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Catholicism, sainthood, and incorruptibility

by | Jul 29, 2016 | For Families

The inside of a Catholic church

There are nearly 900 different saints, though we’re usually more familiar with a handful — like the namesake of the Catholic school down the street, or the saint we share a name with.

Generally, a saint is a person who is recognized as having an exceptional degree of holiness or likeness to God. Saints are recognized by many different religions, but Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox Catholics have one distinction to their belief in saints — incorruptibility.

Incorruptibility is the belief that divine intervention allows some bodies, specifically saints and beati, to avoid the normal process of decomposition. But incorruptibility in a religious sense is more than just mummification — in fact, some instances of incorruptibility of saints have occurred even in the presence of factors which normally hasten decomposition.

Examples of Incorruptible Saints

Saint Catherine of Genoa, the patroness of the hospitals in Italy, is one such example of an incorruptible saint. Her body, exhumed 18 months after her death, was perfectly intact despite her burial shroud being damp and decayed.

Another example is Saint Francis Xavier, patron of all foreign missions. His body was incorrupt despite being initially buried on a beach at Shangchuan Island in China and later moved to St. Paul’s church in Portugese Malacca.

What it Means to be Incorrupt

Believe it or not, incorrupt does not necessarily mean intact. There have been many saints that have been considered as incorrupt just for being flexible, or for having a body part that did not decay. Saint Anthony of Padua’s tongue is on display to this day.

And incorrupt also does not mean that the corpse of a saint has not been treated — many who are considered incorrupt have been preserved, but they are still considered incorrupt because they weren’t preserved but still in good shape when they were first exhumed. Saint Paula Frassinetti is one such example — her body has been treated with carbolic acid.

The Significance of Incorruption

So what exactly is the significance of being incorrupt? Well, for a long time it was considered a miracle, and the church greatly favored those who were incorrupt when it came to deciding if a person should be a saint or not.

But in modern times, though still considered a favorable sign, incorruptibility does not greatly affect a person’s chances at becoming a saint. This is a decision made partially due to the fact that there was no strict definition for who could be considered incorrupt or not, and the saints considered incorrupt today have all kinds of variations among them.

Interested in seeing incorruptibility up close and personal? Many of these saints (or their tongues) are on display for the world to see, either via a visit in person or this online gallery of photos.


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