"Stigmata" is a Catholic phenomenon, used to describe the appearance of the wounds of Christ on a pious saint or Christian believer. It has been long debated by many who believe stigmata is instead a psychosomatic effect brought on by intense prayer. Stigmatics themselves are the main source of mystery for thousands of Christian believers. Are they really being punctured by the forces of God? Or are the wounds self-inflicted by those who harbor intense belief?
Stigmata can exists in two forms, visible and invisible. Invisible wounds are those covered by the forces of God for the inner comfort of the sufferer. Visible wounds appear on the side, palms, feet and head, and often appear and disappear in the space of a few hours. They can appear in one area alone, or all areas at once. Often, intense bleeding accompanies them, and the period before they appear is characterized by depression and weakness. Some stigmatics report feeling whips across their backs.
The first recorded case of these wounds was in the year 1222, by a man names Stephen Langton of England. St. Francis of Assissi, a famous follower of Jesus, experienced wounds in 1224.
The wounds can be experienced by both men and women. One of the more famous female stigmatics was St. Catherine of Siena, who experienced invisible wounds on her hands and feet. An interesting fact about stigmata is that it corresponds with the Passion and Death of Christ. Many wounds appear during the Last Supper, and the holy days of Easter. They disappear on Easter itself. Stigmatics reportedly speak to visions of Christ and angels during their trials, and smell strange scents. There are even reported cases of the blood types not matching between stigmata and wounds.
Stigmata has been reported everywhere from America to Italy. There are cases in France, Spain, England, and Germany. The count of these victims has stopped at 345. It is believed that there are many more, however. Among this count are some of the most famous saints, such as St. Frances of Rome, St. Gertrude, St. Collette, St. John of God, and St. Marie of the Incarnation. They span many religious orders, including Dominican priests, Augustinian monks and the Poor Clare nuns.
One of the more interesting theories to explain this phenomenon is the idea of "theological placebo effects." According to this line of thought, stigmatics are so emotionally and physically tied to their belief that they experience a state of mind similar to raptures. It is a fact that the immune system can be controlled by the waking mind, and in some cases, a heartbeat can be consciously slowed. It is this belief that leads some to think that the wounds of the stigmata are personally, albeit unconsciously, produced.
Stigmatics still exist today. There were a reported 20 in the nineteenth century, and their numbers are diminishing. One of the most famous current stigmata is Georgio Bongiavani, who has stigmata on his hands and forehead. His religious wounds cannot be explained by any sources, and according to several news reports they appear and disappear at will.
Written by genevieve thiers
From the Catholic Encyclopedia
To decide merely the facts without deciding whether or not they may be explained by supernatural causes, history tells us that many ecstatics bear on hands, feet, side, or brow the marks of the Passion of Christ with corresponding and intense sufferings. These are called visible stigmata. Others only have the sufferings, without any outward marks, and these phenomena are called invisible stigmata. Their existence is so well established historically that, as a general thing, they are no longer disputed by unbelievers, who now seek only to explain them naturally. Thus a free-thinking physician, Dr. Dumas, professor of religious psychology at the Sorbonne, clearly admits the facts (Revue des Deux Mondes, 1 May, 1907), as does also Dr. Pierre Janet (Bulletin de l'Institut psychologique international, Paris, July, 1901).
St. Catherine of Siena at first had visible stigmata but through humility she asked that they might be made invisible, and her prayer was heard. This was also the case with St. Catherine de' Ricci, a Florentine Dominican of the sixteenth century, and with several other stigmatics. The sufferings may be considered the essential part of visible stigmata; the substance of this grace consists of pity for Christ, participation in His sufferings, sorrows, and for the same end--the expiation of the sins unceasingly committed in the world. If the sufferings were absent, the wounds would be but an empty symbol, theatrical representation, conducing to pride. If the stigmata really come from God, it would be unworthy of His wisdom to participate in such futility, and to do so by a miracle. But this trial is far from being the only one which the saints have to endure: "The life of stigmatics," says Dr. Imbert, "is but a long series of sorrows which arise from the Divine malady of the stigmata and end only in death: (op. cit. infra, II, x). It seems historically certain that ecstatics alone bear the stigmata; moreover, they have visions which correspond to their rle of co-sufferers, beholding from time to time the blood-stained scenes of the Passion. With many stigmatics these apparitions were periodical, e.g., St. Catherine de' Ricci, whose ecstasies of the Passion began when she was twenty (1542), and the Bull of her canonization states that for twelve years they recurred with minute regularity. The ecstasy lasted exactly twenty-eight hours, from Thursday noon till Friday afternoon at four o'clock, the only interruption being for the saint to receive Holy Communion. Catherine conversed aloud, as if enacting a drama. This drama was divided into about seventeen scenes. Oncoming out of the ecstasy the saint's limbs were covered with wounds produced by whips, cords etc.
Dr. Imbert has attempted to count the number of stigmatics, with the following results:
1. None are known prior to the thirteenth century. The first mentioned is St. Francis of Assisi, in whom the stigmata were of a character never seen subsequently; in the wounds of feet and hands were excrescences of flesh representing nails, those on one side having round back heads, those on the other having rather long points, which bent back and grasped the skin. The saint's humility could not prevent a great many of his brethren beholding with their own eyes the existence of these wonderful wounds during his lifetime as well as after his death. The fact is attested by a number of contemporary historians, and the feast of the Stigmata of St. Francis is kept on 17 September.
2. Dr. Imbert counts 321 stigmatics in whom there is every reason to believe in a Divine action. He believes that others would be found by consulting the libraries of Germany, Spain, and Italy.
3. In this list there are 41 men.
4. There are 62 saints or blessed of both sexes of whom the best known (numbering twenty-six) were:
St. Francis of Assisi (1186-1226);
St. Lutgarde (1182-1246), a Cistercian;
St. Margaret of Cortona (1247-97);
St. Gertrude (1256-1302), a Benedictine;
St. Clare of Montefalco (1268-1308), an Augustinian;
Bl. Angela of Foligno (d. 1309), Franciscan tertiary;
St. Catherine of Siena (1347-80), Dominican tertiary;
St. Lidwine (1380-1433);
St. Frances of Rome (1384-1440);
St. Colette (1380-1447), Franciscan;
St. Rita of Cassia (1386-1456), Augustinian;
Bl. Osanna of Mantua (1499-1505), Dominican tertiary;
St. Catherine of Genoa (1447-1510), Franciscan tertiary;
Bl. Baptista Varani (1458-1524), Poor Clare;
Bl. Lucy of Narni (1476-1547), Dominican tertiary;
Bl. Catherine of Racconigi (1486-1547), Dominican;
St. John of God (1495-1550), founder of the Order of Charity;
St. Catherine de' Ricci (1522-89), Dominican;
St. Mary Magdalene de' Pazzi (1566-1607), Carmelite;
Bl. Marie de l'Incarnation (1566-1607), Carmelite;
Bl. Mary Anne of Jesus (1557-1620), Franciscan tertiary;
Bl. Carlo of Sezze (d. 1670), Franciscan;
Blessed Margaret Mary Alacoque (1647-90), Visitandine (who had only the crown of thorns);
St. Veronica Giuliani (1600-1727), Capuchiness;
St. Mary Frances of the Five Wounds (1715-91), Franciscan tertiary.
5. There were 20 stigmatics in the nineteenth century. The most famous were:
Catherine Emmerich (1774-1824), Augustinian;
Elizabeth Canori Mora (1774-1825), Trinitarian tertiary;
Anna Maria Tagi (1769-1837);
Maria Dominica Lazzari (1815-48);
Marie de Moerl (1812-68) and Louise Lateau (1850-83), Franciscan tertiaries.
Of these, Marie de Moerl spent her life at Kaltern, Tyrol (1812-68). At the age of twenty she became an ecstatic, and ecstasy was her habitual condition for the remaining thirty-five years of her life. She emerged from it only at the command, sometimes only mental, of the Franciscan who was her director, and to attend to the affairs of her house, which sheltered a large family. Her ordinary attitude was kneeling on her bed with hands crossed on her breast, and an expression of countenance which deeply impressed spectators. At twenty-two she received the stigmata. On Thursday evening and Friday these stigmata shed very clear blood, drop by drop, becoming dry on the other days. Thousands of persons saw Marie de Moerl, among them Grres (who describes his visit in his "Mystik", II, xx), Wiseman, and Lord Shrewsbury, who wrote a defence of the ecstatic in his letters published by "The Morning Herald" and "The Tablet" (cf. Bor, op. cit. infra). Louise Lateau spent her life in the village of Bois d'Haine, Belgium (1850-83). The graces she received were disputed even by some Catholics, who as a general thing relied on incomplete or erroneous information, as has been established by Canon Thiery ("Examen de ce qui concerne Bois d'Haine", Louvain, 1907). At sixteen she devoted herself to nursing the cholera victims of her parish, who were abandoned by most of the inhabitants. Within a month she nursed ten, buried them, and in more than one instance bore them to the cemetery. At eighteen she became an ecstatic and stigmatic, which did not prevent her supporting her family by working as a seamstress. Numerous physicians witnessed her painful Friday ecstasies and established the fact that for twelve years she took no nourishment save weekly communion. For drink she was satisfied with three or four glasses of water a week. She never slept, but passed her nights in contemplation and prayer, kneeling at the foot of her bed.
II. The facts having been set forth, it remains to state the explanations that have been offered. 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. We shall not attempt to solve this question. Physiological science does not appear to be far enough advanced to admit a definite solution, and the writer of this article adopts the intermediate position, which seems to him unassailable, that of showing that the arguments in favour of natural explanations are illusory. They are sometimes arbitrary hypotheses, being equivalent to mere assertions, sometimes arguments based exaggerated or misinterpreted facts. But if the progress of medical sciences and psycho-physiology should present serious objections, it must be remembered that neither religion or mysticism is dependent on the solution of these questions, and that in processes of canonization stigmata do not count as incontestable miracles.
No one has ever claimed that imagination could produce wounds in a normal subject; it is true that this faculty can act slightly on the body, as Benedict XIV said, it may accelerate or retard the nerve-currents, but there is no instance of its action on the tissues (De canoniz., III, xxxiii, n. 31). But with regard to persons in an abnormal condition, such as ecstasy or hypnosis, the question is more difficult; and, despite numerous attempts, hypnotism has not produced very clear results. At most, and in exceedingly rare cases, it has induced exudations or a sweat more or less coloured, but this is a very imperfect imitation. Moreover, no explanation has been offered of three circumstances presented by the stigmata of the saints:
1. Physicians do not succeed in curing these wounds with remedies.
2. On the other hand, unlike natural wounds of a certain duration, those of stigmatics do not give forth a fetid odour. To this there is known but one exception: St. Rita of Cassia had received on her brow a supernatural wound produced by a thorn detached from the crown of the crucifix. Though this emitted an unbearable odour, there was never any suppuration or morbid alteration of the tissues.
3. Sometimes these wounds give forth perfumes, for example those of Juana of the Cross, Franciscan prioress of Toledo, and Bl. Lucy of Narni.
To sum up, there is only one means of proving scientifically that the imagination, that is auto-suggestion, may produce stigmata: instead of hypothesis, analogous facts in the natural order must be produced, namely wounds produced apart from a religious idea. This had not been done.
With regard to the flow of blood it has been objected that there have been bloody sweats, but Dr. Lefebvre, professor of medicine at Louvain, has replied that such cases as have been examined by physicians were not due to a moral cause, but to a specific malady. Moreover, it has often been proved by the microscope that the red liquid which oozes forth is not blood; its colour is due to a particular substance, and it does not proceed from a wound, but is due, like sweat, to a dilatation of the pores of the skin. But it may be objected that we unduly minimize the power of the imagination, since, joined to an emotion, it can produce sweat; and as the mere idea of having an acid bon-bon in the mouth produces abundant saliva, so, too, the nerves acted upon by the imagination might produce the emission of a liquid and this liquid might be blood. The answer is that in the instances mentioned there are glands (sudoriparous and salivary) which in the normal state emit a special liquid, and it is easy to understand that the imagination may bring about this secretion; but the nerves adjacent to the skin do not terminate in a gland emitting blood, and without such an organ they are powerless to produce the effects in question. What has been said of the stigmatic wounds applies also to the sufferings. There is not a single experimental proof that imagination could produce them, especially in violent forms.
Another explanation of these phenomena is that the patients produce the wounds either fraudulently or during attacks of somnambulism, unconsciously. But physicians have always taken measures to avoid these sources of error, proceeding with great strictness, particularly in modern times. Sometimes the patient has been watched night and day, sometimes the limbs have been enveloped in sealed bandages. Mr. Pierre Janet placed on one foot of a stigmatic a copper shoe with a window in it through which the development of the wound might be watched, while it was impossible for anyone to touch it (op. cit. supra).
Padre Pio and the Stigmata
Padre Pio bore the wounds of Jesus on his hands, feet, and side for 50 years.
Several days before he died in 1968, all evidence of the wounds disappeared.
On October 22, 1918, Padre Pio wrote to his spiritual advisor, Padre Benedetto, describing how he received the stigmata. "On the morning of the 20th of last month, in the choir, after I had celebrated Mass, I yielded to a drowsiness similar to a sweet sleep. All the internal and external senses and even the very faculties of my soul were immersed in indescribable stillness. Absolute silence surrounded and invaded me. I was suddenly filled with great peace and abandonment which effaced everything else and caused a lull in the turmoil. All this happened in a flash.
"While this was taking place, I saw before me a mysterious person similar to the one I had seen on the evening of 5 August. The only difference was that his hands and feet and side were dripping blood. The sight terrified me and what I felt at that moment is indescribable. I thought I should die and really should have died if the Lord had not intervened and strengthened my heart which was about to burst out of my chest.
"The vision disappeared and I became aware that my hands, feet and side were dripping blood. Imagine the agony I experienced and continue to experience almost every day. The heart wound bleeds continually, especially from Thursday evening until Saturday. Dear Father, I am dying of pain because of the wounds and the resulting embarrassment I feel in my soul. I am afraid I shall bleed to death if the Lord does not hear my heartfelt supplication to relieve me of this condition. Will Jesus, who is so good, grant me this grace? Will he at least free me from the embarrassment caused by these outward signs? I will raise my voice and will not stop imploring him until in his mercy he takes away, not the wound or the pain, which is impossible since I wish to be inebriated with pain, but these outward signs which cause me such embarrassment and unbearable humiliation" (Letters 1, No. 511).