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Jill RiceSeptember 23, 2022
A woman touches a statue of St. Padre Pio in the Church of Santa Maria delle Grazie at the Shrine of St. Pio of Pietrelcina in San Giovanni Rotondo, Italy, March 16. Pope Francis was to visit the shrine the next day. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

Sept. 23 is Padre Pio’s feast day, and the film about Padre Pio, starring Shia LaBeouf as the title character, premiered just a few weeks ago. The 20th-century saint is known in part for his prophetic ability, his healing power and receiving the stigmata.

During his life and after his death, these expressions of Padre Pio’s holiness have been debated. Believers say that in addition to receiving the stigmata, Padre Pio prophesied that Karol Wojtyła would become pope, that he healed a man with club feet and another who was blind, and that he could read souls. If someone did not confess every sin on their conscience, he purportedly knew about it. They say he bore the wounds of Christ on his hands, feet and side. But others have questioned these feats, perhaps most notably the presence of Christ’s wounds, known as the stigmata, arguing that he caused the marks himself using chemicals.

To many, the stigmata can seem a strange “gift,” but Padre Pio is not the first to reportedly receive the wounds of Christ.

The stigmata—a history

The first stigmatic (a person whose body shows wounds like those of Christ) was St. Francis of Assisi, the founder of the Franciscan order, in 1224. He is said to have borne the marks of the nails of the crucifixion on his hands and feet, and the wound from the lance in his side. Other stigmatics, like St. Margaret Mary Alacoque, bore only marks from the crown of thorns.

The word stigmata, the plural of stigma, comes from the Greek, meaning “mark” or “brand.”

There have been about 250 recorded instances of the stigmata, and approximately 90 percent of these stigmatics have been women. However, not all have been declared saints or even affirmed as legitimate by the church.

The stigmata usually is reported to occur alongside some form of religious ecstasy or visions, which tend to occur either at the reception of the marks or more regularly. Usually, physical pain and anguish for the sinful state of the world occur along with the wounds, showing the stigmatic’s connection to Christ.

To many, the stigmata can seem a strange “gift,” but Padre Pio is not the first to reportedly receive the wounds of Christ.

For St. Francis, the stigmata appeared when he received a vision of an angel crucified, and the wounds then appeared on his own body. His biographer, Thomas of Celano, also wrote that he suffered more illnesses after receiving the stigmata.

St. Catherine of Siena, on the other hand, received the stigmata during one Lent, but it was visible only to herself, yet she is said to have felt the pain of the marks. They reportedly appeared on her body after her death.

The stigmata appeared on St. Gemma Galgani on Thursday from about 8 p.m. until 3 p.m. on Friday every week for the four years she lived after receiving the wounds. She had been ill and paralyzed when she was 19, and two years later, in 1899, after years of praying for a cure, she received a vision in which the wounds of Jesus were on fire before they then touched her as well. They remained on her body after her death. (St. Catherine de’ Ricci suffered a similar “ecstasy of the Passion” weekly from Thursday at noon until Friday at 4 p.m.)

St. Rita of Cascia, who lived during the 15th century, asked Jesus for a piece of his pain and suffering, specifically for one of the thorns from Jesus’ crown to embed itself in her head. Her prayer was answered, and she lived with the pain of Jesus, uniting herself to his suffering. Though her wound smelled rotten when she was alive (causing her to live apart from her fellow nuns), her incorrupt body emitted the “odor of sanctity,” a pleasant or flowery scent.

The stigmata—Padre Pio’s experience

Padre Pio, like other stigmatics, reportedly had a vision that led to his receiving the five wounds. He, too, had been sickly his whole life (he was discharged from the Medical Corps during World War I because of his ill health). The first priest to receive the stigmata, he was prohibited from celebrating Mass in public and from visiting with people for a few years in the 1930s because of church suspicion of his works.

Padre Pio allegedly experienced transverberation of the heart—two months before he received the stigmata—in which he suffered horrible pain in his side for two days, said to be part of participation in Jesus’ suffering for the world. He was able to bilocate, according to the testimony of Padre Carmelo Durante, the superior of Padre Pio’s community in 1954, and it was said he was in the town healing people or attending meetings while being simultaneously in the friary.

Padre Pio faced questions from authorities, including Pope John XXIII in the 1960s, about the veracity of his miracles, from the healings he performed to the stigmata he bore. Many argue to this day that he may have used carbolic acid on his hands to make the marks on his body. However, the pope who canonized him, St. John Paul II, had his own encounter with Padre Pio in 1947 and believed in Padre Pio’s prophetic powers; and he beatified and canonized him.

Padre Pio’s canonization, like those of all other saints with the stigmata, did not come about as a result of the stigmata but from a life of virtue and the healing miracles worked through their name after their death.

The stigmata—a female phenomenon

A very high percentage of stigmatics have been women. Some have attributed this to women being more active generally in religion, or to women’s lack of power in the church, especially in previous centuries. Others have argued that experiencing the wounds of Christ lent women with the stigmata a kind of authority in the church in which they have no clerical power. Most also had little earthly power in their own lives—Marie Rose Ferron was bedridden; St. Lidwina was paralyzed; Bl. Elena Aiello survived stomach cancer.

There have been about 250 recorded instances of the stigmata, and approximately 90 percent of these stigmatics have been women.

In The Devotion and Promotion of Stigmatics in Europe, c. 1800–1950: Between Saints and Celebrities, published in 2021, Tine Van Osselaer writes, “the femaleness of the body added to the unease about its visibility.” Seeing women (who were then often hidden, remaining in the home) in this state of having such a strong connection to God was an uncomfortable reality for many who saw men as the spiritual authorities.

The stigmata—a controversy

As with many miraculous and inexplicable events from the church’s history, the stigmata is not without its many doubters. The Catholic Church has established criteria for determining genuine stigmata, though one need not believe in the phenomenon to be Catholic. Saints or blesseds with the stigmata have been canonized or beatified because of their holy deeds and other works attributed to them, not because of their stigmata alone.

The first recorded case of stigmata occurred in the 13th century, which for some raises questions about the first 1,000-plus years after Christ’s death, when there is no record of anyone reporting these wounds. Some note that the beginning of the era in which the church has a record of people claiming to experience the stigmata aligns with the period in church history when the church embraced with special emphasis the recognition of the humanity of Jesus, especially as he was on the cross. Around that same time St. Francis of Assisi received the stigmata, the feast of Corpus Christi was celebrated on the Christian calendar for the first time.

As Ms. Van Osselaer writes, “the bodies of the stigmatics not only referred to that of Christ and of stigmatized predecessors, but also symbolized the current state of society—they referred to both the past and the present.” Some bore similar wounds to other saints after they had heard their stories. Others had more pronounced suffering when their wounds seemed to be politically necessary.

As with many miraculous and inexplicable events from the church’s history, the stigmata is not without its many doubters.

For example, in the 19th century, the stigmata, once a very private and insular experience, became almost a tourist attraction. This is what happened in the case of Louise Lateau, a Belgian woman who was something of a celebrity Catholic in a world where spectacle reigned with newfound circuses, and Catholicism was politically threatened in northern Europe. For those who visited her on Fridays for her weekly experience of the Passion, she represented a silent political voice for Catholicism, especially for those from neighboring Germany, a new and Protestant-ruled country, who could see her physical suffering as analogous to their own political strife.

Lateau was also visited by hundreds of doctors and theologians. “Lateau’s body was…not the only exceptional body to be scrutinized by medical experts (as were the bodies of the hysterics in La Salpêtrière), or gazed at by the curious (as with other spectacles or fantasies) and the faithful (as with the bodies of those miraculously cured in Lourdes),” explained Tine Van Osselaer in her chapter “On Stigmata, Suffering and Sanctity.” The Vatican wrote that her case for beatification is not open.

Some stigmatics have been proven to be hoaxes, such as Magdalena de la Cruz, who admitted on her deathbed that she faked the wounds. Others like Therese Neumann were unable to provide proof of the wounds or their divine nature when requested by scientific researchers.

The life of a stigmatic is often filled with trauma, such that their wounds may well align with the physical and mental ailments they already suffered.

Most people with the stigmata have suffered some kind of ailment, including but not limited to: hallucinations, epilepsy, traumatic injuries, self-mutilation, extremely low self-esteem and anorexia or inedia (including consuming only the Eucharist). This does not include religious ecstasy or visions, which most had at least once. Therese Neumann might have had a then-unheard-of case of multiple personality disorder or hypochondria.

The self-proclaimed devil’s advocate Herbert Thurston, S.J., wrote that the suggestibility of the so-called stigmatics lends itself to a “crucifixion complex.” The stigmatics’ marks vary: The lance wound in the side is sometimes on the left, sometimes the right; many stigmatics have wounds in the palm, whereas Jesus would have been nailed through the wrist (as some more recent stigmatics have allegedly experienced); and some have markings directly corresponding to a crucifix at their local church. This could suggest that the stigmatics imprinted the marks on themselves, either purposefully or while in religious trance; in this case, they would not have been divinely caused.

The life of a stigmatic is often filled with trauma, such that their wounds may well align with the physical and mental ailments they already suffered. Some may be skeptical of stories of the stigmata, but one should not ignore the spiritual power of the idea that people—many on the margins of society, especially women—can be so connected to God that they accept and join in his pain nonstop for years of their lives, and in the process cultivate a similar repentant and compassionate sentiment in others.

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