By Theresa Potenza | Nypost
Pope John XXIII, mummified and on display, will be declared a saint next month. Photo AP
Inspired by Ancient Egypt, the Vatican embarked on a 40-year quest to preserve the remains of its holy adherents — including one of its latest saints, Pope John XXIII
The spiritual making of a saint is rooted in law, bureaucracy and, of course, faith. The physical making of a saint is something else entirely. On April 27, popes John XXIII and John Paul II will be granted sainthood by Pope Francis. It will be a day to honor two of the Catholic Church’s most popular leaders, the “Good Pope” who served only five years, and the superstar who toured the world and spoke out against communism, becoming the second-longest-serving pope in history.
It’s also an opportunity to display to the world what has become a tourist attraction under the Vatican: the body of John XXIII, perfectly preserved since his death in 1963, entombed in a glass coffin.
The pope’s body is the most prominent example of a four-decade experiment by the Church to sustain its holy relics. With Ancient Egypt’s mummification process as inspiration, the Vatican had an elite team of embalmers preserve 31 “saints, beatified, and servants of God” between 1975 and 2008.
The work, which tragically proved fatal to many of those who worked on it, is a bridge between heaven and earth. “The bodies and body parts of these holy individuals,” says one embalmer, “kept like a work of art.”
The Catholic belief of “incorruptibility” holds that if a body does not decay after death, the person is holy. It takes two miracles to become a saint; the Church once allowed a perfect corpse to count as one.
Incorruptibility is no longer a miracle, however, perhaps because so many tried to help God along. Oil and herbs were inserted into the muscle cavities of some older popes, for instance.
When Pope Pius XII died in 1958, the Vatican used a wrapping technique similar to what was believed to have been applied to Jesus. It failed miserably. Only days after his death, his nose fell off, and a Swiss Guard fainted due to the stench while he was guarding the body.
Pope John XXIII followed the reign of Pope Pius XII. After his death, John was treated with a simple formalin solution and placed in an airtight, layered coffin. It worked remarkably well — though the Church wouldn’t find that out until decades later.
But the Vatican has bigger problems then the bodies of popes. Across the world, the hands, heads and feet of saints are venerated — an extension of the idea of the Incarnation. Just as God became man in Jesus, so the holiness of his greatest followers adheres in the matter which made up their bodies. All these relics face the dangers of decomposition.
In 1975, Monsignor Gianfranco Nolli, the director of the Vatican’s Egyptian Museum, had an inspiration. After examining the excellent state of 4,000-year-old Egyptian mummies, he believed the Church could advance their treatments of popes and saints for the same effect.
The Vatican put together a team of researchers, which worked to update and improve the mummification process. Medical surgeons, pathologists, radiologists, anthropologists and microbiologists came up with a conservation treatment and began treating the newly deceased to bodies and body parts dating back as far as the 3rd century.
Savior of Saints
The team was called by many congregations to treat bodies of saints that had not previously been embalmed at the time of death and were later found in a state of decay.
Such was the case with the body of St. Clare of Assisi, who died in the 13th Century and was found by the nuns working there in 1987 in a casket full of moths.
Clare, one of the first followers of Saint Francis of Assisi, founded the Order of Poor Ladies, nuns who tended to the impoverished; today they are known as the Poor Clares.
She had been treated with primitive methods when she died in 1253, with some herbs inserted into her muscles and wrapped in cotton. The cotton proved to be damaging, leaving the casket damp and inviting insects. For that reason, most holy people are now wrapped in linen.
The conservation team bathed the saint’s bone fragments in a series of solutions for months at a time to render her immune to parasites.
The team also was called to treat the foot of St. Teresa of Avila, a famous nun for her visions of Jesus and her devotion to the poor in Spain. Her followers were called “discalced,” or shoeless for their habit of wearing simple sandals, not shoes.
St. Teresa, who died in 1582, is an example of how obsessed earlier Catholics were with relics of the flesh. After her death, a priest cut off her left hand, from which he took a finger, wearing it around his neck for the rest of his life.
Followers later removed her heart, right arm, right foot and a piece of jaw to display as relics in various sites.
Much of her ended up in Rome. But in 1984, the church she was displayed in was robbed; the glass case containing her relics was shattered and her foot was stolen. It was returned days later wrapped in a communist newspaper.
The embalming team chemically treated the foot and placed it back in the reliquary, perhaps giving St. Teresa a bit of peace.
In sacristies and other back rooms of churches, the team was sometimes given a pile of bones that they had to reconstruct before the sterilization process began. The scientific process was of course not without a bit of bureaucracy. In front of the body upon the opening of each casket they had to swear and sign an affidavit in the presence of the local bishop and a lawyer that they would not ruin or destroy the sacred body.
Even so, the process was sometimes remarkably casual. At times, team members stored relics in their own homes. One doctor assigned to treat the body of St. Fernando III King of Spain who died in 1252, transported his sacred vestments to Rome and brought them to the local dry cleaner.
That said, an embalmer who worked on the project says it truly was God’s work. She says sometimes the deceased helped them in their work, sending them messages.
Her most memorable job was embalming St. Don Luigi Orione, an Italian priest known for his work with the poor and orphans. She tried to change his shoes as she prepared his body for burial — but every time she left the body alone, the new shoes mysteriously had been removed and replaced with his old poor man’s shoes.
Preserving a Pope
The team’s most important task was Pope John XXIII. The pope, popular for his jovial nature, was considered pivotal because of his convening of the Second Vatican Council in 1962, which modernized the mass, bringing in contemporary music and local languages instead of Latin.
After his death, he was credited for curing an Italian nun, who prayed to him when she developed a stomach tumor. Her healing, with no medical explanation, was his first miracle.
In 2000, Pope John Paul II had him exhumed to be declared “blessed,” part of the progression to sainthood. The airtight coffin had left him virtually undisturbed, and the embalming team wanted to keep it that way.
After the pope’s internal organs were removed and analyzed, the body was placed in a stainless-steel tub for several weeks in a solution of formalin and alcohol, then neutralized for several weeks.
His body then undertook a series of baths in assorted solutions for months at a time, including various mixtures of ethanol, methanol, phenol, camphor, nitrobenzene, turpentine and benzoic acid.
Finally the body was bandaged in linen cloths saturated with a solution of mercury bichloride and ethanol. Then a second team ensconced him with wax on his face and hands. The entire process took about a year.
The Church decided not to rebury Pope John XXIII, instead putting him on display for pilgrims. More than 25,000 people visit St. Peter’s Basilica every day, and many faithful still believe the incorrupt state of his body is a miracle.
The Congregation for the Causes of Saints, a legal body inside the Vatican that analyzes witness accounts and oversees the legal measures required for sainthood, failed to recognize the pope’s bodily condition as a miracle — perhaps because the airtight container does not count as an act of God.
But Pope Francis waived the second miracle requirement, believing that John’s good works were reason enough.
The embalming team risked their own lives to treat the dead.
Shockingly, there is only one survivor from the original team, the others having died of various tumors and cancers, likely side effects of the toxic chemicals expended during their work. Nobody is currently willing to assume their task due to the peril.
The team’s last job was performed in 2008, preparing the body of Pier Giorgio Frassati, an Italian senator and benefactor for various charities. There are a number of boys’ homes named after him in Australia, so Pope Benedict XVI wanted the body transported to Sydney during his visit there for World Youth Day.
But no other pope besides Pope John XXIII has been mummified. Before his death in 2005, Pope John Paul II made the decision not to have his body chemically treated and was buried as popes have been since the 1960s — left with all his organs and placed inside a vacuumed casket and rubbed with formalin.
While the state of Pope John Paul II’s body will remain a mystery, posthumously he has performed two miracles concerning medical cures of two separate women the Church says, making him technically eligible for sainthood.
The contrast in the conditions of the physical bodies of these two divergent popes, one appearing like a pristine wax statue and the other privately concealed in his natural decay, can be no better an example of their differing policies — the liberal Pope John XXIII, and the traditional John Paul II.
Both will be placed side by side in a ceremony the Sunday after Easter, and are expected to draw 5 million people to Rome — a union of science and faith.
Theresa Potenza is a tour guide and freelance writer based in Rome. You can follow her at Italy With Theresa.
The 31 bodies and body parts of saints and other holy people the mummification team from the Vatican worked on from 1975-2008 — including one that rests in New York City.
St. Alphius’ heart (c. 3rd century) — One of three Italian brothers who were martyred for their faith. They are celebrated on the Feast of the Three Saints.
Remaining bones of St. Saturninus (c. 4th century) — An apostle to the Gauls (modern day France), he was put to death by being dragged by a bull.
St. Ubaldo of Gubbio (1160) — Medieval Italian bishop. His body is kept in a glass casket in his hometown and venerated.
St. Fernando III, King of Castile (1252) — Crusaded for Christianity throughout Spain; his body is on display in Seville.
St. Clare of Assisi (1253) — Founder of the “Poor Clares” order of nuns; her body is displayed in an Assisi church.
Remaining bones of St. Agnes of Assisi (1260) — Younger sister of Saint Clare.
St. Margaret of Cortona (1297) — Champion of the poor, the nun’s body is on display in Cortona.
María Fernández Coronel (1409) — The “Lady in Blue” claimed she visited the Americas in spirit form, converting Native Americans in Texas, while her body remained in Spain. Her body is still in Spain, on display in Ágreda.
Margaret of Savoy (1464) — A Dominican sister who founded a convent, where she rests in a tomb.
Battista of Florence (1510) — Monk whose body was uncorrupted but later attacked by vandals; he was brought to Rome for repair.
Foot of St. Teresa of Ávila (1582) — Known for her devotion to the poor and her visions of Jesus; many parts of her were removed by followers after her death, which are venerated at different churches.
St. John of the Cross (1591) — A reformer in Spain, he was dismembered in death so that his legs and arms could be worshipped in various places.
Heart of St. Camillus de Lellis (1614) — Dedicated to the sick, he is the patron saint of hospitals. His relics are on display in Rome.
John of Jesus Mary (1615) — Worked with St. Teresa and St. John of the Cross for the “discalced,” or shoeless, orders of nuns and friars who took vows of poverty.
St. Leonard of Port Maurice (1751) — Missionary; his body is venerated at St. Bonaventure in Rome.
St. Frances Cabrini (1917) — Sent to New York to help Italian immigrants, she was first US citizen to be canonized. Her body is now enshrined under glass in the chapel at Mother Cabrini High School in Washington Heights. Her head, however, was removed and is in Rome; the head on the New York body is wax.
Savina Petrilli (1923) — Founded an order of the Sisters of the Poor in Siena; she is entombed there.
Pier Giorgio Frassati (1925) — Italian senator and social reformer. His body is on display in Turin.
Mother Clara Maria of Jesus Quiros (1928) — Nun in El Salvador.
Aristide Leonori (1928) — Italian architect of churches.
St. Angela of the Cross (1932) — Known as “Mother of the Poor,” founded Sisters of the Company of the Cross in Spain. She’s entombed at a Seville convent.
Antonia Mesina (1935) — Italian martyr of virtue and purity; the devout Catholic she was 15 when she was killed by a man trying to rape her.
St. Ursula Ledóchowska (1939) —Polish nun; her body is in a Pniewy, Poland convent.
Gabriella Sagheddu (1939) — Italian nun known for her devotion to Christ. Her body is in a monastery near Viterbo.
St. Don Luigi Orione (1940) — Founder of religious institutes for men. His body is displayed in Tortona, Italy.
Luigi (1951) and Maria Quattrocchi (1965) — First couple to be beautified together, they were organizers of many Catholic organizations. They are buried in a crypt.
Father Felix Cappello (1962) — Longtime teacher at Rome’s Gregorian University.
Pope John XXIII (1963) — Pope who convened the Second Vatican Council; he was exhumed in 2000, mummified and put on display under St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome.
St. Pio da Pietreicina (1968) — Italian priest who was inflicted with stigmata (the five wounds of Christ) while praying. His body, which does not display stigmata in death, was on display in a church but has been moved to a crypt.
Cardinal Josyf Slipyj (1984) — Ukrainian anti-communist reformer; he died in Rome, but after the fall of the Soviet Union, his body was sent to Lviv for display.