There I stood between two enormous boulders, in La Verna, outside of Assisi, Italy in the same spot St. Francis had stood 800 years prior. Dante Alighieri, a Secular Franciscan, called this place “that rugged rock 'twixt Tiber and Arno,” in his Divine Comedy.
I looked out to the sky above me. I saw only the sun, clouds and the occasional bird winging his way to someplace important.
It was there, right above both of our respective heads, in 1224, where the saint encountered the seraph that blessed him with the marks of Christ's Passion — the Stigmata.
The concept of stigmata originates from the line at the end of St. Paul's Letter to the Galatians where he says, “I bear on my body the marks of Jesus.” (Galatians 6:17) In this case, he was referring to the abuse he had experienced in his vocation as a Christian missionary and apostle rather than a mystical wound. The original Greek word referred to the marks created by branding irons on slaves who were attached to a particular temple or to the service of a particular deity as in the case of Cybele.
An individual bearing Christ's wounds is referred to as a stigmatist or a stigmatic.
La Verna is one of the most important Franciscan monasteries and pilgrimage sites in the world. In May 8, 1213, Count Orlando of Chiusi della Verna donated the land to St. Francis after listening to the friar's preaching. The Count wrote to the him:
I have in Tuscany a diverse little mountain, which is called the mountain of Alvernia, which is the very lonely and savage act and it's good for those who want to do penance in a place removed from the people, or those who want to lonely life. If you like, I will gladly give it to you and your comrades for my soul.
Francis often retired to this spot in order to recollect. In 1218, the Count built the Santa Maria degli Angeli chapel on the property.
On September 14, 1224, on the Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross, St. Francis of Assisi and three of his saintly companions made their way to La Verna for a forty days’ fast in preparation for Michaelmas (Sept. 29).
Wanting to know what God wanted of him, Francis contemplated upon Christ's Passion and prayed incessantly to feel on his body the pain Jesus experienced, as far as was humanly possible.
While praying upon the mountainside, Francis beheld a seraph―the highest order of angels―who bestowed upon il Poverino, the poor man from Assisi, the visible marks of the Crucified's five wounds — which, as his biographer, Thomas of Celano, had described, were “already written upon his heart.” (cf. LMaj XIII, 1ss)
Brother Leo, one of St. Francis' followers, gave an account of Francis' stigmata in which he described the miraculous wounds and the pain the saint experienced well afterwards. This mystical pain only exacerbated the debilitations of the 18 years of nearly continual self-imposed mortifications to which the saint was accustomed.
Thomas of Celano wrote about the friar's mystical experience in his 1230 treatise First Life of St. Francis:
When the blessed servant of God saw these things he was filled with wonder, but he did not know what the vision meant. He rejoiced greatly in the benign and gracious expression with which he saw himself regarded by the seraph, whose beauty was indescribable; yet he was alarmed by the fact that the seraph was affixed to the cross and was suffering terribly. Thus Francis rose, one might say, sad and happy, joy and grief alternating in him. He wondered anxiously what this vision could mean, and his soul was uneasy as it searched for understanding. And as his understanding sought in vain for an explanation and his heart was filled with perplexity at the great novelty of this vision, the marks of nails began to appear in his hands and feet, just as he had seen them slightly earlier in the crucified man above him.
His wrists and feet seemed to be pierced by nails, with the heads of the nails appearing on his wrists and on the upper sides of his feet, the points appearing on the other side. The marks were round on the palm of each hand but elongated on the other side, and small pieces of flesh jutting out from the rest took on the appearance of the nail-ends, bent and driven back. In the same way the marks of nails were impressed on his feet and projected beyond the rest of the flesh. Moreover, his right side had a large wound as if it had been pierced with a spear, and it often bled so that his tunic and trousers were soaked with his sacred blood.
At the sight of the angel, Francis was filled with a crushing humility and joyful exuberance which, joined in his flesh, caused him horrible pain. When the vision ended, Francis was left with wounds in his hands, feet and side. His physical body reflected his interior moral and spiritual conformity to the lived example of Jesus Christ — the realization of God's explicit admonition to us:
Take My yoke and put it on you, and learn from Me, because I am gentle and humble in spirit; and you will find rest. (Mat 11:29)
Francis was the first person in history to be blessed with such a manifestation of Christ’s Passion in his own body.
The stigmata are a corporeal manifestation and verification of what only God can typically see. It's a reality that's otherwise invisible to us but readily apparent to God for God doesn't consider a man's appearance but rather examines the heart. (1Sa 16:7)
Francis is the singular Christian who could perfectly embody Christ's gentle challenge.
We might ask ourselves why Francis was chosen for this honor rather than anyone else. In the introduction to his Practice of the Love of Jesus Christ, St. Alphonsus de Liguori, related this story about the saint:
[St. Francis] was one day found by a gentleman shedding tears, and crying out with a loud voice: being asked the cause "I weep," he answered, "over the sorrows and disgraces of my Lord: and what causes me the greatest sorrow is, that men, for whom he suffered so much, live in forgetfulness of him." And on saying this he wept the more, so that this gentleman began also himself to weep.
St. Francis is called the Alter Christus or "Other Christ" because he dedicated himself to live as authentic a Christian life as possible.
As Christians, we all bear the indelible mark of Christ on our souls as a result of Baptism. (Eph 1:13, 2Cor 1:22) To keep our end of the bargain, we're not allowed to ignore those marks thus hiding them from the world. Instead, each time we suffer for others, or indeed for Christ and His Church, we bear our wounds proudly. Each instance in which we forgive those who've wronged, abused or otherwise mistreated us, we acknowledge our commitment to Christ. (CCC 1272) The stigmata, however, is a sign of the Christian life well-lived, that is, one wholly directed towards loving God and others.
There's little debate these days as to whether stigmata exist. They are completely established in medical texts. Admittedly, too many cases of stigmatism can be explained as fraud or unconsciously self-inflicted wounds.
This is a legitimate consideration as there is more than a sufficient number of people who refuse to acknowledge God in their lives but seek an inordinate amount of attention and aren't above scamming everyone around them. Thus, the Catholic Church and its investigators don’t simply gullibly believe everyone who reports the stigmata — or any other miraculous event, for that matter.
Rather, all serious cases are carefully examined. Even Padre Pio, a legitimate stigmatic, was accused of fraud by nearly everyone including people in his own community. On her deathbed, Magdalena de la Cruz admitted to having inflicted her own wounds. Maria Vollhardt was definitely a fraud, considering the fact that she charged people for the privilege of speaking with her.
One way to distinguish between a self-imposed wound and a legitimate case of stigmata is that a wound that is constantly worried to make sure it doesn't heal will often emit a fetid odor due to tissue death. A true stigmatic's wounds will not. In fact, there have been several examples in which a true stigmatic's wounds produce a perfume — examples include Sts. Padre Pio, Juana of the Cross and Bl. Lucy of Narni. This is known as the Odor of Sanctity.
Admittedly, St. Rita of Cassia's stigmatic forehead wound emitted an unbearably foul odor however, there was no evidence of putrefaction, suppuration or inflammation of the surrounding flesh.
However, though psychologists are quick to insist that stigmata are either due to extreme emotional states/ auto-suggestion or fraud, there is no historical example of such phenomena in an atheist.
For one to prove scientifically that only a hyperactive imagination is the cause of these manifestations, then an analogous situation would have to be found in the secular sphere. However, there there's no indication in the scientific literature of such wounds being produced in a “secular” situation.
The Redeemer's work isn't over. If it were, He wouldn't ask us to seek perfection. (Mt 5:48) Instead, He begs us pick up our cross and to take on His yoke. Christ calls us to deny ourselves, carry our cross daily and follow Him (Lk 9:23). Christians must emulate Jesus, the God Who willingly sacrificed Himself for our sake. (John 3:16)
Keep this in mind when you contemplate a crucifix or pray the Stations of the Cross — or indeed, consider St. Francis of Assisi's life and ministry. And as we celebrate the Feast of the Sacred Stigmata of St. Francis of Assisi on September 17, let's consider what lacks in Christ's flesh that should be made up in our own. (Col 1:24)
The following is a short list of the Church's glorious crown of stigmatics:
- St. Francis of Assisi (1181-1226)
- St. Lutgarde (1182-1246), a Cistercian
- St. Margaret of Cortona (1247-97)
- St. Gertrude (1256-1302), a Benedictine
- St. Clare of Montefalco (1268-1308), an Augustinian
- Bl. Angela of Foligno (d. 1309), Franciscan tertiary
- St. Catherine of Siena (1347-80), Dominican tertiary
- St. Lidwine (1380-1433)
- St. Frances of Rome (1384-1440)
- St. Colette (1380-1447), Franciscan
- St. Rita of Cassia (1386-1456), Augustinian
- Bl. Osanna of Mantua (1499-1505), Dominican tertiary
- St. Catherine of Genoa (1447-1510), Franciscan tertiary
- Bl. Baptista Varani (1458-1524), Poor Clare
- Bl. Lucy of Narni (1476-1547), Dominican tertiary
- Bl. Catherine of Racconigi (1486-1547), Dominican
- St. John of God (1495-1550), founder of the Order of Charity
- St. Catherine de' Ricci (1522-89), Dominican
- St. Mary Magdalene de' Pazzi (1566-1607), Carmelite
- Bl. Marie de l'Incarnation (1566-1618), Carmelite
- Bl. Mary Anne of Jesus (1557-1620), Franciscan tertiary
- Bl. Carlo of Sezze (d. 1670), Franciscan
- Bl. Margaret Mary Alacoque (1647-90), Visitandine (crown of thorns)
- St. Veronica Giuliani (1600-1727), Capuchiness
- St. Mary Frances of the Five Wounds (1715-91), Franciscan tertiary.
- Catherine Emmerich (1774-1824), Augustinian
- Elizabeth Canori Mora (1774-1825), Trinitarian tertiary
- Anna Maria Taïgi (1769-1837)
- Maria Dominica Lazzari (1815-48)
- Marie de Moerl (1812-68), Franciscan tertiary
- Louise Lateau (1850-83), Franciscan tertiary
- St. Pio of Pietrelcina, Franciscan