Excerpt from Exploring the Miraculous (OSV 2015) by Michael O'Neill
When walking around the streets of Rome, one might notice the styles of habits that are worn by the various orders of priests and nuns stationed in the Eternal City. One of the most striking is that of the Brigittine Order, founded by visionary mystic St. Birgitta of Sweden, which features a distinctive metal headdress, the “Crown of the Five Holy Wounds.” It has five red stones to remember the Five Wounds of Christ on the Cross. The wounds of Christ are widely depicted in medieval art, such as in Caravaggio’s Incredulity of Saint Thomas (1602). The writings of saints such as Alphonsus Ligouri (1696–1787) and the devotions and devotionals of the Passionists, such as the Five Wound Beads and the Chaplet of the Five Wounds introduced by Ven. Sister Mary Martha Chambon, have brought the sufferings of Christ into focus.
Beyond such symbolic clothing and other physical and intellectual aids to profound meditation on Christ’s sufferings, numerous saints and others throughout history have physically born the wounds of Christ on their bodies. St. Paul, in his letter to the Galatians, alludes to the power associated with being even just symbolically connected to Christ in this way: “Henceforth let no man trouble me; for I bear on my body the marks of Jesus” (6:17). Most of these mystics have united themselves with the profound suffering of Christ on a deep spiritual level. They manifest on their bodies nonsuperficial wounds that correspond to those suffered by Christ during his Crucifixion. The presence of these wounds — or stigmata, “marks” — is often (mistakenly) taken to be a divine sign of holiness conferred on a living person. The Church, however, does not take them into account during the canonization process or elsewhere as a guarantee of a person’s life of virtue. Such cases have a potential for great scandal and embarrassment. In investigating a case of stigmata, the Church is watchful of the humility of the person suffering the wounds and examines whether the wounds are superficial and respond to medical treatment.
Authentic wounds are extremely painful and typically are not accompanied by a foul odor. True stigmata, although manifested by an individual, are meant for the Church at large as a reminder of the profound sacrifice of Christ. If it were not for the accompanying suffering, the wounds would be meaningless, merely for show, and be a dangerous temptation to pride. In addition to the pain, many stigmatics also experience great spiritual ecstasy. They are allegedly often given many spiritual gifts in addition to receiving the wounds of Christ. It is said that it is not uncommon for them to experience visions, levitation, and healing powers. Perhaps most commonly associated with stigmata is inedia. One of history’s most famous stigmatics, Bl. Anne Catherine Emmerich, a frail and sickly German nun, was confined to bed where she received the stigmata and reported visions of the Blessed Virgin Mary along with vivid spiritual insights on the life and Passion of Jesus Christ. The most well-known modern stigmatic, St. Padre Pio of Pietrelcina (1887–1968), was surrounded by a panoply of alleged mystical gifts, including visions, bilocation, and the ability to read souls. Servant of God Maria Esperanza de Bianchini (1928–2004) allegedly exhibited all these powers and more, including allegedly receiving a vision of Padre Pio himself, who provided her with spiritual direction and his mantle.
Tradition seems to indicate that the very first true stigmatic in recorded history was St. Francis of Assisi (1182–1286). Art throughout the ages, including Giotto’s St. Francis Receiving the Stigmata (c. 1295–1300), has depicted the great patron saint of Italy and founder of the Franciscans in this ecstatic moment being marked with the wounds of Christ. This event is said to have occurred on September 14, 1224, the feast of the Exaltation of the Cross. Brother Leo, who had been with Francis at the time, provided the first clear account of the phenomenon of stigmata: “Suddenly he saw a vision of a seraph, a six-winged angel on a cross. This angel gave him the gift of the five wounds of Christ.” In his classic analysis of miracles, The Physical Phenomena of Mysticism, Rev. Herbert Thurston skeptically notes that Francis’s case is the first, after which, “throughout the world, other unquestionable cases of stigmata began to occur even among people who were much lower than Francis in religious stature, and have continued to occur without intermission ever since.”
The Italian friar was the first of about 320 stigmatics in recorded history. The first priest to exhibit the wounds was twentieth-century mystic St. Padre Pio of Pietrelcina, whose scientifically well-documented marks persisted for about fifty years until they healed at his death. Most stigmatics follow a consistent profile, as they are not only Catholics but typically (as many as 66 percent) have entered religious life. Historically they have come from traditionally Catholic countries with the vast majority of cases being reported from Italy (more than a third) and most of the others stemming from Spain, France, and Portugal. In the twentieth century, a wider variety of countries have seen claims, and a handful of Anglicans have reported the phenomena as well.