What are stigmata?
The term ‘stigmata’
The word stigma, pl. stigmata, originates from the Greek and in ordinary language designates a branded or tattooed symbol for decoration on the body, as a sign of tribal belonging and ownership of animals, prisoners, and slaves.
In the context of the mysticism of the passion, the stigma is the involuntarily, bodily visible appearance (visible stigma) or the invisible experiencing of the pain (invisible stigma) of Christ’s injuries in living people (on the feet, hands and the sides of the body). These stigma resist therapy, are antiseptic and bleed periodically, often around the time of the liturgical Passion.
Up until medieval times there is no evidence of stigmatization. The first proven case of real stigmatization is that of St. Francis of Assisi (on September 14, 1224) on Mount Alverna in the Toscana. According to the vision of the seraph, he always displayed real and vivid impressions of the nails and the injuries in the side of the body. St. Francis always hid these stigmata, but after his death his companion Elias of Cremona informed all Franciscans in a letter. The after-effects are striking and can be seen in an increasing number of stigmatizations, to date about 350 or more cases, among them Catherine of Siena (1375), Veronica Guiliani (1697), Th. Neumann (1926) and Padre Pio (1968).
The Church treats stigmatization with reluctance and care. Retaining a fundamental openness to miracles, the phenomenon has to be judged in the context of the respective biography and intentions (from a medical, psychological and theological perspective: to discern the cause). Leaving fraudulent stigmatization aside, there is a big range between auto-suggestion and charisma, natural and supernatural occurrence. There is no guaranteed connection between stigmatization and saintliness, however, authentic stigmatization can be a cross-category pointer to the importance of the cross and suffering of Jesus Christ. What is true for Catholic Christians with respect to miracles in general is also true here: For Christians who study the history of the Church, miracles in the past and the presence are possible, although strict criteria have to be applied to their verification (see Andreas-Pazificus Alkofer, art. Stigma im „Lexikon für Theologie und Kirche“, Bd. IX. Freiburg: Herder, 2000).