For quite some time now, I have wanted to do post on this phenomenon, when the bodies of the saints are preserved incorrupt by the power of God. This has always fascinated me.
What does it mean to be incorrupt? Who are the incorruptibles?
From the earliest days of the Church, the bodies of some saints were preserved incorrupt by God, as a sign of His favour, a testimony to the holiness of the person and a promise of the Resurrection to come, the Resurrection of the body which we profess in the Creed. The preservation of some of these is remarkable, a miracle, seeing that in some cases, the clothes have rotted off them or bodies they were buried with have turned to dust but they remain supple and incorrupt and free from decay.
In this post, I'm going to highlight some of the best known incorruptibles.
St. Bernadette Soubirous
St. Bernadette is the great grandmommy of all the incorruptibles and by far, the most famous.
To the amazement of all present, Bernadette appeared exactly as she had been on the day of her death. The body was completely intact and no smell or other trace of corruption was seen on the little body in the coffin. Doctor Jourdan, the surgeon who was present for the exhumation, has left a written record in the Community archives describing what occurred:
"The coffin was opened in the presence of the Bishop of Nevers, the mayors of the town several canons and ourselves. We noticed no smell. The body was clothed in the habit of Bernadette's order. The habit was damp. Only the face, hands and forearms were uncovered. The head was tilted to the left. The face was dull white. The mouth was open slightly and it could be seen that the teeth were still in place. The hands, which were crossed upon the breast, were perfectly preserved, as were the nails. The hands still held a rusting Rosary. The veins on the forearms stood out."
After the identification, the Sisters washed the body and dressed it in a fresh habit. It was then placed in a new coffin lined with white silk, and lowered back into the tomb.
In August 1913, Pope Pius X authorized the introduction of the Cause for Canonization and Bernadette could now be given the title 'Venerable'. This meant that her body had to be exhumed once again. This process was however interrupted by the First World War, and the body wasn’t re-exhumed until April 1919. The process was the same as before - as were the results. The body remained intact.
In November 1923, the Pope announced the authenticity of Bernadette's virtues and her beatification could finally proceed. Consequently, a third exhumation was needed. This time, relics were to be taken from the body and sent to Rome, Lourdes and to Houses of the Sisters of Nevers throughout the world.
On April 18, 1925, this third exhumation took place. Bernadette had then been dead more than forty six years. Yet, her body remained completely incorrupt. Dr. Talon, the surgeon who removed the relics, later wrote a report about this exhumation, for a medical journal, in which he described his amazement at the perfect preservation of the skeleton and the muscles in particular, as well as the liver which - he stated - should have deteriorated entirely very soon after death, and concluded that "this doesn't seem to be a natural phenomenon".
At the exhumation, it was noted that a small portion of the skin on the face had discolored slightly, due probably to the washing the body had received and its exposure to the organisms of the air. Consequently, it was decided to cover the face and hands with light wax masks. The firm of Pierre Imans in Paris was contacted, and they agreed to make the necessary masks.
On June 14, 1925, Pope Pius XI declared Bernadette 'Blessed', which meant that her relics could now be exposed for public veneration. A workshop in Lyons was subsequently commissioned to make a beautiful reliquary of silver, gilt and crystal for the body.
But St. Bernadette is by no means the only incorruptible. Let's look at a more ancient one.
Saint Zita (c. 1212 - 27 April 1272) is the patron saint of maids and domestic servants. She is also appealed to in order to help find lost keys.
She was born in Tuscany, Italy, in the village of Monsagrati, not far from Lucca where, at the age of 12, she became a servant in the Fatinelli household. For a long time, she was unjustly despised, overburdened, reviled, and often beaten by her employers and fellow servants for her hard work and obvious goodness. The incessant ill-usage, however, was powerless to deprive her of her inward peace, her love of those who wronged her, and her respect for her employers. By this meek and humble self-restraint, Zita at last succeeded in overcoming the malice of her fellow-servants and her employers, so much so that she was placed in charge of all the affairs of the house. Her faith had enabled her to persevere against their abuse, and her constant piety gradually moved the family to a religious awakening.
Her body was found entire in 1580 and is kept with great respect in St. Frigidian's church, richly enshrined; her face and hands are exposed naked to view through a crystal glass. Pope Leo X granted an office in her honour. The city of Lucca pays a singular veneration to her memory.
The solemn decree of her beatification was published by Innocent XII in 1696, with the confirmation of her immemorial veneration.
1580! How cool is that? Now, let's look at some familiar faces, some old friends we pray to each day. We'll look at St. John Mary Vianney, the Cure of Ars and patron of parish priests and St. Vincent de Paul, the Apostle of Charity.
St. Vincent de Paul
Returning by sea from a journey to Marseilles in 1605, he was captured by Turkish pirates who took him to Tunis, where he was sold as a slave. Two years later he managed to escape together with his master, a renegade whom he had converted to Christianity.
After returning to France, he served as parish priest near Paris where he founded several organizations to help the poor, nurse the sick, finding jobs for the unemployed, etc.
Vincent de Paul died in Paris in 1660. In 1737 he was canonized by Pope Clement XII.
He was almost eighty years old when he died in Paris, in 1660. His body was found to be incorrupt fifty years after his death.
St. Vincent is called the Apostle of Organized Charity. His remains now rest in a reliquary in the chapel of the Vincentian Fathers in Paris. His still incorrupt heart is enclosed on the altar of his shrine in the motherhouse of the Sisters of Charity in Paris.
St. John Mary Vianney, the Cure of Ars
Jean Marie Baptiste Vianney was born in 1786 as the son of a poor farmer in the village of Dardilly, France. During his childhood he worked as a shepherd and didn't get any education until he was 20 years old.
John had always felt a call to the priesthood. His eventual entry into the seminary, especially the study of Latin, however proved to be very difficult and he twice failed his examination before finally being ordained as a priest in 1815. Thought to be incompetent, John was placed under the direction of another priest in the neighboring village. After the death of this priest in 1818, John was transferred to the remote tiny village of Ars to be the parish priest.
Here he lived a very ascetic life, ate the simplest food, wore old clothing and only slept two hours each night on a hard bed. The number of parishioners grew rapidly, as the word spread that this holy man could see into people's souls. People began coming to him from other parishes, then from all parts of France, and finally from other countries. Throughout France and the Christian world he soon became known as the "Cure d'Ars" (the Cure of Ars).
By the year 1855, Fr. Vianney was hearing as many as 20,000 confessions a year, spending 13 to 16 hours a day in the confessional. His direction was characterized by common sense, remarkable insight, and supernatural knowledge. As the news continued to spread, the sick were brought to Ars and many were miraculously cured.
During 30 years, Fr. Vianney claimed to experience frequent attacks of the devil. Voices, strange noises, threats, furniture being thrown about and many other demonic assaults took place almost every night. Besides all this external suffering, Fr. Vianney had physical ailments such as severe headaches, rheumatism, toothaches, fever and exhaustion.
The heroic self-sacrifice of Fr. Vianney eventually led to his death. At the age of 73 he began to have fainting spells. By the end of July he could no longer rise from his bed. Four days later on August 4, 1859, Fr. Vianney died.
Fr. Vianney was declared Venerable 13 years after his death. In 1904 when his body was exhumed and found to be incorrupt although the flesh had dried up and darkened. To this day the incorrupt body can be seen, encased in glass on a marble Altar, in Ars. In 1905 Fr. Vianney was declared Blessed. And finally in 1925 he became Saint John Marie Vianney.
If the Lord can preserve even mortal flesh from decay, can he not raise us back to life again at the last day? Truly these signs are meant to inspire us to believe in the power of God who had not let decay touch His servants.
Come back tomorrow for part 2.
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