by Stan Griffin

According to the Bible's New Testament (books of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John), the last days of Jesus on earth included the following events:

" ... Pilate scourged him (whipped or otherwise applied punishment). And the soldiers platted (braided) a crown of thorns, and put it on his head ... "

" ... they smote him (inflicted heavy blows) with their hands ... "

" ...they ... led Jesus away ... bearing his cross ..." (to be crucified--put to death by being nailed to a cross)

This was one method of capital punishment in the ancient world. Nails would be driven through the wrists and the feet. Death would come as a result of blood loss and heart failure.

" ... When they saw he was dead ... one of the soldiers with a spear pierced his side and forthwith came there out blood and water."

Through the centuries these passages have been read and re-read. Christians everywhere have been momentously affected by what happened to Jesus. The impact of his death for the sins of others and his defeat of the kingdom of evil still reverberate throughout the world.

St. Paul in the years after Jesus' death (first century A.D.) wrote in Galatians 6:17: " ... I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus." In the original Greek, 'marks' was written "stigmata." (stig-MAH-tah) Paul's statement is generally interpreted as referring to the sufferings that branded him Jesus' soldier and slave and perhaps highlighting actual marks on his body as evidence of what he endured.

Sometime in the early 300's A.D. a few Europeans reported wounds that mysteriously began to appear on their bodies. The word "stigmata" was used to describe those situations. Taken from the Greek, it means "sign" or "mark." Both Greeks and Romans used the word to involve a brand: sometimes on slaves, sometimes on soldiers, and very widely on cattle to identify their owners.

As it began to be used by Christians in the fourth century, "stigmata" was defined as marks found on people which resembled the wounds (and the pain) that Jesus sustained during his crucifixion. Those so afflicted (called "stigmatists") developed injuries on their hands, wrists, and feet where the nails were driven in, on the sides where the spear had penetrated, on shoulders and back where the scourging had ripped the skin, and sometimes on the forehead where the crown of thorns had been placed.

Often accompanying the marks was blood (or at least what appeared to be blood), in small or large amounts, sometimes on the skin and other times visible just beneath it.

There were not many such claims during this period, and very little official notice was taken of them. It wasn't until the 13th century that the number of such reports began to increase.

It was 1224 when the first undisputed and best-known case of stigmata surfaced on the person of St. Francis of Assissi, one of the great Roman Catholic Church saints.

Two years before his death, St. Francis was praying on Mount Alverna, a place in central Italy where he often went to be alone. He was in the middle of a 40-day fast, feeling weak, and his eyes were burning. While he was praying and concentrating on his meditations, a vision appeared to him: an angel who was carrying an image of a man nailed to a cross.

When the vision disappeared, St. Francis felt sharp pains in various places on his body. Looking to find the source, he saw that he had five marks like those on Jesus' hands, feet, and sides. Observers described them as "fleshy" and "nail-like ... "round and black, standing clear of his flesh." His side appeared to have been lanced; his companions actually saw that wound appear, as though his skin had been slashed. During the days that followed, St. Francis' trousers and tunic were often soaked in blood. The marks remained until his death and reportedly caused him much pain.

Church authorities have not recognized St. Francis' stigmata as "divine intervention." Pope Benedict XIV (1740-1758) said he was "doubtful." St. Francis de Sales (1567-1622) at first believed the marks were the result of heavenly action but later came to judge them as "a product of strong compassion in a person thinking about Jesus' suffering." Pope Pius (1846-1878), like many of his predecessors, believed that St. Francis' stigmata were "historically certain but not an article of faith."

The Church's opinion is that this phenomenon occurs only in ecstatics, persons in a state of "ecstasy," reportedly a common denominator in all stigmata claims. This is described as an intensely emotional state in which rational thought and self control are absent.

The question arises: Why did God start to intercede in human affairs after 13 centuries? If stigmata are intended by Him to inspire and encourage the faithful, it is puzzling that for the first 12 centuries there were only a handful of occurences.

To explain why, we might consider the Church of that period. It was being criticized for various abuses and for ignoring the average man and woman. It was on the brink of some important changes. The "common people" wanted some direct communication with Jesus, but the Church required them to obtain permission for that contact. So to bypass an unyielding church, individuals began to suffer with Jesus on their own, feeling that body on the cross within their own bodies.

There are some interesting statistics concerning stigmatists through the past centuries. A reliable, approved list does not exist; but an "unofficial" roster has been assembled (one that is not recognized by the Church). There are approximately 300 names on it.

Thirty of the people listed are currently living. Most of those on the list come from Roman Catholic countries and follow that religion. There are a few from other churches, including the Baptist and Anglican--to name only two. Seventy percent come from the same country: Italy. Ninety percent of the stigmatists are women.

A significant proportion of the cases are to be found among members of religious orders; in particular, the Dominicans and the Franciscans have 100 each. A considerable number have exhibited a wide range of symptons from "mystical" to "hysterical." Many achieved reputations for their holiness and were later canonized (declared to be saints). However, many instances of stigmata have occurred to very ordinary people.

A number of the stigmatists reportedly died at the age of 33, Jesus' age when he expired on the cross. Many of them were fasting and having difficulties in eating. Quite a few of them allegedly had difficult childhoods.

Looking at a summary of a few stigmatists can be revealing.

(1) St. Veronica Giuliani was Italian. In 1697 she received the stigmata in hands, side, and feet. A postmortem examination (done after death) showed the following--On her heart were imprints she had reported in her journal (and even sketched there) when she was alive; attending physicians wrote there was "a considerable curvature of the right shoulder, which bent the bones just as the weight of a heavy cross might have done."

(2) Ethel Chapman was English. In 1974 she was in a hospital, under constant medical supervision, when nurses first found her bleeding from wounds. This incident comes very close to proving that the stigmata was a completely spontaneous event. Of course, unless she was under observation 24 hours a day, it can't be considered a proven fact.

(3) Heather Woods was also English. Her experience which began in 1993 was likely the most closely documented. The wounds were videotaped and even shown on network television. There were marks on her feet and hands. In addition, a crescent-shaped red mark appeared on her right side and a cross appeared on her forehead on two separate occasions. Photographs were taken at each key moment. Heather had undergone surgery many times.

(4) One of the few American stigmatists is Father Jim Bruse of Lake Ridge, just outside Washington, D.C. He was assistant priest at a suburban Catholic church. The events which took place, beginning in 1991, received a lot of publicity. Besides having pain (called "inner stigmata") in his wrists, feet, and side, his wrists bled profusely at least once; this was witnessed by his church supervisor.

The Catholic Church has accepted the fact that stigmata can be genuine. They investigate all claims, including extensive physical examinations. They seem to realize that many times there will be no logic, that they cannot always explain events in simple terms. They seem to be prepared to accept that the miraculous does occur, but they are reluctant to be seen as condoning excessive behavior. Trying to satisfy skeptics (those who disagree and question) by explaining stigmata, is not meant to dismiss it as "illusion, superstition, or deception."

All stigmatists have had to face skeptics and "doubting Thomases." A skeptic can deny marks have anything to do with God and can declare that they may have been self-inflicted. (In point of fact, some stigmatists have been found to have deliberately reproduced marks on their own bodies. However, this does not explain ALL stigmata.)

A skeptic might say that stigmata was prompted by something with which the subject is familiar: a picture in an illustrated Bible for example. Such knowledge could have been responsible for marks.

A skeptic might point out that earlier stigmatists had marks in the PALMS of their hands, while later subjects reported marks on their WRISTS. This could be explained by a change in historical understanding of the nature of crucifixion and the need to have the victim kept in place on the cross.

One thing that skeptics CANNOT do effectively is deny that stigmata physically exists and that it is tangible (capable of being touched).

Ted Harrison, in his book "Stigmata: A Medical Mystery in a Modern Age," makes these statements:

" ... The marks provoke wonder, fear, awe, skepticism, cynicism, and both belief and non-belief... Whether the marks are psychosomatic, (mentally induced) physical, or bordering on the fraudulent (dishonest), the most important thing will be the response made by people ... when they see them.

"Stigmata will always be viewed with wonder and awe, and trigger ... a whole range of theological questions involving the nature of God and the relationship between God and all humankind.

"The phenomenon of stigmata began in a period of religious turmoil (unrest) but persisted into the age of reason and the modern age of skepticism and disbelief. Still it continues ..."

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