Stigmata is a term used by members of the Christian faith to describe body marks, sores, or sensations of pain in locations corresponding to the crucifixion wounds of Jesus Christ, such as the hands, wrists, and feet. The term came from the line at the end of Saint Paul’s Letter to the Galatians where he states, “I bear on my body the marks of Jesus.” An individual bearing stigmata is referred to as a stigmatist.

The phenomenon has been so well established historically that it is no longer disputed by unbelievers, and many have been forced to accept their legitimacy. The marks often bleed or secret a liquid, and can appear and disappear in a matter of hours. It is mainly religious fanatics and saints who experience this most mysterious phenomenon. As it not only leaves a physical representation of Christ’s wounds, but many stigmatic’s often report a lifelong sense of suffering and anguish. Some have even felt the lashing of whips across their backs.

St. Francis of Assisi is the first recorded stigmatic in Christian history. In 1224, two years before his death, he embarked on a journey to Mt. La Verna for a forty-day fast. One morning near the feast of the Exaltation of the Cross, a six-winged angel allegedly appeared to Francis while he prayed. As the angel approached, Francis could see that the angel was crucified. He was humbled by the sight, and his heart was filled with elation joined by pain and suffering. When the angel departed, Francis was purportedly left with wounds in his hands, feet, and side as if caused by the same lance that pierced Christ’s side. The skin on his hands and feet actually grew out of the wounds to form calluses in the shape of nails., and the wound in his side often seeped blood. Since his time, there have been over three hundred documented stigmatics, sixty-two of which were saints.

For over fifty years, Padre Pio of Pietrelcina reported stigmata which were studied by several 20th-century physicians, whose independence from the Church is not known. The observations were reportedly inexplicable and the wounds never became infected. His wounds healed once, but reappeared. The wounds were examined by Luigi Romanelli, chief physician of the City Hospital of Barletta, for about one year. Dr. Giorgio Festa, a private practitioner, also examined them in 1920 and 1925. Professor Giuseppe Bastianelli, physician to Pope Benedict XV, agreed that the wounds existed, but made no other comment. Pathologist Dr. Amico Bignami of the University of Rome also observed the wounds, but could make no diagnosis. Both Bignami and Dr. Giuseppe Sala commented on the unusually smooth edges of the wounds and lack of edema.

One of the most well known recent sufferers of stigmata is Giorgio Bongiovanni. In his case, Bongiovanni experiences stigmata daily – from unexplained bleeding from his hands, feet, forehead, and chest, that mirror the wounds of the crucified body of Jesus Christ, and seem to appear and disappear on a whim. He details having been given stigmata and the third Fatima secret by a vision of the Virgin Mary he continuously kept witnessing.

A favored theory is that stigmata are psychosomatic ailments brought on by radical levels of worship. Some believe stigmatic’s unconsciously bring on these bouts of wounds by their acute devotion to Christ. Many have noted their wounds appearing in their greatest intensity around the holy days of Easter, when sufferers are most absorbed by religious events. Of course, there is an alternative theory: that stigmata are sent by God to only the most holy.