Term derived from the Greek root stigma, meaning mark and, in particular, a brand impressed by iron. It was used in antiquity to refer to marks branded on cattle, on all slaves in the Orient, and on fugitive slaves in Greece and Rome. Soldiers also, of some Eastern countries, wore stigmata. In modern times, the term was introduced into medical science to signify characteristic symptoms of mere illnesses, e.g., hysteria and syphilis.
A religious significance was first attached to the term when Herodotus used it to signify the tattooing practiced in certain ancient religions (2.13). The word appears in only one passage of Scripture, where St. Paul writes, "I bear the marks of the Lord Jesus in my body" (Gal 6.17). By this he designated the marks, on his body, of what he suffered for Christ. In medieval times, the meaning of the stigmata was restricted to wounds some people bore on hands, feet, and sometimes the side, shoulder, or back. They were considered a visible sign of participation in Christ's Passion. This conception of the stigmata is easily understood in the light of the times. The devotion to Christ crucified, which in the first centuries of Christianity had emphasized Christ's triumph over the kingdom of evil, took on in medieval times a character of compassion with His sufferings. Medieval preachers and ascetical writers, particularly St. Bernard of Clairvaux (1091–1153), spread this devotion with zeal and success. For some of them, the devotion was the way par excellence of reaching mystical contemplation (see St. Bonaventure, Itinerarium mentis ad Deum, prol.). Some people, such as Bl. Mary d'Oignies (d. 1213) and Robert de Monferrant (d. 1234) went so far in the practice of compassion and resemblance with Christ that they themselves deliberately reproduced on their own bodies the marks of Christ's Passion. They did this either in or out of a state of ecstasy.
Occurrences in Christian History. When St. fran cis of assisi died (1226), his friends and followers could see the stigmata on his hands, feet, and side. He had received them in an ecstatic vision two years before, as St. Bonaventure testified in his Legenda S. Francisci (13.5,8). From that time, the number of persons with the stigmata increased considerably. A catalogue of them, containing 321 names, was compiled by A. Imbert-Goubeyre, M.D. in La Stigmatisation (2 v. Clermont-Ferrand 1894–95; 2 ed. 1908).
However, no reliable list of stigmatized persons exists. The catalogue just mentioned has serious defects. J. Lhermitte contemptuously calls it a Gilded Legend (Legende Dorée ). H. Thurston, SJ, considers it "irritating both from its entire lack of historical criticism and from its pretension to constitute a complete record" (223). Moreover, it includes doubtful cases of stigmatization. Many mentioned in it had only what are now commonly called invisible stigmata, that is, intense pains localized in those places of their bodies in which, in other stigmatics, wounds were visible. This is the kind of stigmatization that St. catherine of siena and St. teresa of avila had. St. francis de sales explains them as a strong emotion of compassionate love, which an ecstatic person experiences when contemplating the Passion of Christ (Treatise on the Love of God, 6.15). Imbert-Goubeyre's list of stigmatics gives no satisfactory account of the circumstances in which stigmata first appeared, or of the details of the lives of the stigmatics, and in particular of their health before and after they became marked, or of their attitude with regard to the stigmata, and so on. All these particulars are important in an attempt to explain the stigmata. For purposes of scientific or theological study, only those cases should be considered that are accessible to direct observation or are founded on really irrefutable testimony.
In this kind of study one enjoys full liberty. There is no a priori decision of the Church on the matter, and as to the liturgical commemorations of the stigmata of certain canonized saints, this "does not commit us," says C. C. Martindale, SJ, "to belief in them any more than we are committed to all that is said in the second nocturn, to the origin of successive translations of the Holy House of Loreto, or the carrying of St. Catherine of Alexandria's body by angels to Mount Sinai" (660). For Pius XI, the stigmata of St. Francis of Assisi were a historical fact, proved by irrefutable testimonies, but not an article of faith. [See Acta Apostolicae Sedis 26 (1924) 362–365]. Still more instructive is the official document of the Church regarding St. Gemma Galgani. The Church refused to pass judgment on her stigmata, as well as on other marvelous phenomena that abounded in her life [ibid. (1932) 57].
Theories. Some think that stigmatization is attributable to a particular action of God, if the stigmatic person is distinguished for his piety; otherwise it must be regarded as caused by the intervention of the devil. This solution supposes as evident that stigmatization always surpasses the powers of nature. Such a position is untenable. Moreover, according to Catholic doctrine, there exists no intrinsic connection between sanctity and stigmatization. God can grant charisms, such as stigmata, to any person, even one in the state of mortal sin or one outside the Church (Benedict XIV).
Another theory, which is now held by many theologians and Catholic scholars, is that stigmatization is attributable to purely natural causes, so long as the contrary has not been proved. Such an attitude seems to correspond best with the reluctance of the Church to settle this problem. Outstanding theologians caution us not to be hasty in attributing stigmatization to a miracle; for psychophysiological sciences may in the future show such attribution to be untenable. It seems that St. Francis de Sales had already accepted this cautious attitude in respect to stigmatization, for in the final draft of the Treatise on the Love of God, he omitted the word miracle, to which he had attributed the stigmata of St. Francis of Assisi in the MSS of the first edition. A. Gemelli, OFM, believed
that St. Francis of Assisi's stigmatization was unique (caso unico ), being a fleshy, nail-like neoformation. Other cases of exterior stigmatization must have been conscious or unconscious artifacts.
All scholars agree that stigmata are connected with ecstasy that, considered psychologically, is an emotional state. If it is really God who miraculously produces the stigmata, why would He have imposed ecstasy as an indispensable condition? Ecstasy in itself does not possess any supernatural character. It is a kind of weakness, an imperfection of human nature, incapable of supporting the strong movements of soul caused by love, contemplation, vision, etc. Why should God never grant the stigmata to persons who contemplate the Passion of Christ with all the intensity of mystical life but without ecstasy? Why did He not grant such a favor to SS. Francis Xavier, Vincent de Paul, and others, especially since many of inferior piety and morality have possessed the stigmata? Again, why should God never grant the stigmata at the very moment the ecstasy begins, but only after a notable lapse of time? Moreover, why should He not produce them at once, in their perfection, rather than by degrees? Several weeks before Theresa neumann's stigmata appeared, the doctor discovered a pronounced sensibility in the places where the wounds later developed. The wound on the back of her right hand developed only eight days after the stigmata on the back of her left hand and on the palms of her hands the following year. This occurrence has been observed in many other stigmatics.
It is notable also that as a rule the exterior stigmatization is preceded by the "invisible stigmata," as in the case of padre pio. All these facts are understandable in our hypothesis that the wounds are traceable to organic functions and that all natural processes must operate for some time to produce an overt symptom such as a wound. Sometimes they result in incomplete stigmata (in Mary B. Schumann, Pirona Hergods, Mary Agnes Steiner, etc.). Again, if stigmata are the effect of a miracle, why is it that a nervous weakness or even hysteria is a necessary condition for their appearance? All stigmatized persons whose lives we know in some detail gave evidence of this illness.
Among the stigmatics, some (SS. Catherine of Ricci, Joanna of Jesus and Mary, Veronica Juliana, Louise Lateau, Theresa Neumann, etc.) had the body wound on the left side, whereas many others had it on the right side. Yet Christ had the wound on one side, not on two. This inconsistency can be explained. When a person in a cataleptic state (induced, e.g., by hypnosis) is asked to repeat the movements executed before him, he will repeat them mirrorwise; that is, if the left arm is extended, he will invariably extend his right arm. In the same way, an ecstatic person reproduces Christ's wounds seeing Christ before him. Furthermore, in modern times, under the influence of the devotion to the Sacred Heart, the trend has been in favor of the left side, the side of the heart. The stigmatic who shares this view will instinctively reproduce the wound on the left. Again, in some stigmatics, the wounds correspond exactly to those depicted on the image of the Crucified before which they are accustomed to pray. This is asserted by the biographers of Catherine Emmerich (Schomeger) and St. Gemma Galgani (Father Germanus). Moreover, the shape of the stigmata varies: sometimes they are square, sometimes round. They may disappear for varying periods of time.
Dr. von Arnhard speaks of the frequent stigmata observed among Muslim ascetics who immerse themselves in contemplation of the life of Muḥammad. These stigmata correspond to the wounds received by the prophet during his battles for the spread of the faith [A. Abadir, Sur quelques stigmatisés … (Paris 1932)]. The occurrence of stigmatization among the Jansenists has been reported also.
Natural or Supernatural? There are no convincing reasons for holding that stigmatization, considered in itself, necessarily surpasses all the powers of nature or that it is strictly miraculous. The stigmata seem to be rather the effect of ecstasy. Ecstasy as such is not a supernatural event. But if, in a determined case, it is produced by a supernatural contemplation or vision, ecstasy can be called supernatural in cause (supernaturalis quoad causam ). The stigmata then, which are a connatural effect of ecstasy, can also be called "supernatural in cause."
Consideration must be given to the objection that stigmatization cannot be healed by any remedy. It is questionable, however, whether a suitable remedy has really been used. In the case of Theresa Neumann a number of authors affirm that it was. Nevertheless, on only two occasions did Dr. Seidl apply salve to Theresa's stigmata, and on each occasion the application was removed a few hours later.
Bibliography: r. biot, L'Enigme des Stimatises (Paris 1955). m. freze, They Bore the Wounds of Christ: The Mystery of the Sacred Stigmata (Huntington, Ind. 1989). t. harrison, Stigmata: A Medieval Mystery in a Modern Age (New York 1994). h. ohly, "Stigmatisierung: Wunder oder Betrug," Jensiets der Erkenntnis (Frankfurt 1977) 66–83. b. ruffin, Padre Pio, the True Story, (Huntington, Ind. 1991). i. wilson, Stigmata: An Investigation into the Mysterious Appearance of Christ's Wounds in Hundreds of People from Medieval Italy to Modern America (San Francisco 1989).