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What is a Stigmata?

Updated on August 24, 2010

Stigmata are the signs of the wounds Jesus sustained in his crucifixion or the pain associated with such wounds that have appeared in some of his followers who have had ecstatic experiences. The word "stigmata" is derived from a Greek word meaning "sign" or "mark." It was used by Greeks and Romans to signify a brand on fugitive slaves, in the East on all slaves and sometimes on soldiers and everywhere as an identifying brand on cattle. St. Paul (Galatians 6:17) spoke of bearing the marks (stigmata) of Jesus Christ, referring to the sufferings that branded him as his master's soldier and slave.

Famous Instances

Contemporary scholarship raises no doubt about the fact of such phenomena, but there is wide divergence in the explanations of their probable causes. Some cases are reported as early as 330-350 a. d., but the first well-known stigmatist is Saint Francis of Assisi (about 1181-1226). The marks on his hands and feet seen by a few associates used to be thought unique, fleshy, nail-like neoformations. The neo-formation element is rejected by contemporary scholars. The marks usually appear on hands, feet, and side but, at times, they have appeared also on the head and shoulders. They are often accompanied either externally or subcutaneously by the shedding of what seems to be blood. The wounds may or may not be observable breaks in the tissue. Some well-accepted stigmatists, such as Saints Catherine of Siena and Teresa of Avila, experienced the phenomena without visible signs, but mostly with the pain that would generally accompany such external wounds. No two cases are exactly alike, but a most common feature is the stigmatist's consciousness of being identified with the suffering Christ. The best-known modern examples are Teresa Neumann (1898-1962), whose case was not satisfactorily submitted to physicians, and Padre Pio (1887-1969), who was examined medically and shown to have signs of wounds. Similar instances are reported of Muslim ascetics marked with wounds like those sustained by Mohammed in battle.

Interpretation

Often popularly considered a direct divine intervention, the stigmata have not been so judged by church authorities. Pope Benedict XIV (reigned 1740-1758) emphasized this fact in his still authoritative work on canonization. And Pope Pius IX (reigned 1846-1878), who, like many of his predecessors, thought Saint Francis' stigmata historically certain, declared it not a matter of faith. Saint Francis de Sales (1567-1622) once viewed the stigmata as an effect of direct divine action, but came to judge them as the product of strong compassion in one contemplating the sufferings of Jesus. A parallel conclusion can be drawn of Muslim stigmatists.

There is no evident reason to suppose that the production of the stigmata surpasses the power of nature. It occurs only in ecstatics and so seems to be related to ecstasy, a natural state that at times accompanies intense degrees of mental and emotional absorption. Ecstasy itself tends to occur in those who are subject to hysteria- not as this is commonly understood, but as a psychic condition that consists chiefly of a heightened suggestibility. Such a condition has no effective relation to the sincerity, sanity, or sanctity of the person stigmatized.

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