Note: Last year, I relayed a 10 part series on scientifically studied miracles of the modern era. This series was inspired by a conversation I had with Fr. Robert Spitzer, a Jesuit priest and doctor of astrophysics (see Spitzer’s World on EWTN). He said that 93% of those who lose their faith today in America claim that their primary reason for this loss of faith is that they do not believe religion can hold up to the scrutiny of modern science. In other words, faith in science is replacing faith in God for many people. Spitzer’s solution to this modern phenomenon is to challenge Church leaders to make a focused effort to report Church documented miracles that have confounded science in recent decades. In that spirit, I shared a cross section of ten widely studied miracles for your consideration. I included two of the 71 officially recognized miracles associated with the healing shrine of Lourdes, France (wounded soldier John Traynor  and Marie Bailly ). I also included some miracles studied for the canonization of John Paul II, Mother Teresa of Calcutta and televangelist Fulton J. Sheen (Floribeth Diaz of Costa Rico , Sr. Simon-Pierre of France , Monica Besra of India , Marcilio Andrino of Brazil  and baby James Fulton Angstrom of the US ). These miracles all met the highest scrutiny, as they were instantaneous in nature, persisting in outcome and documented in detail with before and after images and data. I also included miracles that were studied over years or even decades and which were witnessed by thousands or even millions of people. These studies covered miraculous physical phenomena, artifacts and events which included the stigmata of Padre Pio of Pietrelcina , the Tilma of Juan Diego Cuahtlatoatzin , the miraculous survival of 8 Jesuit priests at ground zero during the Hiroshima nuclear bombing , and the Miracle of the Sun of Fatima, Portugal as witnessed in 1917 by over 70,000. These stories can be read through our parish website if you follow our bulletin link (About Us – Bulletins – see Aug.12-Oct. 14, 2018). And now, by popular demand, I am bringing back this series “Did I Blow Your Mind” with further awe-inspiring tales of God’s amazing handiwork. Again, as before, feel free to share these stories with others.
Episode 11: The Incorruptibles
Some of God’s miracles involve the intervention of supernatural action, which causes or provides something that should normally not be there under natural circumstances. Think of such examples as the widow’s flour and oil that never run out as long as the prophet Elijah is present in her home (1 Kings 17) or the multiplication of the loaves and fishes by Jesus as he miraculously feeds the multitudes in the New Testament. On other occasions, God’s miracles seem to be marked by the suspension or holding back of a natural action that normally should be present. Such is the case with our next classification of miracle in which decomposition of the body after death simply does not take place over time in the case of a few select individuals. They have come to be known as the “incorruptibles” and they are listed among the canonized saints of the Church. Their ongoing, unnatural preservation constitutes examples of the miraculous that defies all known science.
To better understand what is meant by the term “incorruptible” we are referring to “ a miraculous phenomenon whereby the human body is not subjected to the natural process of decomposition after death, and is suspended from decay either temporarily or permanently through the Divine Will of God. This condition is not dependent upon the manner of burial, the temperature and place of burial or entombment, or any other external influence including embalmment or other preservation methods. There are currently several hundred documented cases of incorruptible persons in the Catholic Church, many of which (but certainly not all) are canonized Saints or Blesseds (Miracles of the Saints).” Normally, shortly after death, usually within 2-6 hours, a condition known as rigor mortis sets in with a corpse, which causes it to stiffen. The medical cause of rigor mortis is depletion of oxygen, which is used in producing adenosine triphosphate or ATP, which separates the actin-myosin cross-bridges that would normally allow for the relaxation of muscles in the human body. In a corpse that lacks this ATP, a stiffness ensues which will eventually hold a body in its death pose unless physical adjustments are made. Even the skin (e.g. facial expressions) holds its position due the stiffened muscular structure underneath. The process of decomposition begins almost immediately as the heart stops pumping blood and oxygen to the extremities and cells begin to die. This happens at different rates according to cell location in the body. For example, as body fluids begin to settle according to the influences of gravity, brain cells begin to die almost immediately. Skin cells start to die in a more delayed fashion after about 24 hrs. Gradually microorganisms/bacteria in the body slowly begin to consume it and, as nature normally takes its course and complete consumption of the body down to the skeletal form will normally take 8-12 years. This process of decomposition is normally what we have come to expect after death. This is what separates the “incorruptibles” from the rest of us. The normal processes of nature do not take place in their case, violating what we have come to know through science. Among this special class of people not even rigor mortis is present. Their skin is free of discoloration and remains pliable to the touch. In other words, it springs back after being probed and remains soft and pliable like that of any living person. Put another way, these individuals are not mummified/dried or preserved under wax coating or in any other way that would naturally explain their bodily condition. Their bodies appear to the eye to be alive.
From a theological point of view, reference has been made to Psalm 16:10, which says, “You will not abandon me to the realm of the dead, nor let your loved one know decay (also Acts 2:27, 13:35, etc.). These passages have been primarily associated of course with Jesus who remained in the tomb for three days only. (Jewish belief at the time was that decomposition/decay began on the 4th day…see Lazarus). Jesus did not know decay and rose from the dead in glorious form but, it seems on the surface at least, that this distinction has also been granted to a few chosen saints who walked as close friends of God as well.
Normally, the Catholic Church is not in the business of disturbing the dead. However, most cases in which the incorruptibles were discovered occurred because the individuals were either beatified or canonized. In such cases, the body would normally be exhumed for reburial in a basilica or other place of honor suitable for the visitation of pilgrims and for public veneration. In such cases, to everyone’s surprise, bodies have been discovered in perfect condition as though the person were simply sleeping. In many cases, the person had been deceased for several centuries at the time of discovery and they were generally not embalmed or entombed in any special way. One such incorruptible saint was St. Charbel Makhlouf (died 1898) whose body was extensively studied by Dr. Elias Elonaissi and Dr. George Choukrallah in Armenia over a period of 17 years without arriving at a satisfactory natural explanation for his perfect preservation. Other well-known saints who have fallen into this special category include St. Bernadette of Lourdes (died 1879), St. John Vianney (died 1859), St. Teresa Margaret (died 1770), St. Vincent De Paul (died 1660), St. John Bosco (died 1888), St. Pope John XXIII (died 1963) and nearly 300 others that we know of so far. Many have undergone testing by scientists and medical professionals. I have personally seen two with my own eyes while visiting the Shrine of the Miraculous Medal in Paris, France (St. Catherine Laboure, and St. Louise de Marillac). For the curious, photos are readily available of many of these “incorruptibles” on the internet for you to see for yourself. They seem to point to our belief in the resurrection of the body and hint toward our hoped for eternal life “because you will not let your beloved…know decay.” Beyond that, both the scientific and the faithful are left to ponder the meaning of the mystery.