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.
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 Blessed 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 Labouré: (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 Blessed Pope John XXIII, but what is more miraculous is the holy life he lived.
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.
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