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Preserved body of Pope John XXIII no miracle: Vatican

Sunday, March 25 8:51 PM SGT

The remarkably preserved state of the body of Pope John XXIII, who died in 1963, is no miracle, the Vatican said on Sunday.

An official report by the Church released this weekend said that when the former pope's coffin was opened in January, officials found the pontiff's face to be unchanged from at the time of his death.

The report said the pope's face was as it was when he died, "his eyes closed, his mouth slightly open, and his features immediately bringing to mind the familiar face of the venerable pontiff."

But 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," father Ciro Benedettini said.

The former pope's coffin was opened on January 16 ahead of his remains being transferred to St Peter's Cathedral in Rome.

In line with church rules, the body of the former pope needed to be identified before his body could be laid to rest on the holy site.

The present Pope John Paul II decided some time ago that John XXIII -- known as the good pope -- should be reinterred in the cathedral along with other popes to allow people to pray at his tomb.

His body had previously lain in a Vatican crypt.

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.

The body -- which had not been embalmed but was subjected to the beginnings of decomposition during its public display before burial in 1963 -- was covered with red silk and placed in an oak coffin with a lead and Cypress wood lining.

The many layered coffin was designed to keep out oxygen and therefore slow the decomposition process.

But 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.

Vatican insiders believe that the former pope, who was beatified by John Paul II last September could soon be canonised.

The former pontiff, who was born Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli, died aged 77 in 1963 after four and a half years as pope.

He is particularly remembered for calling the second Vatican council which marked a major turning point in the Roman Catholic Church's history, including the introduction of the vernacular to replace Latin in church masses.

He was also known for creating warmer ties between the Catholic church and the Jewish faith.

See Also BBC News: Pope's exhumation causes a stir

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