When I was young and still in the practice of going trick-or-treating, I was Johnny Cash pretty much every year except for one. That one year I was the Fonze from the popular 1970s television series Happy Days. Arthur Fonzarelli, aka “The Fonze,” was simply the coolest thing that ever showed up on a television screen. Kids my age rarely would miss an episode, because The Fonze simply captured our imagination.
Now cool is hardly a theological term, but if it were used to describe one saint on the church’s liturgical calendar, it would have to be St. Pius of Pietrelcina, universally known as Padre Pio.
Padre Pio, whose feast day is September 23, died in 1968. He had all sorts of miraculous events surrounding his person, things that we would normally associate with saints from centuries past, like bilocation, levitation, reading of souls (telling people their sins before they confess them) and more. Yet he died in our own era.
But what really grabs people’s attention about Padre Pio is that he had the stigmata for 50 years — the wounds of Christ on his body. He was the first priest in recorded history to have such a phenomenon.
The word stigmata comes from a Greek word meaning a mark impressed by iron, something like the branding of cattle. Believe it or not, the word actually appears in the New Testament, when St. Paul wrote, “I bear the marks of the Lord Jesus in my body” (Galatians 6:17). This verse has caused some people to ponder if St. Paul himself had the stigmata, though there really is no indication that he did.
As famous as Padre Pio is for the stigmata, he is not the most well-known saint to have experienced it. St. Francis of Assisi is the first saint said to have had this phenomenon. His wounds appeared only in the last two years of his life, following an ecstatic vision. There are different traditions, but one states that his disciples did not even know about it until they saw them on his body after he died.
What might surprise some readers is that the church has never made any definitive statement on the miraculous nature of stigmata. In fact, often claims of stigmata have rightfully received a cool reception.
St. Francis de Sales, in his book Treatise on the Love of God, refused to define the phenomenon as miraculous. What’s more, Pope Benedict XIV in the 18th century was cautious in attributing stigmata to sanctity. This is clearly true, since many of the great saints, such as Therese of Lisieux, John Vianney, John Paul II and many others, never experienced anything resembling stigmatization.
Sceptics of the miraculous nature of the stigmata cite the fact that every documented case of it followed an intense ecstasy, which points to the possibility that stigmata could be explained as a result of an intense psychological experience.
Obviously sceptics do not take the stigmata as a point of faith. Doubtless there have been many frauds throughout history who have claimed to have the miraculous marks of Christ on their body, so it is healthy to be skeptical. But just as the church does not make an official statement on the authenticity of the Shroud of Turin, so it is not going to make an official statement on those who experience the stigmata.
Whether the stigmata is supernatural or a result of something more physiological can still be debated. But there is one thing the stigmata most certainly is not: an historical portrayal of the wounds of Christ crucified.
No two persons have had the exact same marks on their body. Some have had them in the form of a square, while others have had circular marks. Some have had the marks on their wrists, while others have had them on their hand. Some have had the wound on the left side of their chest, while others have had the wound on the right side. We are wrong to look at someone like Padre Pio and conclude that that is the way it must have been for Jesus.
Personally, I think the stigmata certain saints have experienced are most likely of a miraculous nature. At the very least a saint would not fake such an occurrence. However, the claims of people who profess to have the wounds today (and there are many) I would take with a big grain of salt.
Either way, we see in Padre Pio and other such saints a clear and tangible sign of Christ’s love for us in his suffering, and that is our take-away from such a phenomenon. And that’s pretty cool.
St. Padre Pio, pray for us!