Dear Father Angelo,
the bodies of San Padre Pio and Saint Leopold were recently transported to Rome at the behest of the Holy Father. This event, which received a lot of publicity in the media, left me confused and disoriented.
Why does the Church allow, or rather promote, the exposition of corpses or sometimes parts of corpses for veneration? Let me be clear: I understand the importance of the cult of the Saints and even relics, but wouldn’t it be the same if we buried the dead and let the faithful pray on their tombs? Folkloristic traditions aside, is it barbarism to leave the bodies exposed and, oftentimes, even mutilated (I’m thinking about the body of Saint Catherine of Siena) in order to allow them to be venerated in different parts of the world?
I’ll be honest, this form of worship leaves me dumbfounded and I find it extremely difficult to comprehend.
1. I agree with you that the exposure of corpses isn’t pleasant.
But the exposure of the bodies of the Saints, especially if they are uncorrupted, isn’t the same as the exposure of a corpse.
People flooded Saint Peter’s Square not to see corpses, but to meet Padre Pio and Father Leopold.
The bodies of these saints radiate something that normal corpses don’t.
God is active through these bodies, which will one day rise up again and be full of His power and His glory, in the same way He was active through them when they were alive.
2. Since God keeps giving signs and operating miracles through their bodies in order to fortify the faith of the Christian people and He keeps using them to show an example of a life well lived, why shouldn’t people grow fond of the mortal spoils of a Saint?
We read in Acts that, when the people found out that Paul was leaving Ephesus for good and would never be back, they brought face cloths and tissues, touched them to Paul’s body and then applied them to the sick who recovered and the evil spirts left them.
“So extraordinary were the mighty deeds God accomplished at the hands of Paul that when face cloths or aprons that touched his skin were applied to the sick, their diseases left them and the evil spirits came out of them (Acts 19:11-12).
3. I would like to recall what happened when the skeletal body of Saint Dominic was exhumed.
Blessed Jordan of Saxony, his first successor, who had previously been a professor at the University of Paris, testifies to what happened:
“The venerable archbishop and a host of bishops and prelates are present. The devotion of numberless people from many regions is expressed. The armed troops are on hand so as not to lose the protection of this hallowed body. But the brethren are uneasy and fearful; they pray anxiously, “they have trembled for fear, where there was no fear.” Perhaps the body of St. Dominic, so long a prey to rain and heat in its paltry tomb, will be swarming with vermin; perhaps its horrid stench will offend the populace and arrest their devotion to him. Not knowing what to do, they had only the recourse of abandoning themselves entirely to God. The bishops approach the tomb and the workmen take out their tools. They first remove the stone embedded in the hard cement covering the tomb. They then dig up the wooden box in which the venerable Pope Gregory, as bishop of Ostia, has buried the sacred body. From a small opening in the box a marvelous odor issues forth as soon as the stone is removed. The bystanders are struck by its fragrance, but are unable to tell what it is. The lid is removed from the box and lo! a storehouse of perfumes, a paradise of fragrances, a garden of roses, a field of lilies and violets, a hillside of sweet flowers could not match what filled the air. When the wagons make the rounds of Bologna, the city reeks with stench; but when the tomb of glorious Dominic is opened, the air is purified by a fragrance surpassing the sweetness of all aromas. The bystanders are overcome and fall in fear to the ground. Tears inspired by God mingle with feelings of joy; fear and hope arise on the battlefield of the soul and wage marvelous war, as the fragrance continues to spread its sweetness. We were among the many who perceived the sweetness of this odor, and what we saw and sensed we are here describing. And, although we stood for a long time near the body of the Lord’s herald, St. Dominic, we never grew tired of its fragrance. It was a fragrance which dispelled weariness, aroused devotion, and produced marvels. If a hand, a cincture, or anything else touched the body, it acquired an odor which lingered for some time. The body was transferred to a marble monument to be enclosed there within its own fragrance. This remarkable odor emanated from the holy body so that all could understand what a good odor of Christ rested there. The Solemn Mass was celebrated by the Archbishop. Since it was the third day of Pentecost, the Introit sung by the choir was “Receive the joy of your glory.” In their joy, the brethren took these word as sounding from heaven. Trumpets blare and the countless multitude raise their candles. As they march in procession, “Blessed be Jesus Christ” is heard everywhere. This event took place in the city of Bologna on March 24, 1233, in the sixth year of the cycle, Gregory IX being Pope and Frederick II, Emperor.” (The Libellus of Jordan of Saxony, 127-129).
4. Something similar happened in Rome. The presence of the bodies of those two Saints dispelled weariness, aroused devotion, and produced marvels in those who came to see them.
We can only say: fortunate those who experienced it.
People – from every background – rushed there and were happy to have done so.
The papers spoke of miracles that happened at the passing of Father Leopold.
Those were certainly days of grace.
I thank you for having inspired me to write these things.
I recommend you to the Lord and bless you.
28 February 2017 | A Priest Answers – Liturgy and Pastoral – Liturgical Section