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There's A Good Reason Why Benedict's Not An Organ Donor

Papal Remains

First Posted: 02/09/11 06:27 PM ET Updated: 05/25/11 07:30 PM ET

By Francis X. Rocca
Religion News Service

VATICAN CITY (RNS) When Vatican officials announced last week that Pope Benedict XVI's 2005 election rendered his organ donor card null and void, they offered no specific reason for the change.

The curious history of papal body parts, however, offers some clues.

"A decision of a personal character made when (Benedict) was a private citizen is no longer operative now that he is the head of the Catholic Church," said the Vatican's top spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi.

Lombardi also called the idea of transplanting the organs of a man who is already almost 84 "a little surreal."

Lombardi dismissed reports that the church preserves a dead pope's body in order to supply holy relics in case he's declared a saint. But Archbishop Zygmunt Zimowski, head of the Vatican's health care office, told an Italian newspaper that one reason to keep papal remains intact would be for "possible future veneration."

Since Benedict's five predecessors are now under formal consideration for sainthood, it's not a huge stretch to see Benedict -- still alive and kicking -- as a possible saint-in-waiting.

And where there's a saint, there are often bodily relics to be venerated by the faithful. Generally speaking -- at least in modern times -- the church prefers the relics all be in one place.

Pope John Paul II, who will be beatified on May 1, is drawing as much attention in death as he did in life. A vial of his blood, taken during a medical examination during his last days, will be placed in the altar of a church near Krakow, Poland, later this year.

John Paul's tomb in the grottoes under St. Peter's Basilica boosted pilgrim traffic from just a few hundred to as many as 18,000 per day. To accommodate the even bigger crowds anticipated once John Paul is beatified, the Vatican is moving his body to a more accessible chapel upstairs in the Basilica itself.

The body of Pope John XXIII, who died in 1963 and like John Paul is also one step away from sainthood, was placed in a glass coffin and moved upstairs in 2001; his (intact) embalmed body was found to be "incorrupt," or free from decay.

The burial place of the martyred St. Peter, traditionally considered the first pope, determined the site of the basilica that bears his name. In 1968, Pope Paul VI announced that the bones of a man found buried under the basilica were in fact Peter's.

The most perverse tribute to the importance of papal remains came in the ninth century, when a successor of Pope Formosus (891-896) exhumed his nine-months-dead body and put it on trial for perjury and other crimes.

As Notre Dame scholar Richard P. McBrien recounts in Lives of the Popes, Formosus' cadaver was "propped up on a throne in full pontifical vestments" for the trial, and after his conviction, "three fingers of his right hand (by which he swore oaths and gave blessings) were cut off."

His body was thrown into the Tiber River, but recovered by a hermit and eventually reburied with honors by a later pope.

Most pontiffs, of course, have been allowed to rest in peace, under more or less grand monuments to their honor. The most famous artistic byproduct of this custom was Michelangelo's great statue of Moses, which he sculpted for the tomb of his patron Pope Julius II (1503-1513). The tomb was never finished, but the statue sits today in Rome's Church of
St. Peter in Chains.

Papal funeral traditions have required special arrangements for the disposition of their bodies. Because of a customary nine-day mourning period before burial, the hearts and other fast-decaying internal organs of almost all the popes from Sixtus V (1585-1590) to Leo XIII (1878-1903) were removed before embalming.

The hearts were placed in Rome's Church of Ss. Vincent and Anastasius, where they remain today. The rest of those popes -- their bodies, that is -- are scattered across various churches in Rome.

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Filed by Josh Fleet  |