He had open wounds on his hands and feet for fifty years. They sometimes bled, but they never became infected. He also had a wound in his side, that few people saw, which also bled. His religious services would often last hours; he didn’t just say the Mass, he lived it.
He was credited with performing miracles of healing, bilocation and levitation yet was persecuted by his own Church during his lifetime and even banned from saying Mass. Later they made him a saint.
His name was Padre Pio de Petrelcina, and last Friday was the 125th anniversary of his birth. He was one of the few people in history to display the stigmata – the wounds of Christ.
The term originates from a line at the end of Saint Paul’s letter to the Galatians: “I bear on my body the stigmata (marks) of Jesus.” Stigmata is the plural of the Greek word stigma, meaning a mark or brand such as once might have been used for identification of an animal or slave.
Stigmatics show all or some of the five so-called ‘holy wounds’ from the crucifixion; others display wounds to the forehead similar to those caused by the crown of thorns. These are not painless. The suffering a Stigmatic endures is extraordinary. Most wounds do not appear to clot, and stay uninfected, and the blood is said to have a pleasant, perfumed odor, known as the ‘Odour of Sanctity.’ Stigmatics usually receive these marks during an ‘ecstasy’ when they are overwhelmed with religious fervor.
The first recorded stigmatic was Saint Francis of Assisi, but most Stigmatics through history – over 80% – have actually been women. The most notable include Santa Rita de Cascia in the fourteenth century, a member of an Augustinian order who displayed a partial stigmata on her forehead, corresponding to the Crown of Thorns.
She was canonized in 1900. Another stigmatic to have been made a saint was Catherine of Siena.
Catherine was a Dominican nun who lived long periods of time without food or water except for the wine and bread of the Mass. She scourged herself three times a day with an iron chain and allowed herself only one-half hour of sleep every other day on a hard board. She also wore a hair shirt and an iron-spiked girdle.
She alsdo claimed to have experienced a “mystical marriage” with Jesus, and had a vision where He placed a ring upon her finger and “espoused her to Himself.” Many of her writings about this dream border on the erotic.
These days she might be labelled hysterical; but unlike most hysterics she kept her head. You can see it for yourself in the Basilica of San Domenico in Siena. (When she died in Rome in 1380 some locals brought it back to Tuscany in a bag and inserted in a gilt bust.)
There have been two notable Stigmatics this century; Theresa Neumann, a Bavarian nun who even the Gestapo did not dare arrest; and Padre Pio.
Born Francesco Forgione on 25 May, 1887, he was a sickly child and suffered variously during his life from asthma, abdominal pains, chronic gastritis, rhinitis, otitis and pulmonary tuberculosis. He also had a malignant tumor removed from his ear. In his old age he was tormented by arthritis.
He believed that the love of God was inseparable from suffering, and if this was true, he certasinly knew the love of God. In 1918, during a religious ecstasy, he received the Stigmata, and these wounds would stay with him for the next fifty years of his life. “The pain was so intense that I began to feel as if I were dying on the cross,’ he said of them.
He naturally became a controversial figure in the Church, who persecuted him during the nineteen twenties and early thirties. Even up to his death he remained a difficult figure for the Vatican.
Rome may have been ambivalent; but the rest of Italy adored him. His Requiem Mass was attended by over 100,000 people and he has now become one of the world’s most popular saints. There are more than 3,000 “Padre Pio Prayer Groups” worldwide, with three million members. More Italian Catholics now pray to Padre Pio than to any Church icon.
Not everyone believes it, of course. Some skeptics say that he used carbolic acid to produce the wounds and the odor of sanctity was actually odor cologne.
For my own part I remain skeptical about skeptics. It seems to me that in order not appear credulous, they strain all credibility. Would they ask us to accept that a man could stand to pour acid on his hands, feet and ribs for fifty years and then not get any of the wounds infected?
It is far more interesting to me to look at the history of Stigmatics. For example, none appeared before the thirteenth century when artistic depictions of the crucifixion in religious art first appeared. Stigmatics are also obsessed with Holy Communion – in other words they identify strongly with Christ and the crucifixion story.
Modern research now suggests that the stigmata are indeed of hysterical origin; but in a very interesting way. Christian theologian, Ivan Illich, has posited that “Compassion with Christ… is faith so strong and so deeply incarnate that it leads to the individual embodiment of the contemplated pain.”
What does this mean in plainer terms? It means that the wounds are psychosomatic and that the Stigmatic themselves create them with the power of their own emotions.
I find this conclusion astonishing. It is a rational explanation, yet it is not. Are such manifestations less amazing because they are not supernatural? After all, if a human being can create a wound themselves, could they not make one go away?
Rather than freaks or anomalies of supernatural intervention, perhaps the Stigmatic is one of the most dramatic examples we have of the limitless power available to the human psyche. The implications of this are astounding.
What do you think? Have you ever had any connection with faith healing or with the mysterious? What do you think is the cause?
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