Padre Pio (1887-1968) affords a striking modern instance of stigmata.
He was born Francesco Forgione into a peasant family at Pietrelcina, north-east of Naples. His parents lacked nothing in devotion, attending Mass daily, saying the rosary nightly and fasting three times a week. Although illiterate, they knew the gospels well, and passed on their knowledge to the children. (Francesco had an elder brother, Jack, and three younger sisters.)
By the age of five Francesco was exclusively religious. For play, he would sing hymns, pray and pretend to be a priest. For conversation, he turned to Jesus, the Virgin and his guardian angel. For combat, he fought off the attacks of the Devil. He was a solitary child.
At 10, Francesco heard a Capuchin preach and decided that he wanted to be a friar, “with a beard”. The local friary, however, demanded that he be further educated. His father, in order to finance a private tutor, went to work in America.
And so, in 1903, at the age of 15, Francesco took the habit of the Order of Friars Minor, assuming the name of Pius in religion, in honour of Pope Pius V, who had excommunicated Queen Elizabeth I.
In September 1910, after his ordination the previous month, Pius experienced pains in his hands and feet. He asked for his wounds – “an annoyance” – to be taken away, and found his prayer granted. “I do want to suffer,” he explained, “even to die of suffering, but all in secret.”
In 1911 Pius, apparently sick, was sent home from the monastery. It would be another five years before he was ordered to return to community life.
In August 1917 Pius was called up into the Italian Medical Corps; by October he had been placed in hospital himself.
Early in 1918 he was sent to the monastery at San Giovanni Rotondo, on the Gargano peninsula, which juts into the Adriatic. There he would remain for the rest of his life.
Wounds appeared in Pius’s side and hands in August and September 1917, phenomena copiously attested by medical photographs. In spite of his embarrassment and pleas for relief, the bleeding would continue for 50 years.
The Church treated his stigmata with extreme caution; and indeed Padre Pio described the phenomenon as “a mystery to myself”. Inevitably, his affliction excited huge popular devotion, at first actively discouraged by the
Pope Pius XII, however, showed himself wholly convinced, so that the cult of Padre Pio gained redoubled force. After the Second World War the UN provided funds for the development of a Home to Relieve Suffering which he had started at Giovanni Rotondo.
The stigmata mysteriously disappeared two days before Padre Pio’s death on September 23 1968. He was canonised by Pope John Paul II in 2002.