Display of Love for John XXIII


As tens of thousands of faithful applauded and blew kisses, the newly exhumed and mummified corpse of Pope John XXIII, wearing a lifelike wax mask, rolled through St. Peter's Square in a glass casket Sunday and went on permanent display inside Christendom's largest church.

The ceremony, exactly 38 years after his death, marked a renewal of the ancient Roman Catholic practice of venerating holy role models by digging up and displaying their remains. It was also a sign of popular and Vatican enthusiasm for the idea of promoting John XXIII to sainthood.

At an outdoor Mass, Pope John Paul II bowed toward the bronze-trimmed, bulletproof casket as it rested near the altar.

"The most precious gift left by Pope John was himself--that is to say, his testimony of holiness," the pontiff said in homage to one of his most beloved predecessors in modern times.

Sixteen Vatican ushers in white gloves and gray tuxedos later wheeled the casket into St. Peter's Basilica to the roped-off Altar of Confessions, followed by a horde of worshipers who inched past the body for seven hours. Many hoisted young children or video cameras over the heads of those in front. A few wept silently.

John XXIII lay on a red damask-covered mattress, his head propped on a pillow. He wore a white lace cassock, a red velvet cape, a red hat trimmed with ermine and red shoes embroidered with gold. His hands were folded in prayer and, like his face, were covered by a layer of wax.

"The corpse is perfectly mummified," said Nazareno Gabrielli, the Vatican chemist who re-embalmed it using an undisclosed formula over the past five months. But the sculpted, flesh-colored mask was needed, he said, because the face has lost too much fat and no longer resembles that of the jowly pontiff.

The quality of this handiwork was in the eye of the beholder. Some worshipers, not knowing of the mask, thought they were looking at the pope's wrinkled face and familiar beaked nose. Others were not impressed.

"It made me think of Madame Tussaud's" wax museum, said Dr. Gennaro Goglia, who embalmed the pope immediately after his death in 1963.

Regardless, John XXIII is now clearly the star attraction among the 148 pontiffs buried in St. Peter's. The other one whose remains are visible, Saint Pius X (1835-1914), wears a mask sculpted from silver.

Public veneration of corpses and body parts of holy men and women has been a controversial but enduring feature of Catholicism since its earliest days, often opposed on the ground that such reverence should be given to God alone. Several Vatican officials said privately that they found the display distasteful and questioned whether the late pontiff would have approved.

But John Paul II has promoted such forms of devotion, and Sunday's worshipers said they were eager to see the body of "the good pope," as John XXIII was widely known.

"He also wanted to see us," said Teresa Garaffa, a Roman in her 60s, crossing herself as she approached. "He loves us all--children and elders, innocent and guilty."

The good-humored son of a poor Italian farmer, John XXIII was born Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli and became one of the most liberal popes. During his five-year reign, he convened the reformist Second Vatican Council, which helped reconcile traditional Catholic teachings with contemporary society.

He was popular outside the church as a man of peace and the first pope to repudiate the teaching that Jews were responsible for the death of Jesus--an idea at the root of anti-Semitism among Christians. When he died of stomach cancer at age 81, Italians mourned as deeply as Americans did when President Kennedy was slain five months later.

The idea of displaying his body arose after his beatification in September. Beatification is the penultimate step on the church's route to sainthood, and the honor inspired a growing influx of visitors to his tomb in a grotto under the basilica.

Exhuming the remains in January, Vatican officials declared them extremely well-preserved and suitable for public viewing.

In an ensuing debate over the meaning of this discovery, Cardinal Angelo Sodano, the Vatican secretary of state, suggested a miracle.

"When the body of a blessed person is discovered to be uncorrupted . . . it is a confirmation of sanctity," declared Vittorio Messori, a popular Italian Catholic author.

Other Vatican officials credited the work of Goglia, now 78, who injected the pope with a formaldehyde solution to prevent decay during the wake, along with the fact that the corpse was enclosed in three caskets--of oak, lead and cypress.

Even so, sainthood appears to be a question of when, not if. John XXIII is only the third pope to be promoted to a more prestigious place in St. Peter's while still waiting to be canonized. His 880-pound, state-of-the-art casket, made of curved glass that blocks out ultraviolet rays and is pumped full of nitrogen to kill off any bacteria, will rest starting today at the Altar of St. Jerome in the central nave.

Emanuele Roncalli, a great-nephew who was 3 years old when John XXIII died, said he had mixed feelings about the display.

"Pope John refused to be carried around on a ceremonial chair, and maybe he would not have liked today's ceremony either," said Roncalli, a reporter for L'Eco di Bergamo, named for the city nearest his great-uncle's birthplace. "But at least he is back in contact with the people. He would have approved of that."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World