The topic of the stigmata is very serious and unsettling. The Church takes a very critical and — with good reason — very rigorous look at specific cases before talking about this topic. This is why it has made a positive pronouncement only in a few cases and after rigorous medical and theological studies.
The stigmata represent a sign of Christ’s sufferings during the Passion, and therefore they constitute a theological statement; that is to say, they are a faithful reproduction in certain people of Jesus’ wounds at the moment of his crucifixion, above all in what refers to the place of the wounds (feet, hands, side and head).
In the cases the Church has approved, the stigmata are a grace of God granted to few saints; the stigmata are physical manifestations of Christian mysticism.
We must keep in mind that when the Church recognizes a phenomenon as authentic, it accepts the phenomenon but in no case does it propose that it be believed as a doctrine of faith.
The Church doesn’t canonize anyone just because they have the stigmata. What the Church does when it canonizes is recognize the exemplary Christian life of a saint, whether or not he or she has the stigmata.
The phenomenon of the stigmata is a sign of the reality of Christ’s passion on the Cross. By God’s will, certain saints who have loved and meditated on the sacrifice of Christ crucified have participated in his sufferings. They offer those sufferings with the same spirituality as Saint Paul, who said, "I am now rejoicing in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am completing what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church." (Colossians 1:24)
Actually, some people affirm that the apostle Paul himself had the stigmata, and that when he says, "… I carry the marks of Jesus branded on my body" (Galatians 6:17), he wasn’t saying it metaphorically, but literally.
For stigmatists, the wounds of Christ on their bodies are an unmerited grace; therefore, if they are a form of grace, God is the one who gives them. Stigmatists do not ask for these mystical experiences.
But, why does God grant the stigmata? Through the stigmata, God expresses his pleasure in the holiness of life related to the conscious acceptance of the Cross taken up spiritually. It is, then, an experience of suffering colored with joy for the grace received.
A stigmatist receives the mission of being a prophet to remind mankind of the realities that are truly important. They help us to see the extremes to which Christ went to redeem us. They help those who suffer to conform themselves to Christ, offering their own sufferings for the salvation of souls.
What are the criteria that the Church uses to determine whether or not the stigmata are authentic?
1. The stigmata are located in the same places as the five wounds of Christ.
2. The stigmata all appear at the same time.
3. The stigmata appear spontaneously while the person prays in ecstasy.
4. They cannot be explained by natural causes.
5. They do not deteriorate into necrosis.
6. The do not give off a bad smell; on the contrary, sometimes it is said they smell of flowers.
7. They do not become infected.
8. They bleed daily and profusely.
9. They remain unchanged despite treatment. They do not become worse.
10. They cause a significant modification of the bodily tissues.
11. They do not close perfectly and instantaneously.
12. They are accompanied by intense physical and moral suffering, as from participating in the sufferings of Christ. (The lack of pain is a bad sign and a cause for doubt.)
As if the above were not enough, the entire life of the person involved is also studied. He or she must be a person who practices Christian virtues heroically — in particular, their great love for humility and for the cross should stand out.
Throughout history, many cases have appeared; there are so many that the stigmata can be classified as follows:
1. Stigmatization of divine origin;
2. Stigmatization of diabolical origin;
3. Stigmatization of undetermined origin;
4. Stigmatization of neurotic and/or psychological origin, in the case of people who suffer from hysteria and who cause their own wounds, although it may be unconsciously etc.
As we can see, cases of stigmata of diabolical origin have been reported, as strange as it may seem.
The Stigmata of Padre Pio
The devil can cause stigmata, but this is absolutely not the case of Saint Pio of Pietrelcina.
How do the authentic stigmata differ from the diabolical ones?
Besides the rigorous medical and theological studies that must be done, the Church must examine the person’s context or lifestyle; as Jesus said, "You will know them by their fruits." (Matthew 7:16)
The case of Saint Pio of Pietrelcina not only fulfilled the rules listed above; in addition, Saint Pio of Pietrelcina bore fruit that reveal to us who he really was.
What fruit do we see?
1. Obedience to all of the Church’s orders.
2. His spiritual soundness, expressed in his humility, obedience and prayer, was never disproven.
3. Real charitable work through the hospital he founded.
4. The way he lived his religious community life.
5. Doctrinal fidelity in his priestly ministry.
6. He bore his moral sufferings patiently — sufferings stemming from people doubting him, in addition to the suffering of his soul due to the isolation imposed on him by authorities.
7. The spiritual strength to bear the stigmata and persecutions for fifty years.
Despite persecution, Padre Pio’s actions always showed his firm and constant fidelity and intense love for Holy Mother Church. In the midst of the sorrow that this suffering caused him, he would often say, "The hand of the Church is gentle even when it strikes us, because it is the hand of a mother."
The Church has canonized Padre Pio because it proved, through canonical procedures, the authenticity of his stigmata. If they had been false, the Church would certainly not have canonized him.
That is to say, the Church doesn’t canonize anyone just because they have the stigmata, but if someone does have the stigmata and the Church concludes, after rigorous study, that they are false, then that is an impediment for a future canonization of that person, even if he or she leads a holy life.
This article appeared originally in the Spanish-language version of Aleteia. Translated byMatthew Green.