THE STIGMATA THROUGH HISTORY – REAL OR FAKE?

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.

photograph: Claire and Richard Stracke

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.

photograph: Cerrigno

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.

His wounds were examined by many doctors and physicians during his lifetime, and though none could explain their origin, they all found the wounds remarkably free of infection.

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?

And because I want to see you all back here regularly, I am offering a free copy of my novel CORRIGAN’S RUN to anyone who joins my blog today! You can’t buy it … it’s not available anywhere else except here! All you have to do is join up, then write to me at colin underscore falconer underscore author at hotmail dot com. I can send you a copy as a mobi Epub or PDF file.

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About colinfalconer

author of bestselling historical novels like Anastasia, When We Were Gods, Aztec and Harem. My books have been published in the UK, US and ANZ and translated into seventeen languages.
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31 Responses to THE STIGMATA THROUGH HISTORY – REAL OR FAKE?

  1. Jess Witkins says:

    I find this topic fascinating. You know, I’m always bummed that I was raised Catholic (Catholic school for 9 years) and they never shared any of the really interesting stuff. Of course I knew what the stigmata was, but I feel like most of what I’ve read about it has been in news or magazine articles. I lean more towards believing than not because I have seen and experienced the paranormal or spirit world. I tend to think this world is more interesting because there are things we cannot explain.

    It would be so interesting to sit Padre Pio down and talk to him about his stigmata, about his faith. I think the power of the mind can do many things, so maybe it could create stigmata? There are people who have been terminally ill for months who’ve gone overseas to this one guy (and of course I can’t remember his name), but all he does is intense prayer groups and a laying on of hands, positive energy, and then these people are in complete remission. Doctors can’t explain it. But what makes it more believable to me is that there are some people he cannot heal, and he tells them he is not the one meant to heal them. Yet, everyone that’s gone has said only positive things about the experience.

    The nun’s head was creepy though. I remember seeing the body of John the Baptist in Italy. That was crazy too. I’d love to see St. Bernadette; isn’t she the one who never aged after she died. Her body is still intact. And Assisi is my favorite city in Italy. I’ve a dear spot in my heart for St. Francis as I was born on his Feast Day. He was a remarkable man.

    Thanks for sharing this topic! So interesting!

    • This fascinates me too, Jess. I think the things we can’t explain hold the key to many things; I think it’s an arrogance of the mind to think we can explain everything. I love to be curious. I went to Brazil a few years ago and saw a guy called John of God in action; it was spectacular, the unsterilized scalpels, no anesthetic, forceps up the nose, the whole thing. Yet I met people who had been there five years earlier and were still in complete remission from major disease. What was more interesting was that this fellow said he didn’t need to do it that way – he said he healed just as many with prayer alone, but that he did the other stuff ‘because otherwise the person who wants healing won’t believe it.’ Uh-oh, I feel another post coming on …

    • lynnkelleyauthor says:

      One of my friends was also born on Oct. 4th, Feast Day of St. Francis. One of my children’s stories is about the Blessing of the Animals ceremony, celebrated on the Feast Day of St. Francis!

  2. I admit I don’t know a whole lot about the Catholic faith so it’s hard for me to have an opinion. On one hand I want to say I identify with the skeptics, on other, I’ve seen a couple of things that could only be labeled miracles. So who is to say what really happened?

    I do agree that the human mind is capable of so much more than we realize. I’ve actually known people who have ‘wanted’ to be sick so much that I believe they caused themselves to be seriously ill. I would guess some sort of Munchausen syndrome. And I’ve always believed if they could make themselves ill, those of us who want to be healthy could do the polar opposite.

    • I agree with you about people making themselves sick, Kristy. So exactly, if we can do that, then why can’t we do the opposite? How many of the latent and subconscious powers that we possess do we call miraculous and look for the supernatural? It’s an interesting question and one we’ll all probably never find the answer to in this lifetime.

    • Felix says:

      All matter is merely energy condensed to a slow vibration we are all one consciousness experiencing itself subjectively. There’s no such thing as death, life is only a dream, and we’re the imagination of ourselves. Therefore everything we see as real is created by our minds. A mind this powerful could surely create the stigmata.

    • penny fox says:

      wanting to be sick is one thing, to actually have blood coming from your body and be in that agony is another, who say God couldn’t do it? He created the world in 6 days didn’t He?

  3. Hi Colin, when I was young, my family had a car accident. A few hours earlier, on the night it happened, the accident had been ‘foretold’ by a woman in our community who was believed to be demon possessed. I’ve never had an answer for that one…though I do believe the mind is much more powerful than we know! Anyway, credit to Coleen Patrick for bringing me here 🙂

    • Clairvoyance is a whole other thing. When my mother was 18 she went to see ‘a gypsy woman.’ She told her she would be married at 21 and a widow at 28. And she was. That’s a big call when you think about it. I don’t have opinions about things like that, I’m endlessly curious about them though. Thanks for coming along!

  4. Amazing. This topic has always left me in raw fascination. I have never really known what to believe. If it’s the power of the mind, what an incredible feat and what amazing possibilities that opens up. If it’s something else…again…my imagination runs wild.

    • I agree, Natalie IF it’s the power of the mind, then that does open up extraordinary possibilities to all of us. For me, it’s far more astonishing than supernatural intervention, which is something I really can’t get my head around. But who knows? I think it’s really good to remain curious. Jess reminded me of another amazing man I saw in Brazil …

  5. Hmmm, part of me just wants to say what a bunch of whack jobs! But seriously, I think there’s some sort of scientific explanation for most of it – key word “most.” There’s probably a bit that we’ll never be able to explain.

    One of my characters in my second book gets stigmata, but it’s from a very earthly cause – well, if you discount the time travel and healing! 😀

    • Where it gets interesting for me is: what is the the scientific explanation, especially in light of the latest discoveries in quantum mechanics? Science is sounding nuttier all the time and scientists are raising more questions than they’re able to answer. I am endlessly curious about what cannot be easily explained.

  6. Debra Kristi says:

    I find this topic fascinating. I tend to lean toward the theory that the stigmata is psychosomatic. Why? Because I don’t believe God would single out his catholic children for such a thing were it spiritual happening. Faith goes further and deeper than just one sect.

    As for healing, there is one strange event in my families past. When was young my sister and I were traveling alone via plane across the country. She went into a full blown seizure. We had to get off the plane at an unscheduled stop (for us). She was tested and we were put back on a plane to our parents. It turned out she had a brain tumor and we had many hospital visits and treatments in our future.

    One day after church a friend of ours asked if she could pray for my sister. She took her up to the balcony where no one could watch them and had her lay down. She then ran her hands through the air all along my sister’s body while praying in tongues. The next day at my sister’s doctor appointment her tumor was gone and it never came back. Healing by prayer or a coincidence? You be the judge. I can tell youI never looked at the woman who prayed for my sister the same way again. LOL

    • This is an incredible story, Debra. It can hardly be co-incidence, can it? What fascinated me when I went to Lourdes was that a significant percentage of the confirmed miracles were people who had never gone there, but had just prayed to the Lady of Lourdes from a distance. Yet there’s millions go there every year and pray in the chapel and take the waters and are not healed. So what is actually going on? I’ve heard of these healings you mention but have never known anyone personally that it’s happened to. So thanks so much for sharing it – that’s amazing.

      • Debra Kristi says:

        Looking back at what I wrote I think I sound rather crazy. I guess that’s why I’ve never shared that story. LOL. I take it my sister had work to do before her time was done. Glad you liked the story. I’d forgotten about it till I read your piece. .

      • I didn’t think it was crazy at all. I think it’s good to be skeptical in this world but sometimes we’re far too skeptical. The world is a very mysterious place. See what you think after you read my post on John of God!

    • lynnkelleyauthor says:

      I believe it was healing by prayer, no doubt about it. Amazing and awesome!

  7. As a divinity graduate as well as being a keen student of the school of life, when we next get a chance to chat over coffee, whether in Dome, gloria Jeans or some other barista establishment, there is much I could share of thoughts, knowledge, my own experience and the experience of others. Suffice it to say ‘there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamed of in our philosophy.’ Stigmata exist, miracles exist, love exists, subjective and objective experiences exist, energy exists, healing exists, and we are more than a physical mass. But I know more questions than answers – but would love to know your inner thoughts. As I said, it can wait for a cup of coffee!!!!

    • Marion, my fascination with the stigmata led to my next novel. I’ll be writing a bit more about that closer to pub date. I have no fixed views about it, but I am endlessly curious. The world is indeed a mysterious place.

  8. Silly me did not realise why the hospital in Perth is called jOHN OF gOD. And there is me ‘bragging’ about being a divinity graduate. Thanks for teaching me another small lesson!

  9. Pingback: MORE SECRETS OF THE STIGMATA | LOOKING FOR MR GOODSTORY

  10. lynnkelleyauthor says:

    Why in the world would they have only brought back St. Catherine of Siena’s head? That’s awful.

    I enjoyed reading about Fr. Pio again. So much suffering. And St. Catherine, too. I don’t understand why they had to be in constant pain like that. It’s beyond my understanding, so I’ll leave it at that. They were saints.

    Hearing about Debra’s sister’s miracle is fascinating. I’ve used that word over and over in my comments on these posts about the saints. I believe in miracles and know people who have had healings. Some minor, some major. It’s hard for our minds to grasp. It’s kind of like the last line of the movie The Song of Bernadette. It was something like, “For those who believe, no proof is necessary. For those who doubt, no proof will suffice.” I love that line!

    Love these posts, too. I wish I hadn’t missed these. I’ll have to catch up and read your post on John of God soon. Thanks for these excellent posts, Colin!

    • Thanks Lynn. Yes, I’ve seen Catherine of Siena’s head. I find it grotesque but other people may feel differently. I don’t think I’d want my head on display five hundred years from now, it’s hard to look at first thing in the morning anyway.

      I believe one of the key to the suffering is that all the saints mentioned believed that there was virtue in suffering.

      I haven’t written the John of God yet. I’m looking for the photos I took when I was there.

      • As the only way I can get a fair comment from the lovely CF is obviously to post here, I am doing so. Seriously, I find it fascinating that these saints of centuries ago, died young, and in the case of Catherine of siena she was anorexic and today with that and her many other ills she would be treated as mentally unwell! she certainly would not have been treated as normal, or super spiritual, or any of those things atrtributed to the ‘saints of old’. I wonder why? Or is it that history adds an air of mystery. I was always taught at uni the ‘Sitz im leben’ of all things theological, and it is good to apply that to all of the martyrs, saints, and the ordinary people and traditions of the day. So, would Catherine have been a saint today or, in common parlance ‘a nutcase’.Might she not have been considered a very disturbed teenager?? And I am not being blasphemous, but the older I get and the more I investigate and as in Alice in Wonderland think things are ‘curioser . and curioser’, with less and less answers. . Even creating an ‘inner cell’ as Catherine did would be considered abnormal these days. But then, what is ‘normality?’..

      • You’ve made some good points here, Marion. My mate has a fridge magnet that says: ‘The only people I think are normal are the people I don’t know very well.’ It seems to me that ‘normal’ is a very fluid concept. Certainly people like Padre Pio and John of God in Brazil have been the subject of vitriolic attacks. They are certainly not ‘normal’, but the line between any kind of genius and madness always seems pretty fine to me.

  11. And by the way, the prophets of the Old Testament would be branded as schizophrenics today – hearing voices!

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