Yesterday, we began this short, two-part series with a look at how some Catholics get wrapped around the axle over such things as the proper handling of “soiled” altar cloths. See here. Today, we’ll examine another Catholic conundrum, which I’ll call “The Case of the Misplaced Stigmata.”
We’ll begin with a brief examination of the Catholic stigmata. Down through the centuries, a number of Catholics claimed to have received the “stigmata” (from the Latin “stigma”: a mark of disgrace associated with a particular circumstance, quality, or person; in (c)hristian tradition, marks corresponding to those left on Jesus’ body by the crucifixion). During the Middle Ages, penitential self-harm practices (self-mortification) were encouraged in monastaries and convents as part of extreme asceticism and mysticism. In this environment, some mystics claimed to have “received” the five marks of Jesus’ crucifixion; wounds on the hands and feet and a wound on the side. The first to claim the “gift” of stigmata was St. Francis of Assisi in 1224. Many others followed including, most famously, Catherine of Siena and Padre Pio (photo right). A Catholic source (see here) cites at least 321 stigmatics over the centuries. It should be noted that all of these stigmatics had wounds on the palms of their hands.
Okay, now let’s get to our conundrum. In a recent episode of the Catholic “Called to Communion” talk radio show, an interesting question came up via an email:
Called to Communion – EWTN Radio
Moderator: Thom Price, Host: David Anders
Podcast 4/24/19 – 2:24 mark
Thom Price: Katy from Illinois wants to know, “Why are stigmata wounds on the hands of the saints if Christ was actually nailed to the cross through his wrists, as the Shroud of Turin shows?”
Hmm. An interesting and very valid question. Historians and scientists hypothesize that the victims of Roman crucifixion were most probably nailed to wooden crosses through their wrists, otherwise the nails would have easily ripped through the soft tissue of the hands. The victims usually hung on a cross for several days before finally dying of asphyxiation. John 20:25 states the risen Jesus had wounds on His “hands,” but the Greek text uses the word, “cheir,” which can refer to either hands or wrists. Fanciful Medieval religious art portrayed Jesus exclusively with wounds through the palms of His hands and that was the model used by the stigmatics.
Host, David Anders, knows the listener has identified a conundrum and answers the question gingerly. He posits that, yes, nails through the palms would have been very unlikely, but since “that’s the way it has appeared in the moral imagination of the Latin church, it stands to reason, in my thinking, that if God were to grant the stigmata to an individual, that he would do it in the way that would be most recognizable to that person and perhaps to his contemporaries.”
Anders’ response is sheer sophistry and equivocation. The reality is the stigmatics guessed wrong and created wounds in the palms of their hands according to the widely-held misconception about the crucifixion. How did the mystic/ascetic religious celebrities create their wounds? A number of ways. It’s been documented that one of the most recent stigmatists, Padre Pio (photo right) aka Francesco Forgion (d. 1968), used carbolic acid.
Padre Pio ‘faked his stigmata with acid’