The Greek word stigma, according to Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate
Dictionary, is “a scar left by a hot iron: brand.” Stigmata, which is
the plural form of the same Greek word, can also mean “bodily marks resembling the
wounds of the crucified Christ.” This provides the basic background we need for understanding
the mysterious phenomenon of the stigmata in Christian history.
As a member of the Franciscan Order, I guess its natural that the
first person I think of as having such bodily marks, apart from Jesus, is St. Francis of
Assisi, who died in 1226. As the founder of the Order and primary shaper of Franciscan
spirituality, St. Francis certainly holds a preeminent place in helping us understand what
meaning the wounds of Christ had in his own life and in the lives of his followers.
On two separate dramatic occasions, Francis had a vision of the wounded
Jesus suffering on a cross, and if we look carefully at the two visions we will see them
as closely interrelated. Both visions are described in St. Bonaventure’s Life
of St. Francis. It’s helpful to remember that Bonaventure as a Franciscan theologian
and spiritual writer often pictured God as a God of overflowing goodness and love.
The first vision happened to Francis shortly after his conversion from
a rather worldly life and after his embracing a leper on the road. After that incident,
Bonaventure tells us that Francis began “to seek out solitary places” where
he prayed with great emotion. “One day,” writes Bonaventure, “while Francis
was praying in a secluded spot and became totally absorbed in God through his extreme fervor,
Jesus Christ appeared to him fastened to the cross. Francis soul melted at
the sight” of so much love revealed in this appearance of the suffering Christ. “And
the memory of Christ’s passion was so impressed on the innermost recesses of his
heart that from that hour, whenever Christ’s crucifixion came to mind, he could scarcely
contain his tears and sighs.”
Bonaventure points out that from that time on Francis began “rendering
humble service to lepers with human concern and devoted kindness….He visited their
houses frequently, and generously distributed alms to them and with great compassion kissed
their hands and their mouths.”
|This painting is located at Mount La Verna near
the Stigmata Chapel. (Photo by Jack Wintz, O.F.M.)
About two years before his death, St. Francis had a second vision of
Christ fastened to the cross. Here is how St. Bonaventure sets the scene in his Life
of St. Francis: “On a certain morning about the feast of the Exaltation of the
Cross [September 14], while Francis was praying on the mountainside at Mount La Verna,
he saw a Seraph with six fiery and shining wings descend from the height of heaven. And
when in swift flight the Seraph had reached a spot in the air near the man of God, there
appeared between the wings the figure of a man crucified, with his hands and feet extended
in the form of a cross and fastened to a cross. Two of the wings were lifted above his
head, two were extended for flight and two covered his whole body.
“When Francis saw this, he was overwhelmed and his whole body was
flooded with a mixture of joy and sorrow. He rejoiced because of the gracious way Christ
looked upon him under the appearance of the Seraph, but the fact that he was fastened to
a cross pierced his soul with a sword of compassionate sorrow” (Luke 2:35).
As suggested earlier, St. Francis is an important key to understanding
what meaning the wounds of Christ have in Franciscan spirituality. After making a quick
search of Google, I found over 10 Franciscan saints or blesseds, many of them women, who
were widely believed to carry the five wounds of Christ on their hands, feet and side.
I assume that all these holy women and men, who surely felt a special devotion to the sufferings
of Christ, would have a spiritual vision similar to that of Francis. The most universally
known Franciscan of recent times to bear these marks was surely St. Padre Pio (1887-1968).
Padre Pio’s canonization ceremony in 2002 drew as many as 300,000
people to St. Peter’s Square and nearby streets. During his life, thousands of pilgrims
flocked to attend the Masses he celebrated or to have their confessions heard. The stigmata
appeared on his body in 1910 and remained in some form until the time of his death (1968).
Just as St. Francis in his two visions of the crucified Christ saw in the wounds of Jesus
an incredible outpouring of God’s love upon him, so also Padre Pio saw in Christs
wounds a great outpouring of love. In Part Two of this series, I will reflect further on
the symbolism of the fiery Seraph and its role in transmitting the stigmata upon Francis.
We will also explore fiery symbolism in Padre Pio’s story.
This is the first of a two-part series by Friar Jack called “Reflections
on the Stigmata.”
Also, you are invited to join Friar Jack on a 12-day
pilgrimage to southern Italy, with stops in Assisi, the birthplace of St. Francis,
as well as in San Giovanni Rotondo, where Padre Pio is buried and where he spent much
of his life. (Also see ad top right)
respond to Friar Jims Catechism
Quiz: Should We Pray in Times of Sin?
Dear Friar Jim: When I saw your article (Should we pray
in times of sin?), I felt instant relief. Sometimes, when I commit a sin it takes
me some time to get to confession because of the shame I feel. For some reason I thought
if I prayed during this time that my prayers were futile because I was in a state of sin.
I need to pray to help me go to Confession and turn that corner. I have struggled with
that for years after I read something that says when you sin, you turn away from God. But
I dont feel like that; I feel ashamed and want forgiveness. So thank you for helping
Dear Genie: Yes, its true that, like Peter, we run when
Jesus is practically on his knees calling out to us, "No, dont go that way. Come
to me if you are burdened. I want to hold you and forgive you." Sometimes our compass mixes
us up. The right direction is always to the Lord. Friar Jim
Dear Friar Jim: Your article on St. Peter/praying when sinful
struck a deep and resounding chord with me. It makes so much sense. Ive always been
struck by the passage of Peter rejecting Christ. In fact, one of my favorite short stories
is The Student by Chekhov. The student describes St. Peters experience
with Jesus in the courtyard: And immediately after that time the cock crowed
Ive always loved Peters humanity and have reflected on this
story many times during Lent. Ive always been amazed at the depth of love Jesus had
for Peter and his faith in him, too. Youve given me a lot to think about especially
when I sin again. I wont retreat; I will step forward. Liz
Dear Liz: You are exactly right. Isnt it a blessing that
Jesus chose such human and frail people to be his apostles? Friar Jim
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