Pope John XXIII Looks Like He 'Died Yesterday'

A leading cardinal present when the coffin of Pope John XXIII was opened after 38 years today said the pontiff looked as if he had “died yesterday.”

“None of the body had decomposed,” said Cardinal VirgilioNoe, the high priest of St. Peter’s Basilica who oversaw the opening of the coffin in order to prepare removal of the tomb to a new space more accessible to pilgrims.

Italian media reports this weekend said only John's face was intact but Noe, who attended the exhumation with other Vatican officials on Jan. 16, said the entire body was uncorrupted by time.

“It was as if he died yesterday,” he told Reuters on the sidelines of a news conference to present a book on the papal tombs in St. Peter's.

“He looked tranquil. His mouth was slightly open but he was certainly tranquil. The serenity he had in life, he took with him to his death and he still had it 38 years later,” Noe said.

‘The Good Pope’

John XXIII, who reigned from 1958 to 1963, was known as the “Good Pope” because of his benevolent and jovial nature.

He made ecclesiastical history by convening the Second Vatican Council which brought the Catholic Church up to date with modern times.

When he died, his body was not embalmed but Italian media reports said it was treated with the preservative formalin before it lay in state.

The body was placed in a wooden casket inside a bronze outer coffin and both were sealed before being buried in a grave in the narrow ancient grottoes beneath St. Peter’s, where many other popes are laid.

Now it is to be relocated near the basilica's main altar to make access easier for the millions of pilgrims who come to pray at his tomb.

Nearly four decades after his death, the man born Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli remains one of history's most loved popes with a particularly devout following in Italy.

He has been credited with curing an Italian nun of a stomach tumor. She prayed to him and quickly recovered with no medical explanation.

Pope John Paul II beatified him last year, the penultimate step before sainthood.

A Miracle?

Vatican officials have been careful not to attribute the preservation of his body directly to a miracle. Noe said the phenomenon was known to have happened in the past and declined to be drawn into questions about miracles.

Cardinal Angelo Sodano, the Vatican's secretary of state,

said in a television interview Monday that it could be the

result of a miracle but it would be up to experts to decide.

“We were able to see once again the contours of a face

that we all loved, the contours that not even death could

erase, the same contours present in the death mask that was

made,” Noe said earlier during the news conference.

Noe added that the body was now being treated by experts

and might be shown to the public before being placed in the new tomb in a few months’ time.