What Do You Really Know About the Mystery of the Stigmata?
What do you know about stigmata? This phenomenon - in which one bears the marks of Christ crucified on his or her own body - is one that many Catholics have heard of, but might not know much about. In our modern era it is most commonly associated with Saint Pio of Pietrelcina, also known as Padre Pio, who was given the stigmata for the last fifty years of his life. Despite widespread recognition of the word “stigmata” due to the case of Padre Pio, many people are unaware of what exactly it is, and of the different forms that it has taken throughout the centuries. By looking at three cases of saints who have had the stigmata, we can get a clearer picture of the nature of stigmata, the different forms it can take, and an appreciation of how to understand it through the eyes of faith.
Put simply, the stigmata, sometimes called “mystical stigmata,” occurs when a person receives in his or her own body some or all of the wounds that Christ endured during His passion. Most commonly one will receive wounds on his hands, feet and side, indicating the nail marks that held Christ to the cross, as well as the wound of the lance that was thrust into his side. Some others may receive a wound in the head or temple, much like Christ’s crown of thorns. In many cases, the wounds do not smell foul, as one would expect a wound to, but rather pleasant. In addition, despite a flow of blood, the recipient does not suffer the usual results of excessive blood loss, such as fainting, dizziness or even death. In many recipients, the stigmata exists continuously or periodically for many years, and most if not all stigmatics are also people who experienced ecstatic unions with God during their lifetime.
We will look now at three particular cases of stigmatics from throughout Church history.
Saint Francis of Assisi
One of the Church’s most well-known and well-loved saints, Francis of Assisi is frequently honored for his simplicity and his love of God’s creation. What is less well known than these qualities is that he was also a stigmatic. In fact, Saint Francis is the first recorded instance in the Church of anyone ever bearing the stigmata. A companion of his, a friar known as Brother Leo, witnessed Francis’ first receiving the stigmata. It occurred on September 14, 1224, the feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross. Francis saw an angel, a six-winged seraph, appear to him and bestow the marks on his body. The stigmata manifested itself in the form of flesh wounds protruding from his hands and feet in the shape of nails, as well as an open wound on the right side of his abdomen. Rather than smelling unpleasant, Francis’ wounds actually emitted a sweet and fragrant odor, which since has come to be called the “good odor of Christ.” These wounds caused Francis great pain, and yet he continued to spread the Gospel, filled with joy that he was able to share in the sufferings of his Savior, Whom he loved with his whole heart.
Saint Mary Frances
Our second stigmatic saint is an eighteenth century Italian girl named Anna Gallo who joined a Franciscan monastery in 1731 and took the name Sister Mary Frances of the Five Wounds. She experienced the stigmata in a unique way. It did not manifest itself in the outward appearance of wounds, but was only felt internally. Her pain was especially acute on Fridays during Lent. Sister Mary Frances’ union with Christ crucified encompassed more than just physical suffering; she also endured abuse from her father and sisters. Her father had wanted her to marry, and her decision to enter religious life angered him greatly. The abuse she endured from him was a form of spiritual stigmata that accompanied her physical pain. These sufferings, in addition to her taking on voluntary penances, enabled her to achieve great heights of sanctity. Many people, both clergy and laity, sought her counsel and advice in spiritual matters. Sister Mary Frances died in 1791 and was canonized in 1867.
Saint Pio of Pietrelcina
The final stigmatic saint we will look at is without a doubt the most well known: Saint Pio of Pietrelcina. It is his form of stigmata that is the most commonly recognized. Known affectionately as “Padre Pio,” this saint first received red dots on his hands and pain in his hands and feet in 1911. This was merely a foreshadowing of what was to come, however, and the full stigmata began in 1918. It remained with him for the final fifty years of his life, until his death in 1968. In addition to having the five wounds of Christ on his body as did Saint Francis, Padre Pio also endured blood flowing from the wounds. Like Francis’s wounds, Padre Pio’s also exuded a sweet “odor of Christ,” rather than a foul smell. Despite the blood flowing from these wounds, Padre Pio was able to continue living and fulfilling his daily duties, including saying Mass, for many years.
Something that these three, and generally all, stigmatic saints have in common is that their stigmata is associated with an interior suffering that conforms them more closely to the crucified Christ. Regardless of what particular wounds one stigmatic has, how often they are manifested, or what they look like, what they all have in common is that they are various ways of participating in Christ’s Passion. It is not simply suffering for suffering’s sake; it is suffering for the sake of uniting oneself to the One Who suffered for us all. Saint Francis’s stigmata was a symbol of his radical detachment from the world and commitment to poverty and single-minded devotion to God. Saint Mary Frances’ stigmata was a physical accompaniment to the interior spiritual sufferings she endured at the hands of her fellow men who did not understand her or her devotion to Christ and her vocation. Padre Pio’s wounds began in the waning months of World War I, and we can possibly understand the suffering he offered up as having contributed to the end of the war.
Often, stigmatics are examined by doctors and physicians, to see if these wounds are merely natural or even self-inflicted. While a few supposed stigmatics have been revealed to be fakes, a great number have been unexplainable by natural science or medicine. Doctors often are unable to identify the wound as being caused by a known disease, or to cure it or explain where it came from. Most surprising and miraculous of all is the fact that in many stigmatics' wounds smell fragrant. The baffled response from science in the face of these events is all the more proof of their heavenly origin.
Stigmata is never simply pain for its own sake; it is neither a punishment for one’s sins or a badge of honor for one’s virtue. Padre Pio, in fact, was very modest about his stigmata and did not want it to be widely known. Stigmata should be understood as a unique and beautiful way in which Christ invites some of His faithful to share in His passion. This is a great grace, for it is only by being conformed to the crucified Christ that we can become united with Him in eternity.