What is the Odour of Sanctity?

Niki Foster

In Catholic belief, the Odour of Sanctity is a sweet, floral smell that emanates from the wounds of saints or from saints themselves upon their death. Sometimes, the Odour of Sanctity is said to accompany living saints. The term Odour of Sanctity may also be used metaphorically to refer to a state of grace, and many theologians today do not give much weight to the olfactory phenomenon it describes. Odour of Sanctity is often associated with incorruptibility, the failure of a saint's body to decompose after death.

The stigmata of Padre Pio allegedly smelled of roses.
The stigmata of Padre Pio allegedly smelled of roses.

The idea of the Odour of Sanctity is thought to have arisen during the early medieval period, when saints were canonized by local Church officials rather than by the Holy See. People who had known an alleged saint in life would attest to his or her holiness and push for canonization, while the Bishop in charge of the decision would look for signs attesting saintliness. Potential saints' bodies were sometimes exhumed for this purpose, and both incorruptibility and the Odour of Sanctity were considered convincing signs of sainthood. Today, canonization is the purview of the Holy See, the central government of the Catholic Church, and tests such as those described above are no longer used to determine sainthood; instead, a rigorous examination of the life of each potential saint is conducted.

A few saints are said to have emitted a strong Odour of Sanctity that lasted for days immediately upon their death. Notably, Saint Teresa of Avila, known for her mystical religious writings, and Saint Thérèse de Lisieux, who stressed simplicity of life and faith, were said to fill their respective convents with the scent of roses at the moment of death. The Odour of Sanctity is also said to characterize the wounds of saints, particularly stigmata, spontaneously forming wounds that mirror those of Christ during the crucifixion. Padre Pio, an Italian priest and saint, had stigmata that lasted for 50 years and allegedly smelled of roses.

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