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St. Francis of Assisi and the Stigmata
St. Francis of Assisi is such a popular saint that pretty much everyone knows at least the basic story of his life: Francis was a typical teenager who felt a call to change his ways during an illness after having been a prisoner of war. Despite the wishes of his wealthy father, Francis left his home and began living in absolute poverty. Although condemned by many as a madman, Francis soon attracted followers – including most of his friends – and in 1209 the Franciscan Order was given the blessing of Pope Innocent III. His extreme poverty led Francis to a love of nature. He was particularly fond of animals and since his death and canonization has been declared the patron saint of animals.
One of the lesser known aspects of St. Francis’ life is his missionary work during the Fifth Crusade (1217-1221). There is in particular a story about how he was brought before Sultan Al-Kamil and later released after being told: “If all Christians were like you, the entire world would convert”.
But even beyond this, there is one part – and perhaps the most important part – of the story of St. Francis of Assisi which very few people know: On September 14, 1224, while living in isolation from his community, St. Francis became the first person in recorded history to receive the stigmata. This was during a very difficult period of his life. His order, which had seemed so promising and had grown so fast, was having problems and was living outside of his original rules of poverty and simplicity. After relinquishing the government of his community to another, Francis began living the life of a hermit. At this stage of his life Francis was practically blind and had undergone several horrendous procedures in an attempt to save his sight.
During late summer of 1224 St. Francis was living alone on a mountain in the Apennines known as La Verna (now a major pilgrimage site). He was preparing to celebrate Saint Michael the Archangel’s feast day on September 29th and was following the example of Christ by fasting in the wilderness for 40 days. On September 14, 1224, Francis received a vision of an angel which sent him into ecstasy. When he came back down to earth, he had wounds from crucifixion nails on his hands and feet as well as an open wound on his side.
Like Padre Pio, the marks of the stigmata remained on Francis’ body for the rest of his life, but suddenly disappeared after his death. After the events of September 14, 1224, Francis of Assisi lived for another two years and died peacefully in the company of his monastic brothers.
September 14th, by the way, is the feast of the Triumph of the Cross. This feast developed during the 4th century when the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem was consecrated and on September 14th the True Cross, discovered only recently by Saint Helen, was brought for veneration by the faithful.
St. Francis of Assisi was canonized only two years after his death. His feast day is celebrated on October 4th. There is, however, another feast on the liturgical calendar which commemorates Francis receiving the stigmata. Although not particularly important outside of Italy (particularly in the La Verna community), September 17th can be celebrated as the feast of the Impression of the Stigmata on St. Francis of Assisi.
1961 movie directed by Michael Curtiz
One of the main reasons why this part of St. Francis’s story is not so widely known is that this aspect of his life has often been omitted from film portrayals. Most particularly Franco Zeffirelli’s Brother Sun, Sister Moon ends the story after the Franciscan Order received the blessing of the Pope. The impression of the stigmata was, however, shown in Liliana Cavani’s 1989 film Francesco as well as in Michael Curtiz’s Francis of Assisi starring Bradford Dillman as St. Francis and Dolores Hart as St. Clare. Two years after making this movie, by the way, Dolores Hart followed the example of Assisi’s saints, gave up Hollywood and became a Benedictine nun.