Catholic Cults and Devotions: A Psychological Inquiry

By Michael P. Carroll | Go to book overview

CHAPTER FIVE
Heaven-Sent Wounds:
The Stigmata

The term "stigmata" has a range of meanings in the Catholic mystical tradition, but its most common meaning, and the one that will be used here, refers to visible wounds (or at least visible wound marks) corresponding to the wounds received by Jesus Christ during his Passion. 1 Most devotional accounts assert that the first person to "receive" the stigmata (and the implication is always that the stigmata have been given to the individual by some supernatural agency) was St Francis of Assisi. St Francis is supposed to have received the stigmata on Mt La Verna in 1224, two years before his death.

Whether St Francis was the first person to receive the stigmata has been a matter of debate among Catholic historians. 2 There is also some doubt as to whether the historical St Francis actually had the stigmata; even devotional accounts concede, for instance, that only two persons saw his stigmata during his lifetime. But historical priority aside, the fact remains that since the thirteenth century hundreds of Catholics have claimed to have received the stigmata and millions of Catholics have accepted these claims at face value.

This is not because the Church goes to great lengths to encourage a belief in the supernatural origin of the stigmata. On the contrary, the Church has always been very circumspect in this regard; only in the case of St Francis has the Church said that stigmata visible during a person's lifetime are of supernatural origin. In the case of Gemma Galgani ( 1878-1903), an Italian stigmatic canonized in 1940, the Church even went so far as to say that her stigmata were not in themselves evidence of saintliness. Yet despite such circumspection on the Church's part, stigmatics have long been objects of attention by ordinary Catholics, even in recent times. Therese Neumann and Padre Pio, for instance, two of this century's most well-known stigmatics, died in the 1960s, and Father Gino Burresi, perhaps the most well-known living stigmatic, received his stigmata as recently as 1969.

Some stigmatics develop many wounds corresponding to all the wounds

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