The incorruptible bodies of the Saints
The incorruptibility of the Saints is 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.
A recent case of incorruption in a modern day Saint is perhaps the best example for the reader of these lines, as the circumstances surrounding it were documented using modern methods and tests.
St. Charbel Makhlouf (sometimes spelled Sharbel) was born in 1828 in Biqa-Kafra in the high mountains of Northern Lebanon and was given the name of Joseph by his humble farming parents, and was the youngest of five children. From his early childhood he displayed from a strong attraction to prayer and solitude. Despite the displeasure of his family he left home at the age of 23 to join the Leb¬anese Catholic Maronite Order. He was sent to the Monastery of St. Maroun where he pronounced his Vows in 1853 after two years of novitiate. The name he was given, Charbel, was that of a martyr of the Christian faith who died in AD.121.
Having received a thorough theological education in a seminary of the order, he was ordained a priest on July 23, 1859 and was reassigned to the Monastery of St. Maroun, Lebanon, where he spent the next 16 years as a monk in the practice of monastic virtues. In 1875 he received permission from his superiors to live a solitary life a short distance from the monastery in a hermitage named after Ss. Peter and Paul, which was used by priests during days of quiet personal retreat. In this secluded sanctuary he spent the remaining 23 years of his life in sacrifice and bodily mortifications.
The hermitage cabin was very basic shelter, and his existence there was full of hardships. Additionally, it is recorded by his companions that he wore both a hair shirt and a chain belt. His bed was composed of oak leaves covered with a palliasse; his pillow was merely a piece of wood rolled up in the end of a soutane. His prie-dieu was a cluster of sticks covered in the same way by a piece of a soutane.
St. Charbel was most noted for his extraordinary devotion to the Holy Eucharist.
His daily Mass was celebrated at about 11:00 each morning so that the morning hours could be spent in preparation for the Mass and the rest of the day was spent in thanksgiving. He is known to have performed several miracles during his life. He once saved his brothers from a poisonous snake by ordering it to vanish; he recited his Divine Office by the light of a lamp which a brother purposely filled with water instead of oil; he cured a madman by reciting a prayer while imposing his hands upon him; and once, on the orders of his superiors, he saved their farming lands from a scourge of grasshoppers by sprinkling the fields with holy water.
In 1898, on December 16, while at the Elevation of the Host during Mass, he suffered an apoplectic stroke from which he never recovered. Eight days later, on Christmas Eve, at the age of 70, the saint died, having been a priest for 39 years. According to monastic tradition, the body was not embalmed, but was dressed in a simple cassock and was placed in the monastery chapel for 24 hours. The body was then conveyed to the monks' burial chamber in the presence of his confreres and village folk who had braved the snow and cold to witness the interment.
The burial chamber consisted of a large subterranean room located partially beneath the high altar of the chapel and extending eastward to an area beneath the monastery garden. Those who descended into this chamber found the ground covered with rainwater that converted the floor into a veritable swamp. In view of this situation the body was not laid on the ground as was customary, but was placed on two planks which did not prevent the water and mud from encroaching upon and subsequently submerging it. The entrance to the vault was closed with a great stone.
The villagers who lived in houses facing the monastery saw a great light over the tomb the night following the burial, a phenomenon that recurred for 45 nights. This apparition of light, together with the enthusiasm of the Faithful, encouraged the ecclesiastical authorities to open the tomb and transfer the remains to a grave more accessible to the villagers who wished to pray beside it.
The tomb was subsequently opened on April 15, 1899 in the presence of the community and 10 witnesses who had been present at the burial four months earlier. They were unanimous in testifying that the water had undermined the burial ground, turning the tomb into a quagmire, and that the monk's body was actually floating on the mud.
When the body was cleaned it was found perfectly incorrupt, the muscles supple, with the hair of his head and beard intact. At this time it was also noticed that a serum mixed with blood seeped from the pores. They placed the body in a wooden coffin that was glassed on top, and carried it into a small monastic oratory. From then on, because of the great amount of blood seeping from the body, the clothing of the saint was changed twice weekly. News of the phenomenon prompted ever in-creasing numbers of visitors who for 27 years were permitted to view and touch the body.
Among the men of medicine who examined the body was Dr. Elias Elonaissi who declared on November 16, 1921:
"I observed that the pores emitted a matter like sweat; a strange and inexplicable thing according to the laws of nature, for this body that has been dead for so many years. I have renewed the same examination many times, at different periods; the phenomenon has always been the same."
Another physician, Dr. George Choukrallah, examined the body a total of 24 times during 17 years and declared:
"I have always been astonished at its state of preservation and especially this reddish liquid exuded by it. .. My personal opinion based on study and experience, is that this body is preserved by a supernatural power."
The phenomenon is more astounding when one considers that in 1918, following a simple autopsy, the body was exposed on the terrace during the heat of summer for three months without initiating decomposition nor drying the source of the fluid.
When the authorities of the order petitioned Rome for the beatification, a solemn reburial was conducted. After being dressed in sacerdotal vestments and the monastic hood the body was placed in a new coffin of wood covered with zinc. Various documents were composed by physicians, a notary and superiors of the order, and were placed in a zinc tube which was placed beside the body before the coffin was sealed with the Episcopal crest. Burial was in a new tomb specially prepared in the wall of an oratory.
During February of the Holy Year 1950, pilgrims in the chapel noticed that a watery fluid streamed from a corner of the tomb and coursed its way onto the floor of the chapel. The fluid was traced to a corner of the casket where the liquid was seen dripping through a small crack. Twenty-three years after being placed in this tomb, the body was again examined in the presence of numerous authorities and was found completely free of any trace of corruption and was perfectly flexible and lifelike.
The sweat of liquid and blood continued to exude from the body, and the garments were found stained with blood, the white content of the fluid having collected on the body in an almost solidified condition. Part of the chasuble had rotted and the zinc tube containing the official documents was covered with corrosion. The remains were later en-tombed in the same location.
The holy monk was beatified December 6, 1965 and was canonized by Pope Paul VI on October 9,1977, a day on which several miraculous cures took place at the new saint's shrine. Since the 1950 examination and especially since the beatification and canonization the number of pilgrims to the shrine has been so great as to be inestimable.
For 67 years the remains of the saint remained perfectly preserved and exuded a blood fluid described by all accounts as being supernaturally sustained and preserved of any corruption, but the body was found at the time of the beatification in 1965 to have complied with the laws of nature. Only bones were found and these of an inexplicable reddish color and during this time the flow of the fluid had ceased.
Still in existence is the poor stone house of the saint's birth, his hermit's cell which has been turned into a shrine, the altar on which he offered his last Mass, and many small articles such as his chalice, crucifix, crude table utensils and bowls.
Miracles through the intercession of Saint Charbel
Many well-authenticated miracles have been performed at the shrine. After the exhumation of 1950, the monastery began keeping records of the miracles and with in a two-year period had collected over twelve hundred reports.
Two of the cures acknowledged as being miraculous and accepted by Pope Paul VI as the required miracles for the beatification occurred during 1950. The first involved Sr. Maria Abel Kawary, S.S.C.C., who suffered for fourteen years from a gastric ulcer which neither surgery nor medication could cure or relieve. Unable to eat and compelled to stay in bed, she was in such grave condition that she was given the Last Rites of the Church three different times. After fervent prayers at the tomb of St. Charbel, she was completely and spontaneously cured. The doctor who examined the nun after the miraculous cure recorded it as "a supernatural happening which is beyond man's power to explain."
The second miracle accepted by the Sacred Congregation occurred to Mr. Alessandro Obeid, who was blinded when the retina of his eye was torn when it was struck by the branch of a tree. His sight was miraculously restored at the tomb, and he was privileged to see his heavenly benefactor in a vision. The physician who had treated Mr. Obeid during his blindness and who examined the effects of the miracle attributed the cure to an "Almighty Will which operated only by divine grace. There is no other explanation and it is certain that we have seriously sought an explanation without finding one."
Probably the most startling and frequently mentioned miracle involved a fifty-year-old seamstress, Miss Mountaha Daher of Bekassin, Lebanon. Since childhood she had been the object of ridicule because of a disfiguring hunchback, which several doctors could not reduce. Her cure was obtained after a visit to the tomb, during which she prayed not for herself, but for certain needy relatives. Her physician testified that he had examined her many times before the cure and declared that besides the deformity of the huge hump she had other deformities, including a "chicken-breast" and misshapen shoulders. The figure of the woman after the cure was of normal proportions.
“A Miraculous Star in the East, Charbel Makhlouf”, Paul Daher, Lebanese Maronite Monastery of Annaya-Djebeil, Lebanon, 1952.
-“The Incorruptibles” by Joan Carroll Cruz, 1977, Tan books and publishers.