"The remarkably preserved state of the body of Pope John XXIII, who died in 1963, is no miracle, the Vatican said on Sunday" stated a March 25 Agence France Presse report.
Likewise, the Vatican Information Service (VIS) never used the words "miraculous" or "incorrupt" regarding the body of John XXIII. The VIS headlined its March 27 story with greater caution: "Body of Blessed John XXIII is Remarkably Well Preserved".
This news followed on the heels of an official report by the Church released in March stating that when the former pope's coffin was opened in January 2001, officials found the pontiff's face to be unchanged from at the time of his death.
"It was as if he died yesterday" said Virgilio Cardinal Noe, who witnessed the opening of the Pontiff's tomb.
Various news sources reported that the body of John XXIII was "incorrupt".
Some recklessly treated it as a supernatural occurrence.
Agence France Presse, however, reported that the Vatican dismissed any suggestion that the state of preservation was the result of divine intervention. "The body is well preserved which needs no comment or hypotheses concerning supernatural causes," said Father Ciro Benedettini.
Some time ago, Pope John Paul II decided that the body of John XXIII , which had previously lain in a Vatican crypt, should be reinterred in St Peter's Basilica in Rome along with other popes to allow people to pray at his tomb.
Pope John XXIII's coffin was opened on January 16 ahead of his remains being transferred to the Basilica. According to church rules, the body of the former pope needed to be identified before his body could be laid to rest on the holy site.
Reportedly, the secret operation to open and move the pope's coffin took a whole day, as church officials had to remove the lid to a marble sarcophagus before they were able to get to the pope's triple lined coffin.
AFP reported that according to experts, the remarkable condition of the pope's body, 37 years after his death, is not unusual.
"It's more common than you might think. The body of the Holy Father was well protected. Oxygen couldn't get into the coffin and any in there would have been used up very quickly," explained Vincenzo Pascali, from the University of Rome.
"They used materials like lead and zinc which oxidise and slow the decomposition process," he added.
Perhaps it all depends on how one defines "embalm", but there appears to be conflicting reports on how the body of John XXIII was preserved.
The March 26 London Times, said that the Popes are not embalmed, but their bodies are treated with formalin. Likewise, Zenit news reported that when John XXIII died on June 3, 1963, "the technicians of the Institute of Legal Medicine of Rome injected formaldehyde into his body, to allow the body's exposition for the faithful, before its burial. The practice has been applied to the Popes who have died since the mid-20th century."
The New York Daily News, however, in a March 29 article entitled, "Morticians Explain Why Pope's Body is Preserved" quoted funeral experts who said that the incident surrounding John XXIII "is the result of first-class embalming and luck."
"He was embalmed right away, it was done by doctors, nothing but the best, and he was placed in the perfect place, the Catacombs," said funeral director Joseph Watts of the Frank E. Campbell Funeral Chapel, who handled John Cardinal O'Connor's burial last year.
Watts, the spokesman for the Metropolitan Funeral Directors Association, and other experts said the preservation of the body was probably the result of a number of factors.
The embalming fluid was formaldehyde-based with other chemicals, "a very solid preservative for him," Watts said. "He was also in a triple-seal casket – a casket, an outer case, a nether outer case of cypress wood – and that was in a marble crypt," said Watts, who has visited the tomb. "There was no water or anything that could disintegrate [the body]."
Embalmers inject chemical fluids to preserve the body, said the Daily News. If the process is properly done, only airborne bacteria and molds can attack an embalmed body.
The experts explain that damp precipitates decay, and that dry air and warm temperatures fight mold better than cold.
"Moisture will cause a mold," said Dominick Dasaro of Metropolitan Funeral Service in Manhattan, which ships worldwide and is an expert in overseas and Italian embalming. "The catacomb area the Pope is placed in, "said Dasaro, "is dry and tight," similar to optimum conditions in the catacombs beneath St. Patrick's Cathedral.
Traditionally, the Catholic Church does not declare an occurrence miraculous until every natural explanation is exhausted.
May 2, 2001