When researching miraculous claims it’s striking how certain groups or individual healers have a “thing” – something that “works,” their own little miraculous idiosyncrasies. In this article I want to discuss the phenomenon of stigmata which is – barring a tiny number of exceptions – an exclusively Roman Catholic phenomenon. It’s funny how God limits the performance of certain wonders to specific groups.
Stigmata are the marks which Christ received during his crucifixion, and stigmatics claim these marks appear on their own bodies – nail holes in the hands and feet, a side wound, and sometimes even marks on the head from the crown of thorns. There have been many claimed stigmatics throughout the years, but only a few have been officially declared miraculous by the Roman Catholic Church (RCC).
The first known stigmatic – regarded by the RCC as miraculous – was Saint Francis of Assisi who allegedly received his stigmata in 1224 (that’s well over a millennium before God saw fit to work the wonder). The sceptical opinion concerning stigmatics – an opinion with which I agree, for reasons I’ll explain shortly – is that they are “pious frauds.” However, I confess that I struggle to think St Francis was simply a fraud. In any event, fraud is not the only non-supernatural explanation for his stigmata.
There are those who deny the story of St Francis’ stigmata altogether. According to such theorists the account is simply a legend. It was common for legends to grow up around certain saints after their deaths, and perhaps the story of St Francis’ stigmata is simply one such legend. I have some sympathy for this theory, particularly as the story has a certain folk-tale feel to it. Anyhow, for sake of argument I don’t intend to dispute the tradition; I’ll grant that St Francis did indeed exhibit marks which were interpreted as stigmata.
One explanation for the stigmata is that Saint Francis suffered from malignant malaria, which can cause haemorrhaging of blood through the skin on the hands and feet. Others have attributed the wounds to a form of leprosy. This is possible, but strikes me as too speculative. Some have tried to attribute a psychosomatic cause to the stigmata. Whilst this might work as an explanation of “phantom stigmata” – where the person experiences the pains of crucifixion but not the wounds – as an explanation for physical wounds it seems highly implausible. I think the truth lies elsewhere.
In order to understand his stigmatic experience it’s crucial to grasp the circumstances under which it occurred. Saint Francis was a mystic. In early August 1224 he went to Mount La Verna with several friends to fast and pray in seclusion for 40 days. Towards the end of this time he had a vision during which he allegedly received his stigmata. We know that the human mind is ripe for hallucinations under such circumstances (seclusion and food deprivation). We also know that St Francis’ mind was one obsessed by the crucifixion of Christ, that he carried an obsession with imitating Christ in every way, and had a strong desire to understand – and even experience – the suffering of Christ. Furthermore, Francis was known to engage in practices of mortification, religious self-harm being a fairly common practice. To my mind, therefore, it’s highly plausible that St Francis underwent a vivid hallucination informed by a highly religious mind obsessed with suffering, and unwittingly engaged in self-harm, though it seemed to him that the wounds were caused by an external source. I think such an explanation best fits the evidence we have.
Whatever we make of the stigmata of St Francis, there’s no denying that it triggered numerous copycats, becoming something of a pious obsession. Over 300 cases were recorded by the start of the 20th century, all European Roman Catholics. The 20th Century saw cases in Britain, Australia, and the USA – which also produced one of the very few non-Catholic stigmatics.
When we examine cases of stigmata we find numerous troubling features. In fact, it’s instructive to notice how stigmatic wounds have evolved over time and how they differ from each other – variation which is difficult to square with replication of one single pattern. Some bleed, others don’t. Some appear to have blood but no wound. Some wounds are tiny slits, others shaped like crosses, some appear as multiple slash wounds, and some as simple indentations. Oddly, the nail marks on one stigmatic – Therese Neumann – changed their shape over time from round to rectangular. One wonders did she suddenly come to learn the true shape of Roman nails? Furthermore, some stigmatics have had their side wound on the left side (Padre Pio), others on the right (St Francis) – and often taking different shapes (or, much more commonly, being absent altogether). And whilst historians suggest that victims were crucified through the wrists, most stigmatics have their marks on their hands. Of course if one was going to fake a stigmata wound it’s much safer to cut the hands than the wrists. One commentator observed that stigmata on the wrists only appeared once it was discovered that this is where the marks are on the Turin Shroud. The earliest stigmatics – influenced by images of Christ crucified by the hands – had hand wounds, whilst more recent stigmatics increasingly display wrist wounds. None of this bodes well for the acceptance of stigmata as a genuine phenomenon – it’s far more consistent with a less heavenly explanation. Moreover, certain wounds seem far too stylised to be authentic. For instance, Padre Pio’s side wound was in the shape of a cross – artistry that a spear thrust from a Roman soldier would not have created.
In addition, there have been quite a few proven stigmatic frauds. For instance, Magdalena de la Cruz confessed her stigmata to be fraudulent when she was ill and feared she was dying. Also, Maria de la Visitacion was seen by another nun painting fake wounds on her hands. After being brought before the Inquisition her wounds were quickly scrubbed off. Other stigmatics have something of a questionable character: Teresa Helena Higginson being dismissed from her job as teacher on accusations of theft and drunkenness; Berthe Mrazek was arrested for fraud and wound up in a mental asylum. Moreover, a strong propensity amongst stigmatics for self-punishment and self-mutilation has been well-documented.
Several attempts to demonstrate the genuineness of the phenomenon have led to staged displays which are dubious at best if not clearly fraudulent. For instance, Katja Rivas appeared on the Fox Television programme “Signs from God” in 1999. At the beginning of the event she was in bed, complete with bed covers which could easily conceal any trickery. The “wounds” were not actually seen in the act of spontaneously issuing (they never are). In fact, the manner of their appearance was consistent with their being self-inflicted during periods of concealment. Some marks did not appear to be wounds at all, and the wounds that could be seen were not puncture wounds but multiple cuts and slashes. It was noted that during the entire display Rivas was wearing a ring which could easily have been responsible for the wounds.
Take also the case of Lilian Bernas, a convert to Roman Catholicism. She displayed scars on the backs of her hands which were from stigmata received during heavenly visions. Whilst she claimed to bleed from her palms also she didn’t have any marks there. Her explanation is that God “permitted” her to retain the scars on the backs of her hands and the tops of her feet. This is curious indeed. If one was going to fake stigmata by self-harm it is best to create the wounds on the backs of the hand and tops of the feet rather than the palms and the soles which would hurt more, take longer to heal, and present further practical difficulties. It probably best to cut only the backs of the hands and – through blood transfer – create the illusion of a palm wound. Bernas – like many stigmatics – did not have a side wound, which is understandable as such a wound would take a huge amount of commitment from a fake stigmatist!
What we are seeing in cases of stigmata is a desire for attention, acceptance, or fame. As is typical of miraculous claims generally, people’s yearnings for intense religious experiences have lead simply to multiple cases of pious fraud.
Stephen J Graham