For Christians and Roman Catholics, “stigmata” refers to mysterious wounds like those suffered by Jesus Christ. It comes from the Greek word for mark or brand and Saint Paul’s Letter to the Galatians, where he writes that “I bear on my body the marks of Jesus.” The people who suffer such wounds on their hands, wrist, feet, forehead, and elsewhere are called stigmatics or stigmatists. The first recorded stigmatic was St. Francis of Assis, but, over time, many others have manifested this divine suffering. While insiders view such wounds as holy, outsiders often see their behavior as hysteria.
Depending on your faith or lack thereof, each of the following cases will attest to the power of religious belief – for good or for ill.
1. St. Gemma Galgani
Maria Gemma Umberta Pia Galgani was a devoutly Catholic, Italian mystic born in Camigliano, Italy. She first received the Holy Wounds of Christ at the age of 21. On June 8, 1899, on the eve of the festival of the Sacred Heart, Galgani vowed to suffer in expiation. She then experienced a rapture and witnessed her guardian angel alongside the Virgin Mary. Painful wounds opened on her hands, feet, and chest, and she experienced whip marks on her back and a crown of thorns upon her head.
For the rest of her life, blood would regularly flow from Galgani’s stigmata from Thursday evening, through Friday afternoon. At the same time, she would experience visions of Jesus Christ, the saints, and angels. Eventually, a spiritual director helped her record her autobiography, though Galgani was never able to realize her dream of becoming a nun. Tuberculosis took her life in 1903, and she was canonized by the Roman Catholic Church in 1940. St. Gemma Galgani is the patron of students and is to this day especially popular in Italy and Latin America.
2. St. Padre Pio of Pietrelcina
Padre Pio was a monk of the Order of Friars Minor Capuchin and one of the world’s most famous stigmatics. Pio was born as Francesco Forgione in 1887 in a small farming town in southern Italy. By the age of five, he had dedicated his life’s work to God and soon became a novitiate at the friary in Morcone in 1903. Shortly thereafter, he received his first visions and stigmata. Pio took his Franciscan habit in 1907 and was ordained a priest in 1910. At that point, he moved to Our Lady of Grace Friary in the Gargano Mountains in San Giovanni Rotondo.
Eight years later, he experienced the stigmata during confession. He had a vision of a celestial being piercing his side and uniting him with God’s love. The wounds lasted for fifty years, with blood that smelled of flowers – or the odour of sanctity. Pio could heal, prophesy, levitate, speak in tongues, read hearts, bilocate or exist in two places simultaneously, and perform other miracles. In 1968, Pio died amid rumors that his body had been drained of blood. In 2002, Pope John Paul II declared him a saint, and, in 2008, his body was exhumed and found incorrupt before being placed in the church of Saint Pio beside San Giovanni Rotondo.
3. Alexandrina Maria da Costa
Alexandrina Maria da Costa was a mystic and “victim soul” born in 1904 in the rural parish of Balasar, Portugal. She was paralyzed at 14 years old when she leapt from her bedroom window to escape a sexual assault. By the age of 19, she was completely paralyzed and unable to leave her bed. In 1938, da Costa began receiving visitations from Christ on Friday of each week. During these times, she often experienced hidden stigmata and suffered the pain of Christ’s crucifixion.
Yet, da Costa also held some unique beliefs about her experiences of the stigmata. In particular, she believed that Christ gave her a regular blood transfusion through a tube of love and that the Devil tormented her with sexual visions. After her death in 1955, the cleric investigating her canonization admitted that she had had psychological problems. Yet, her faith led to her beatification in 2004, and her written works have spawned the Alexandrina Society, which is committed to spreading her teachings.
4. Marie Rose Ferron
Ferron was the tenth child of a devoutly Catholic family in Saint-Germain-de-Grantham, Quebec. Three years after her birth, they moved to Fall River, Massachusetts in 1906, where “Little Rose” first experienced visions of Christ on the cross when she was 6 years old. By thirteen, Ferron had been stricken with mysterious muscle contractions that required the regular use of crutches. After a few years, her twisted feet made it impossible to leave her bed. In 1925, the Ferron family moved to Woonsocket, Rhode Island. There, Marie Rose first experienced the stigmata in 1926.
By Lent of the next year, her wounds were regularly appearing on Friday each week. These included whip-like marks on her arms and the standard “Five Holy Wounds” on her hands, feet, side, chest, and head. Ferron also experienced ecstatic fits, spontaneous arm dislocation, and bleeding from her eyes and mouth. From the age of 22 to her death in 1936, she lived on a diet of liquids and the Holy Eucharist. Seven years before her death, “Little Rose” predicted her own death at the age of 33 – the same age at which Jesus died on the cross. Ferron was one of only 30 people to ever suffer all of Christ’s wounds at the same time, and, as such, over 15,000 people attended her funeral.
5. Therese Neumann
Neumann was a peasant girl in Konnersreuth, Bavaria who suffered several falls in her early adulthood that left her with temporary blindness. Although she pushed herself to stay active, further accidents led to more injuries, and her blindness became permanent. By 1919, she was bedridden and blind, with only her family’s religious stories as entertainment. However, on the day of Carmelite nun Therese of Lisieux’s beatification, Neumann’s sight was restored.
Two years later, on the saint’s canonization day, she had a vision of Therese of Lisieux telling her she would walk again. During Lent of 1926, Neumann received the stigmata in the form of a wound in her side and several on her chest, back, palms, feet, and forehead. At the same time, she had visions of the last days of Christ that brought a divine ecstasy. While the last rites were given, Neumann fast recovered her health and her ability to walk. She continued experiencing the stigmata every week and lived off only the Holy Eucharist until her death in 1962. In 2005, the Church declared her a “Servant of God” and opened the beatification and canonization process.
6. Cora Evans
From the age of three onwards, California housewife Cora Evans would regularly enter a trance-like state and experience divine visions. To start, though, Evans was a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day. After becoming disillusioned with the Mormon church, she was baptized a Roman Catholic in 1935. At the same time, her visions became more clearly about the Virgin Mary and Jesus Christ, whom she dubbed The Master.
As part of what she called “The Mystical Humanity of Christ,” Evans believed that Jesus regularly spoke to her during her trances. During one such episode in 1947, he gave her the option to come to her eternal home or accept the suffering of the world. When she chose the latter, she felt God’s infinite devotion and saw the wounds of Christ on her own hands. She manifested the stigmata in both palms and a crown of thrones upon her head, all of which exuded the smell or roses. Since her death in 1957, the Vatican has declared Evans a “Servant of God” and set her on the path to sainthood.
7. Zlatko Sudac
Zlatko Sudac was born in 1971 in the town of Vrbnik on Krk Island. He completed required service in the Yugoslav army and began studying for the Roman Catholic priesthood in 1993. Five years later, he was ordained a diocesan priest and started serving the community in Krk, Croatia. There, he gave religious seminars and organized retreats as Father Sudac – before manifesting the stigmata at a community get-together in 1999.
The wounds began as a 1-inch indentation on his forehead that resembled a cross. As time passed, more marks appeared on his wrists, feet, and side. With each appearance, Sudac felt an intense awe and fear of the Lord and his power. Yet, he felt no pain except when he prayed, when the wounds would pulse. Father Sudac also discovered that he now possessed divine gifts of levitation, prophesying, and bilocation. Even when painting, which he did as an amateur, the stigmata would appear on the tops of his fingers. Although his experiences are still being investigated, the Vatican has declared Sudac’s wounds to be “not of human origin.”
Skeptics and believers alike have long tried to understand how and why these intense phenomena occur. While some mark themselves to express their faith, others do so accidentally only to find genuine spiritual meaning. Neurologists theorize that these individuals may suffer from epilepsy, hysteria, or other psychological problems. Whatever the cause, stigmata coincide with times when the Church’s authority is troubled. More than anything, stigmatists may thus show the importance of creating spaces for people, ordained or otherwise, to find meaning through their faith.
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