The Odour of Sanctity can be understood to mean two things:
1) An ontological state (state of being), not usually related to an actual olfactory sensation, indicating that the individual possessing it is in a state of grace (i.e., a state characterized by the absence of mortal sin). Usually refers to the state of an individual’s soul at the time of death. Some canonized saints are said to have died in an odour of sanctity.
2) An actual smell or detectable aroma, present at the time of death and for some time thereafter.
This term is used extensively in the Catholic Encyclopedia, without ever being specifically defined. Thus, it is assumed that readers know what it represents.
The term “odour of sanctity” appears to have emerged in the Middle Ages, at a time when many saints were raised to that status by acclamation of the faithful. In the absence of careful written records, either by or about the individual, evidence of a saintly life was attested to only by personal recollections of those around him or her. It appears that the odour of sanctity occurring at the person’s death carried some weight in convincing the local ecclesial authority to “canonize” the saint – to allow the faithful to venerate and pray to him or her.
Some contemporary theologians do not consider this concept as significant, believing rather that Saints are people who found special favor with God, usually for the quality of their lives or the impact of their deaths. Special distinctions, such as the body of the saint remaining incorrupt or the odour of sanctity attending his or her death, are not seen by these theologians as indicative of any special honor, nor do they consider them particularly important in determining the saintliness of the individual. Some go so far as to ignore such manifestations, or to dismiss them, either as sentimentality or as having no significance in determining or attesting to the sainthood of the individual.
Saint Teresa of Avila and Saint Maravillas of Jesus (a Spanish Discalced Carmelite) were reported to have emitted heavenly scents immediately after they had died. Reputedly, Teresa of Avila's scent emanated throughout the whole monastery the moment she died. Saint Thérèse de Lisieux (known as “the Little Flower”) was said to have produced a strong scent of roses at her death, which was detectable for days afterward. Likewise, Padre Pio's stigmata allegedly emanated the smell of roses.