When the body of Pope John XXIII was exhumed in March 2001, it was in good condition, despite the fact that “Good Pope John” had been dead for 37 years. The Pope was exhumed because Pope John Paul II decided that his predecessor needed a new resting place to accommodate the large numbers of people who wanted to revere his tomb in the crypt of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome.

Furthermore, Pope John was on the road to sainthood at the time. And one of the preliminary steps in the canonization process is for the potential saint’s body to be exhumed for suitable identification. Was the former pontiff’s well-preserved condition, some Catholics wondered, be a divine indicator of his sanctity?

With its usual reserve, the Catholic Church didn’t claim there was anything miraculous about the preservation of Pope John’s remains. They had been probably subjected to a light preservative and were then buried in a lead casket, which was inside two other caskets in a dry tomb. So the normal process of decay could very well have been slowed considerably.

In any case, the Vatican Information Service never used the words “miraculous” or “incorrupt” regarding the body of Pope John XXIII. After the exhumation, the news service headlined its story with great caution, simply stating, “Body of Blessed John XXIII Is Remarkably Well Preserved.”

This is in keeping with the usual Catholic official policy. It doesn’t rule out supernatural occurrences. But neither does it declare an event miraculous until every natural explanation is eliminated. Only then might the popular pope be considered one of the “incorruptibles.”

Who Are They?

Who exactly are “the incorruptibles”? They are saints whose mortal bodies have not fully decayed (or been “corrupted”) after death. Sometimes, one particular limb or organ of a saint’s body has not decayed, even though the rest of the body has done so.

Remarkably, stories of saints’ bodies that did not decay have been told from the very earliest times to the present day. The second-century Roman St. Cecilia was reportedly incorrupt, as is the 19th-century French St. Bernadette Soubirous (1844-1879), whose remains are still with us today.

The body of St. Teresa of Avila (1515-1582) didn’t rot even though it was buried in wet mud. The bodies of St. Paschal Baylon (1540-1592), St. Francis Xavier (1506-1552) and St. John of the Cross (1542-1591) all remained fresh and intact despite being covered for months in sacks of quicklime — a chemical used to hasten the decomposition of the flesh.

St. Clare of Montefalco (c. 1268-1308), a holy Italian nun, apparently declared to her sisters: “If you seek the cross of Christ, take my heart; there you will find the suffering Lord.” After her death, not only did her body remain incorrupt, but the sisters removed her heart and found, clearly imprinted on the cardiac tissue, figures representing a tiny crucifix complete with the five wounds of crucifixion.

When St. John of the Cross died in 1591, he was buried in a vault beneath the floor of the church. When the tomb was opened nine months later, the body was fresh and intact; and when a finger was amputated to use as a relic, the body bled as a living person would have done.

The tomb was opened for a second time nine months after that. The body was still fresh, despite the fact that it had been covered with a layer of quicklime.

At further exhumations in 1859 and 1909, the body was found to be still fresh. The last exhumation was in 1955, when the body — after nearly 400 years — was still “moist and flexible,” although the skin “was slightly discolored.”

“The Incorruptibles” (Tan Books, 1977), an overview of the subject by Joan Carroll Cruz, reports no less than 102 stories of incorrupt bodies of Catholic saints. With so many alleged incorruptibles, it is no wonder some of the faithful have wondered whether the preservation of Pope John XXIII’s remains might be a sign from heaven.

More Questions Than Answers

It’s easy enough to dismiss such stories as medieval credulous nonsense. But such a position is untenable for at least two reasons.

First, the phenomena are among the best-documented of any alleged miraculous occurrences. You can go and see incorruptibles even now. Very often their bodies are on public display. Not only are they still visible, but the more recent exhumations were witnessed with oaths and affidavits by ordinary working people as well as respectable professionals.

The phenomenon raises many questions. Why do some incorruptibles stay incorrupt for decades or centuries, then suddenly decay naturally? How can some body parts remain incorrupt after separation from the body, as they have in many cases? If unnatural preservation is, indeed, a sign of saintliness, why aren’t all saints supernaturally preserved?

Bernadette and Thérèse of Lisieux were both 19th-century French girls who went into a convent and died of consumption at an early age. St. Bernadette’s body was incorrupt, but St. Thérèse’s body, at her exhumation, was reduced to a skeleton in the normal way. Why should one saint be incorrupt and not the other?

The Church is careful not to jump to conclusions. In all instances of seemingly supernatural or preternatural occurrences, the Church advises us to look first for natural explanations. Even then we are to withhold judgment, allowing for the fact that there may be natural explanations that we simply do not understand yet.

As with most extraordinary phenomena, the existence of incorrupt bodies has not been studied widely by the scientific community. However, recent investigations by pathologists, chemists and radiologists suggest that in some cases, the body of a saint was embalmed after death. There was no attempt at deceit or secrecy, but over time the knowledge that the embalming had taken place was lost. Occasionally, after exhumation and documented incorruptibility, a body was embalmed at a much later date.

In other cases, environmental conditions may have protected the remains from corruption. This might be the situation when bodies inexplicably decay rapidly after many decades of incorruptibility once they are moved; perhaps the original environment had somehow been especially airtight.

Science and historical research may be able to explain some of the so-called incorruptibles. Nevertheless, once the natural explanations and the human interference are accounted for, an astounding number of cases remain unexplained. We simply don’t know why some saints’ bodies are incorrupt.

No Guarantee of Holiness

Though Church authorities do not deny the possibility of miraculous preservation of bodies, neither do they place much stock in it. According to Rome, the strange phenomenon may confirm holiness, but on its own, the unnatural preservation of bodies does not, automatically, prove holiness. The authorities, quite sensibly, are more interested in the person’s manifest virtue.

In addition, the mere fact of a person’s body being incorrupt does not guarantee sainthood. There have been instances of people who did not seem saintly yet who were also incorrupt. Neither does incorruptibility prove the Catholic faith, since there are examples of Buddhist monks whose bodies are incorrupt as well.

In the meantime, however, the incorruptibles have much to teach us. They remind us that our faith is physical as well as spiritual. The incarnation of Our Lord was a real, historical event that was both supernatural and physical at the same time. The same is true of His resurrection from the dead.

The incorruptibles demonstrate that the spiritual world and the physical world are intertwined. We don’t know all the precise rules of this interaction, but we know that what we do with our bodies affects our souls, and what we do in the spiritual realm affects our bodies.

The incorruptibles also provide a compelling sign that points to the resurrection of the dead, when all God’s saints will receive back their bodies, incorruptible and transformed by His glory.

Finally, the incorruptibles remind us that miracles happen, that this world is not quite as predictable as we may think, that God is at work in the world, and that at any moment He might surprise us with new evidence of His power and love.