Wednesday, October 3, 2012

St. Francis & Stigmata

Painting, Vincenzo Foppa (1430-1515)
St. Francis of Assisi has already been mentioned, but since this is the anniversary of his death ...

One of the fascinating events in the St. Francis story is the appearance of the stigmata. In September 1224, while Francis was fasting for 40 days leading up to Michaelmas (29 September), he had a vision of the Exaltation of the Cross (one of the feasts used to venerate the cross on which Christ was crucified).

After that vision, stigmata appeared on him. Stigmata is the plural of the Greek στίγμα, stigma, meaning a mark or brand. In the religious context, the word refers to marks that mirror the wounds received by Christ. Francis was the first person in history known to have experienced the stigmata.

Were they real? Can we know? Unlike, say, the legends of St. Rémy or "Good" King Wenceslaus, which grew long after their lives, Francis had biographers shortly after his death, who would have known Francis' contemporaries. St. Bonaventure (1221-1274), one of those biographers, became a Franciscan almost 20 years after Francis' death, but would have met people who knew the saint. In fact, one of Francis' companions, his secretary and confessor Brother Leo, was with him at the time of the vision, and said of the event:
Suddenly he saw a vision of a seraph, a six-winged angel on a cross. This angel gave him the gift of the five wounds of Christ.
We are also told that he sought aid for these wounds (and an eye disease) in Siena and other cities, but no one could explain or stop the flow of blood. Francis returned to the Portiuncula, a small church near Assisi. Feeling the end was near for him, he dictated some memoirs and guidance for his followers. He passed away 3 October 1226, singing Psalm 141: "Lord, I cry unto thee."

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