August 1, 2007

Reflections on the Stigmata (Part I)

by Friar Jack Wintz, O.F.M.




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 it’s 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.

The crucified Christ appears to Francis

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.”

Francis’ vision on Mount La Verna

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).

The meaning of the stigmata

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 Christ’s 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)

Friar Jim’s Inbox

Readers respond to Friar Jim’s “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 don’t feel like that; I feel ashamed and want forgiveness. So thank you for helping me! Genie

Dear Genie: Yes, it’s true that, like Peter, we run when Jesus is practically on his knees calling out to us, "No, don’t 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. I’ve 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. Peter’s experience with Jesus in the courtyard: “And immediately after that time the cock crowed….”

I’ve always loved Peter’s humanity and have reflected on this story many times during Lent. I’ve always been amazed at the depth of love Jesus had for Peter and his faith in him, too. You’ve given me a lot to think about especially when I sin again. I won’t retreat; I will step forward. Liz

Dear Liz: You are exactly right. Isn’t it a blessing that Jesus chose such human and frail people to be his apostles? Friar Jim

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