“Stigmata” is a Catholic term which refers to rare occasions when the wounds of the crucified Jesus appear, without any physical explanation, on human beings. For example, Saint Rita of Cascia (1381-1457) had a thorn wound on her forehead for fifteen years. Others, like the more recent and highly publicized case of Padre Pio (1887-1968), have more serious marks such as nail holes in the hands and feet, marks from scourging and carrying the cross, and even the open wound on the right side. Usually, the marks disappear from the body after the person’s death. The first historically documented stigmatic was Saint Francis of Assisi (1181-1226).
Not long after the Rule for Francis’ new community had been approved by Pope Honorius III (1148-1227), the holy man went away by himself to pray. He went up to Mount Alverna, also known as Mount Verna, and observed a forty day fast in honor of Saint Michael the Archangel whose feast day, September 29, was rapidly approaching. On September 14, 1224, the Feast of the Triumph of the Cross, Francis went into ecstasy and saw a seraph with six wings come down from heaven. As the two drew closer, Francis received a vision of the crucifixion. He came so close to his Maker that, when the vision ended, he was not only, literally, glowing with religious fervor, but he also had the Five Holy Wounds of Christ impressed on his body.
The Five Holy Wounds refer to the marks of the nails in both hands and both feet and to the wound made in Christ’s side by the soldier’s lance. The stigmata remained on Saint Francis of Assisi until his death on October 3, 1226.
Those who saw the stigmata on Saint Francis stated that one could actually see the shape of bent nails within his hands and feet. Although the majority of Catholics already considered Francis a holy man, his fame spread even more when he received a gift that had never even been heard of before. The impression of the stigmata on Saint Francis may, very likely, have been one of the factors which led to his canonization a mere two years after his death.
Pope Benedict XI (1240-1304) allowed the Church to commemorate the impression of the stigmata on Saint Francis on September 17. In general, the memorial is overridden by the feast of Saint Robert Bellarmine (1542-1621). On the other hand, the memorial of Francis receiving the stigmata is considered a very important day for all Franciscan friars, nuns, and tertiaries.