What is Stigmata?
In Christianity, Stigmata refers to physical "marks" that have appeared on the bodies of certain Christians in history, which are believed by some to represent the wounds that Jesus Christ received at the crucifixion. (See a full list of people thought to have experienced stigmata below.)
The biblical basis for stigmata is Galatians 6:17, where the Apostle Paul writes, "I bear on my body the marks of the Lord Jesus" (King James Version; New International Version translates the word "marks"; New American Standard Bible as "brand-marks"; New Living Translations as "scars").
The Greek word translated "marks" is stigmata. ("Stigmata" is plural; "stigma" is singular.) While most Bible scholars confess that they don't know the exact physical phenomena Paul was referring to in Galatians 6:17, in the last 500 years, the term "stigmata" has come to refer to when a person supposedly possesses marks on his or her body, which correspond to areas where Christ's body was afflicted when he was crucified.
Some recipients have reported pain with stigmata, while others haven't. The marks may be visible or invisible. Reported cases of stigmata include people suffering from the five "Holy Wounds"; that is, one wound on each wrist or hand, one wound on each foot, and one wound on the side of the torso analogous to where Christ was pierced with a spear. Other signs of stigmata include bleeding from the forehead, analogous to Christ's crown of thorns, and sweating blood, analogous to Christ's agony in the Garden of Gethsemane.
The Stigmata of Saint Francis of Assisi
Saint Francis (1181-1226) was the first recorded extra biblical case of stigmata in history. Two years before his death, St. Francis was praying during a 40-day fast when he saw a vision of an angel on a cross, who gave him the five wounds of Christ. Prior to receiving the marks, St. Francis is said to have prayed for such a sign.
"In that hour which precedes sunrise, kneeling before his hut, Francis prayed, his face turned toward the east. 'O Lord,' he pleaded, 'I beg of You two graces before I die - to experience in myself in all possible fullness the pains of Your cruel Passion, and to feel for You the same love that made You sacrifice Yourself for us.'" (Englebert)
No one else saw the angel, but several people saw, and tended to, the wounds.
"However, as the Stigmata never disappeared, a number of persons were able to see them. Among them were Brother Leo, whom Francis took as his nurse and who regularly bathed the oozing wound in his side; Brother Rufino and several others who gave sworn testimony about them; and all present at the death of the Saint or who were able to venerate him in his coffin, especially Brother Jacopa and her sons, and Sister Claire and her daughters. In addition, Pope Alexander IV, who in a sermon heard by St. Bonaventure, averred that while Francis was still alive he had seen the miraculous marks with his own eyes." (Englebert)
The Stigmata of Pio of Pietrelcina
Pio of Pietrelcina (1887-1968), or "Padre Pio," a Roman Catholic priest from Italy, claims to have received the stigmata in the form of unexplainable physical wounds. In 1911, Pio wrote a letter to his spiritual advisor and said,
"Then last night something happened which I can neither explain nor understand. In the middle of the palms of my hands a red mark appeared, about the size of a penny, accompanied by acute pain in the middle of the red marks. The pain was more pronounced in the middle of the left hand, so much so that I can still feel it. Also under my feet I can feel some pain."
The bloody marks, which were said to have smelled like flowers and perfume, were tended to by doctors, including the personal physician of Pope Benedict XV. The wounds were never infected, lacked the accumulation of fluid in the surrounding tissue, and x-rays taken in 1954, showed no physical abnormalities in Pio's bone structure.
Despite allegations of faking his stigmata, the canonized Pio in 2002 under Pope John Paul II.
Other Who Have Experience Stigmata
The following chart summarizes other notable cases of stigmata in history.
According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, over 300 men and women, including more than 60 saints, have experienced the stigmata.
Skepticism of Stigmata
Doubters allege that the stigmata are self-inflicted, either intentionally or unintentionally. Unintentional explanations include physical ailments of organs such as the liver, which can produce spots on the skin, and unconscious self-mutilation. Not all Roman Catholic writers dismiss natural explanations. For instance, Augustin Poulain, writes:
Some physiologists, both Catholics and Free-thinkers, have maintained that the wounds might be produced in a purely natural manner by the sole action of the imagination coupled with lively emotions. The person being keenly impressed by the sufferings of the Saviour and penetrated by a great love, this preoccupation acts on her or him physically, reproducing the wounds of Christ. This would in no wise diminish his or her merit in accepting the trial, but the immediate cause of the phenomena would not be supernatural.Sources
Ian Wilson. Stigmata: An Investigation Into the Mysterious Appearance of Christ's Wounds in Hundreds of People from Medieval Italy to Modern America. Harper & Row Publishers. 1989.
Omer Englebert. St. Francis of Assisi: A Biography. Servant Books. 1965
1974 St. Padre Pio. The Spirituality of Padre Pio. San Giovanni Rotondo, FG, Italy: Our Lady of Grace Monastery. http://www.ewtn.com/padrepio/mystic/stigmata.htm. Retrieved 2008-01-19.