of the absence of rigidity.

Fragrance of Sanctity – the bodies of many Incorruptibles have emanated the sweet scent of flowers upon their discovery. A couple of examples would be the bodies of St. Rita of Cascia (d. 1457) and Bl. Maria Lopez Rivas (d. 1640), which are both reported to effuse the scent of roses and other flowers up to the present day. The body of Ven. Maria Crescencia Perez (d. 1932), a mystic-nun from Argentina, emanated the scent of violets after her death and also after it was exhumed during its ritual exhumation.

Bl. Margaret of Castello, the little blind hunched-back patroness of the disabled.

Physical Movement – a few Incorruptibles have also manifested movements in their limbs, as in the case of Bl. Margaret of Castello (d. 1320), whose body lifted a hand after a possessed child was brought within its close proximity; the child was immediately freed of the evil spirit. Likewise, the incorrupt body of St. Eustochia Calafato (d. 1485) once turned its face away from a nun in her convent after the sister in question approached the body while in a state of unconfessed sin.

Miraculous Healings – the hallowed relics of our Saints and Blesseds have been conduits of God’s healing power since Biblical times (refer to 2 Kings 13:20-21 and Act 19:11-12). The fact is, there are countless documented accounts of the miraculous cures of sick people recovering after having prayed before the preserved (and unpreserved) relics of our Saints and Blesseds; too many to share here, but trust me, they’ve occurred and continue to occur in present times.

The incorrupt body of the Franciscan nun, Bl. Mattia Nazzarei of Matelica,
which has repeatedly issued a blood-like sweat on many occasions. 

Exudation of Blood & Manna – there have been several documented occurrences of fresh-looking blood issuing from the incorrupt bodies of Saints. A well-known example of this bleeding phenomenon can be found in the case of Bl. Mattia Nazzarei of Matelica (d. 1320); a “bloody-sweat” has been reported as exuding from her body on many occasions. The bleeding would occur prior to a major crisis in the Church, or when a nun in her Poor Clare convent was about to die. Her nuns have collected the blood on pieces of cloth, which in turn were distributed as relics to pilgrims and have occasioned many healings.

The Carmelite stigmatic, Mother Marie Marguerite of the Angels (d. 1658), was never properly buried after she died, but rather, her body was kept in her monastery’s chapel because of an usual request that the nun had made before she died. Amazingly, the body never decayed, and for several weeks, it dripped a fragrant, watery oil - popularly referred to as “Manna” - from its supple limbs.  This fluid, too, was reported to work cures.

 
The body of St. Clare of Montefalco and the mysterious crucifix-like figure found within her heart.

Other Wonders - lastly, the remains of the Saints have occasioned miracles that are just too unique to be categorized in the above listing. For example, the heart of St. Clare of the Cross of Montefalco (d. 1308) was examined shortly after her death and it was found to be mysteriously imprinted with a figure of Christ Crucified, as she often stated in her lifetime; her heart and body are both incorrupt.

    
The incorrupt bodies of a reputed holy man, Padre Giovanni Parisi (d. 1992, left), and the illustrious
St. John Vianney (d. 1859, right), which is venerated in Ars, France.  

The body of St. Eustochia Calafato (already mentioned above) once opened its mouth and the voice of the Saint was clearly heard praying when the Poor Clares of Messina (Italy) implored St. Eustochia’s intercession during a round of severe earthquakes that threatened to destroy their city; the tremors ended immediately! I could go on and on about many other wonders connected to the holy relics of the Saints, but I think you may have already gotten the point.

An Unanswered Question
For anyone reading this post from a faith-based perpective, it’s no mystery as to who, or what, is keeping these bodies preserved - it’s truly divine intervention. There is, however, one puzzling question pertaining to the Incorruptibles that remains unanswered: why are some holy persons incorrupt while most are not? No one will dispute that St. Therese the Little Flower (d. 1897), was a very holy soul… and St. Bernadette was equally virtuous. So why was St. Therese’s body reduced to ashes while St. Bernadette’s continues to remain miraculously preserved? The truth is - nobody knows. It’s simply one of those mysteries that will remain unanswered until we reach the other side. Remember... God’s ways are not our ways, and in matters of Faith, we often have to be content with just accepting what His divine will allows, even if we don’t fully understand it. 

The tomb-shrine of St. Therese the Little Flower at Lisieux, France. The figure in the
shrine is not her actual body, but rather is a wax simulacrum of the Saint.

Finally, I do want to point out one more thing in regards to the phenomenon of Incorruption… although it could reasonably be interpreted as an indication of divine favor when a pious person is found incorrupt after death, it’s important to know that the Church does not accept incorruptibility as a definitive confirmation of a deceased holy person’s sanctity regardless of how astounding the circumstances may be; the test of a person’s holiness will always be the measure of virtue that an individual practiced and exemplified during his/her lifetime.

The incorrupt body of the Servant of God, Angela Iacobellis (d. 1961), who
is currently being investigated by the Church for possible Sainthood.

In a few cases, though, the discovery of an incorrupt body of a person reputed to have been exceptionally good, has prompted investigation into that individual’s life... which can then lead to a confirmation of the person’s personal virtue. Such is the case with Rose Prince (d. 1949) of the Carrier Nation Indians in British Columbia; her preserved body was accidentally discovered in 1951, which then prompted recollections from her relatives and friends of her genuinely pious nature. Large pilgrimages to her grave at the Lejac cemetery are celebrated annually and the local church is now taking a closer look at her life, which makes Rose one of several modern cases of Incorruptibles currently being studied for possible Sainthood.

Me, venerating the miraculously incorrupt body of St. Paula Frassinetti
during a 2005 pilgrimage to Rome, Italy.

Above all things, may the Incorruptibles – through their holy examples and their blessed relics – lead us to a greater faith and appreciation for God and the many exceeding wonders worked through the agency of his holy servants.  All praise and glory be to Him always!

 So when this corruptible shall have put on incorruption,
and this mortal shall have put on immortality,
then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written,
'Death is swallowed up in victory'...
~ 1 Corinthians 15:54 

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