What is the stigmata?
The stigmata is the markings of Christ given to someone by God while they are still alive. It is “[The] Phenomenon in which a person bears all or some of the wounds of Christ in his or her own body, i.e., on the feet, hands, side, and brow. The wounds appear spontaneously, from no external source, and periodically there is a flow of fresh blood.” Sometimes the stigmata is visible and other times the wounds are invisible. The word “stigmata” comes from the Greek “tattoo mark”. The Church has never issued an infallible declaration concerning the stigmata.
Who has received the stigmata? “There have been 321 cases of authentic stigmatization recorded.” Of the 321 cases, more than sixty of the people have been canonized as saints and almost ninety percent of all stigmatists are women. There are some theologians who speculate that Saint Paul was the first to receive the stigmata because he says in today’s second reading, “From now on, let no one make troubles for me; for I bear the marks of Jesus on my body”, but we are not sure. The first recorded account of someone receiving the stigmata is Saint Francis of Assisi.
The following is a list of known stigmatists who have been beatified, canonized, or declared venerable:
Angela of Foligno
Anna Maria Taïgi
Anna Rosa Gattorno
Camilla Battista Varani
Catherine del Ricci
Catherine of Genoa
Catherine of Racconigi (1486-1547), Dominican
Catherine of Siena
Charles of Sezze
Clara Isabella Fornari
Clare of Montefalco
Flora of Beaulieu
Frances of Rome
Francis of Assisi
Gertrude van Oosten
Helen of Hungary
John of God
Lydwina of Schiedam
Lucy of Narni
Margaret Mary Alacoque
Margaret of Cortona
Margaret of the Blessed Sacrament
Maria Lopez of Jesus
Marie of the Incarnation
Mary Anne of Jesus (1557-1620), Franciscan tertiary
Mary Frances of the Five Wounds
Mary Magdalene de’ Pazzi
Mary of Jesus Crucified
Osanna of Mantua
Rita of Cassia
Rita of Lima
Stephana de Quinzanis
When and how do people receive the stigmata? Everyone who has received the stigmata has received it in different forms and fashions. For example, “The best known stigmatic was St. Francis of Assisi. During an ecstasy on Mount Alvernia on September 17, 1224, he saw a seraph offer him an image of Jesus crucified and imprint upon him the sacred stigmata. Blood used to flow from these wounds until the time of his death two years later. He tried to conceal the phenomenon but not very successfully.”[v] Usually, the person who receives the marks of Christ receives them sometime on Thursday and/or Friday, coinciding with Our Lord’s passion. The people who have received the marks have also received them after intense prayer and forms of ecstasy. Sometimes the wounds would come and go. Padre Pio had the stigmata for a long time, then one day it went away only to return again a short time later.
Do the wounds constantly bleed? At times, yes. They are not free flowing to where there are dangerous levels of blood loss, but they do bleed. Also, they do hurt. Both Padre Pio and Saint Francis had extremely difficult times walking around because of the wounds which slowed them down.
How do we know if the stigmata are real? Just like miracles that occur at Lourdes and miracles that happen through the intercessions of saints, the Church does not just claim stigmata haphazardly. There are certain things that the Church looks for when approving or disproving stigmata. “Through centuries of canonical processes, the Church has established certain criteria for determining genuine stigmata. Thus the wounds are localized in the very spots where Christ received the five wounds, which does not occur if the bloody sweat is produced by hysteria or hypnotism. Generally the wounds bleed afresh and the pains recur on the days or during the season associated with the Savior’s passion, such as Fridays or feast days of Our Lord. The wounds do not become festered and the blood flowing from them is pure, whereas the slightest natural lesion in some other part of the body develops an infection. Moreover, the wounds do not yield to the usual medical treatment, and may remain for as long as thirty to forty years. The wounds bleed freely and produce a veritable hemorrhage; and this takes place not only at the beginning but also again and again. Also the extent of the hemorrhage is phenomenal; the stigmata lie on the surface, removed from the great blood vessels, yet the blood literally streams from them. Finally true stigmata are not found except in persons who practice the most heroic virtues and possess a special love of the Cross.”[vi]
Why do some people receive the stigmata? The people who have received the marks of Christ have had a deep desire to be as close to Christ as humanly possible. They spend hours in prayer, receive daily Eucharist, and fast for long periods. “Authentic stigmatization occurs only among people favored with ecstasy and is preceded and attended by keen physical and moral sufferings that thus make the subject conformable to the suffering Christ. The absence of suffering would cast serious doubt on the validity of the stigmata, whose assumed purpose is to symbolize union with Christ crucified and participation in his own martyrdom.”[vii]
The stigmata can also be seen as a witness to the great holiness of the person or used to awaken something within the world at that time. “In his paper Hospitality and Pain, Christian theologian Ivan Illich states: ‘Compassion with Christ… is faith so strong and so deeply incarnate that it leads to the individual embodiment of the contemplated pain.’ His thesis is that stigmata result from exceptional poignancy of religious faith and desire to associate oneself with the suffering Messiah.”[viii]
Why is the stigmata usually in the hand instead of the wrist? While some stigmata have been shown in the wrists, the majority have been in the hands. Many people see this and think that the markings are fake because it is believed that Jesus was crucified in the wrists. We have to ask ourselves what the purpose of the stigmata is in the first place. It has a mystical purpose. The markings are not the actual markings of Jesus Christ; it is not like the priest being in persona Christi or the Eucharist being the body, blood, soul, and divinity of Christ. The mystical purpose of the stigmata is to unite us to our Lord.
What are we to learn from the stigmata? The first thing to note is that our salvation is not dependent on whether or not we believe in the stigmata. This is why the Church has not pursued it so fervently. The Church will recognize it, but not trouble herself with making dogmatic decrees on the matter. Whether someone believes in people receiving the stigmata or not, what we learn from this is to unite our sufferings with Jesus in the body of Christ.
Saint Paul says in the second reading, “May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ…”[ix] The cross is where we see our salvation and the example of perfect suffering. We are the body of Christ. Jesus is the head. Jesus’ suffering is completed and perfected on the cross. He suffers no more, but we, the body of Christ, do still suffer. However, since we are connected to the head of Christ, our suffering has meaning. Saint Paul writes, “Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ on behalf of his body, which is the church.”[x] We can take on our own burdens and other peoples too if we so desire to bring the body closer to health. We should never look at any suffering, pain, or hardship with despair, because we are not alone. We unite our sufferings with Jesus, the head, and are brought to salvation. Of all people, Jesus understands suffering because He is a divine person that took on human flesh, and with it all its sufferings, even death.
 Hardon, Modern Catholic Dictionary pgs. 520
 cf. Hardon, Modern Catholic Dictionary pgs. 520
 Gal. 6:17
[v] Hardon, Modern Catholic Dictionary pgs. 520
[vi] Hardon, Modern Catholic Dictionary pgs. 520 – 521
[vii] Hardon, Modern Catholic Dictionary pgs. 520- 521
[ix] Gal. 6:14
[x] Col. 1:24