In the Franciscan liturgical calendar, September 17 marks an important feast. Franciscans around the world celebrate the Feast of the Reception of the Stigmata of St. Francis.
Toward the end of St. Francis’ life, two years before his death, something perhaps unprecedented in the history of Christianity took place. In 1224, Francis went to the mountain hermitage of Laverna in Tuscany (sometimes written as Alverna or La Verna) to fast and prepare for the feast of St. Michael the Archangel (September 29). On September 17, three days after the feast of the Exaltation of the Cross, Francis was visited by an angel.
St. Bonaventure described how a fiery, six-winged Seraph descended from heaven. Between the wings of the angel there appeared the image of a crucified man, with his hands and feet extended in the form of a cross and fastened to a cross. Then:
As the vision was disappearing, it left in his heart a marvelous fire and imprinted in his flesh a likeness of signs no less marvelous. For immediately the marks of nails began to appear in his hands and feet just as he had seen a little before in the figure of the man crucified. His hands and feet seemed to be pierced through the center by nails, with the heads of the nails appearing on the inner side of the hands and the upper side of the feet and their points on the opposite sides. The heads of the nails in his hands and his feet were round and black; their points were oblong and bent as if driven back with a hammer, and they emerged from the flesh and stuck out beyond it. Also his right side, as if pierced with a lance, was marked with a red wound from which his sacred blood often flowed, moistening his tunic and underwear. (Major Life, Chapter 13, 3)
Just before receiving the sacred wounds, according to the Third Consideration on the Stigmata (comprised within the Little Flowers of St. Francis), St. Francis had prayed for two graces: to feel in his body the pain which Jesus felt during his Passion and to know in his heart the love which Jesus felt for all humanity. In that moment, he received the stigmata – the marks, or wounds, of Christ – on his hands, feet, and side. He was at once overwhelmed with joy, but doubled over with pain.
It is striking, even confounding, that Francis would ask to feel pain and love concurrently, that he would somehow connect the two. In faith and simplicity, however, he understood the bond between suffering and love as his spirituality was rooted in Christ’s Passion and love of humanity.
In his Letter on the Passing of Saint Francis attributed to Brother Elias (the acting Minister General of the order), Elias declared what the stigmata meant to him and what was observed on his body:
I announce to you a great joy and the news of a miracle. Such a sign that has never been heard of from the dawn of time except in the Son of God, who is Christ the Lord. Not long before his death, our brother and father appeared crucified, bearing in his body the five wounds which are truly the marks of Christ. His hands and feet had, as it were, the openings of the nails and were pierced front and back revealing the scars and showing the nails’ blackness. His side, moreover, seemed opened by a lance and often emitted blood.
Indeed, at Laverna, the life and mission of Francis became inexplicably and mysteriously united to the life and mission of Christ. The Incarnation of Christ, the “masterpiece” of God’s creation, indeed, the “whole purpose of creation” (to borrow the words of the Franciscan Scholastic theologian, Blessed John Duns Scotus) culminated in the Passion and crucifixion as the highest expression of Christ’s love, charity, and mission. And now that love, charity, and mission was forever linked to Francis.
Though this is the first recorded reception of the stigmata, some believe that St. Paul was possibly alluding to something similar when he wrote: “I bear the marks of Jesus on my body” (Galatians 6:16).
Since the time of St. Francis, however, many other mystics have received the stigmata in one form or another. Some, like Francis, received the full wounds of Christ on their hands, feet, and side. Others, like St. Veronica Giuliani, a Capuchin Poor Clare, had the wounds on her body, as well as the imprint of the crown of thorns on her forehead. St. Rita of Cascia, an Augustinian, had only a thorn wound in her forehead. Others still, such as the Dominican, St. Catherine of Siena, and St. Faustina Kowalska, received what are known as invisible stigmata, in which they felt the pain of wounds without external marks.
The calling of the “victim soul” is a mysterious and unique mission among the community of the faithful. Little understood, victim souls voluntarily offer their mystical sufferings as a share in the redemptive power of the crucifixion and resurrection. They suffer excruciating pains that manifest themselves visibly or invisibly. Their sufferings are often accompanied by mystical phenomena such as visions and locutions or other supernatural occurrences. Through these sufferings, victim souls receive the gift of grace which they then offer as atonement for others – often for sinners or the sick.
It should be noted that at a theological level, atonement comes from Christ and Christ alone. However, God sometimes uses people as mediators. St. Paul gives witness to the possibility of “offering up” our suffering for the benefit of others when he declares: “Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ on behalf of his body, which is the church” (Col 1:24).
Paul does not mean that Christ’s atonement was somehow insufficient; rather, he is saying that we can participate in Christ’s sufferings for the good and salvation of others.
May the example of St. Francis and the Feast of his Reception of the Stigmata guide us in our own vocations as we strive to live fully the life we are called to by Christ.