Doubting Thomas earned his nickname by sensibly demanding to see and touch the wounds from Jesus’ crucifixion before believing he had risen from the dead. Although Thomas was roundly rebuked for his lack of faith, Jesus obliged him by allowing the apostle to feel the wounds in his hands and side. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof, as the skeptics like to say.
This would certainly apply to those who claim to bear Christ’s wounds on their own bodies. Their wounds may be real. But where did they come from, and what significance, if any, do they have? The wounds that appear on the bodies of such individuals, corresponding to the injuries Jesus suffered on the cross, are called stigmata. They include nail holes in the hands and feet, and a stab wound in the side. Some stigmatics also have marks on their foreheads consistent with having worn a crown of thorns. The wounds are reportedly quite painful and may bleed intermittently. The word “stigmata” comes from a Greek term for the identifying marks or brands placed on the bodies of slaves and soldiers in the ancient world. St. Paul, who referred to himself as a slave for Christ, once wrote, “I bear on my body the marks (stigmata) of Jesus.” However, in Paul’s case, the stigmata he referred to were probably scars from his rough-and-tumble life as an apostle to the Gentiles.
Apart from St. Paul, who at various times suffered beatings, flogging, stoning, shipwreck and imprisonment, there is no biblical precedent for stigmata -- certainly none in which the signs of crucifixion materialized spontaneously. The earliest manifestation of this phenomenon dates from the Middle Ages, when mystics had begun to identify strongly with Christ’s Passion. St. Francis of Assisi was reportedly the first upon whom the marks of Jesus’ suffering appeared of their own accord. There have been hundreds of cases documented since then, virtually all involving Roman Catholics, mainly in Latin countries. More often than not they were members of religious orders, with women outnumbering men by a wide margin.
A fair number of stigmatics have later been canonized as saints; however, the church has been careful not to legitimize stigmata as a sign of sanctification per se. Religious authorities are mindful that stigmata can be surreptitiously self-inflicted, if not self-induced in other ways. The Jesuit scholar Herbert Thurston complained that many stigmatics who followed in St. Francis’ footsteps suffered from a “crucifixion complexion” that made them want to emulate the physical sufferings of Christ. He believed that stigmata were the result of autosuggestion, noting that the size, shape and location of the wounds varied from one case to the next. They seemed to be patterned not on Christ’s actual wounds, whose exact configuration is unknown, but rather on how the wounds were depicted in religious icons from one era to the next. Stigmatics variously displayed marks on the palms of their hands or on their wrists. The wound from the Roman soldier’s lance sometimes appeared on the left side and sometimes on the right. Nail holes were alternatively round or squared off; and, in the case of the 20th-century German mystic Therese Neumann, the nail holes shifted from round to rectangular when the true shape of Roman nails became known.
The church’s ambivalence about stigmata is nowhere more evident than in the case of Padre Pio, a 20th-century Capuchin friar who continues to be an object of veneration in many parts of the world, especially in his native Italy. Pio reportedly possessed mystical powers, with the ability to heal the sick, to read people’s souls and even to be in two locations at once. Stigmata first appeared on his body around 1910, then reappeared in 1918 and remained visible for the next 50 years. People began flocking to his monastery in San Giovanni Rotundo, which soon rivaled Lourdes and Assisi as a pilgrimage destination. The Vatican apparently grew alarmed by the cult following which developed around this uncouth “village saint.” There were rumors of financial chicanery and sexual misconduct. A pharmacist claimed that the friar had used undiluted carbolic acid to create his stigmata. The Vatican launched a series of investigations in an attempt to rein him in. Pio was forbidden to celebrate Mass in public for many years, and he was also denied visitors and prevented from talking with women alone. An effort to remove him to another monastery was thwarted by local townspeople who were alarmed at the prospect of losing their lucrative pilgrimage trade. Fortunately, the friar had friends in high places, and he fared better under Pope Pius XII and Pope Paul VI. Another friend, Pope John Paul II, had met him as a young priest and made him a saint in 2002. Various miracles were attributed to him in the steps leading up to his beatification and canonization; however, there was never any mention of stigmata.
The question of whether stigmata are truly supernatural in origin obscures the larger question of what they might signify. The Catholic Encyclopedia points out that the physical signs of crucifixion are meaningless without some measure of suffering as well. But toward what end? Stigmatics are sometimes referred to as “victim souls” who have a higher calling to suffer as Christ did for the redemption of humanity. Those who bear the stigmata are even identified as “co-redeemers” with Christ in their suffering for the sins of the world.
The idea of “victim souls” has been kicking around for a long time in Catholic theology without ever rising to the level of formal church dogma. For one thing, the New Testament makes pretty clear that Christ acted alone in redeeming humanity and didn’t need any help from those he redeemed. Unlike the temple priests in Jerusalem, who were obliged to make sacrificial offerings repeatedly, Christ “offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins,” according to the Book of Hebrews. In which case, what good is served by visiting such suffering on others, no matter how willingly they take it upon themselves? Stripped of any redemptive purpose, stigmata become nothing more than a misguided act of personal devotion.
The primitive impulse toward blood sacrifice is deeply rooted in the human psyche and is apparently dislodged only with the greatest difficulty. Those who are drawn to the idea of victim souls point to statements by Jesus and various apostles about the efficacy of suffering. St. Paul, for example, told the Philippians “it has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake.” However, the blood that Paul and so many martyrs shed over the centuries was not to redeem humanity but to spread the gospel. The word gospel means “good news.” If, according to common understanding, the good news is that Christ shed his blood for the forgiveness of sins, then there is no need to try to do so oneself.
Herbert Thurston, The Physical Phenomena of Mysticism