In a religious context, stigmata are the wounds of Christ's hands, feet, forehead, and side that mysteriously appear on someone else. In some instances only the marks appear, but in the vast majority of cases the appearance of stigmata is accompanied with pain and blood loss (up to 1½ pints per day). Historically, there are well over 300 reported stigmatics, some of whom are living today. Many, many of these cases are well documented by the religious world and the scientific world as well.
One of the best documented modern stigmatics is Jane Hunt in England. On July 25th, 1985 she was "blessed" with the visitation of stigmata. She, like many of her fellow stigmatics before her, experienced a weekly cycle of the sign. On Friday of each week she would manifest deep bleeding wounds in her hands and feet, but by the next Monday or Tuesday no scars nor marks were apparent. This phenomenon was studied carefully by doctors and scientists alike. Indeed, a video documentary was produced that recorded the weekly event and it aired publically in the United Kingdom in 1986.
Historically, St. Francis of Assisi in the 13th century is generally considered to be the first documented stigmatic. However, in Galatians 6.17 Paul writes, "I carry the marks of Jesus branded on my body." Literally, from the Greek, this reads: "I carry the stigmata of Jesus on my body." Perhaps he was the first, or one of the first, to manifest this phenomenon.
But is it for real? Actually, the evidence for stigmata is so overwhelming that the only skeptics tend to be the uninformed. Certainly, those medics and scientists who have studied these wonders have been convinced of their authenticity. In some cases the wounds in the hands have been so profound that the scientists and doctors could see light from the other side of the wound.
However, there are some discrepancies with the many occurrences of stigmata. For one, the location, the shape, and the number of wounds vary significantly from one person to another. In some cases the marks are on the hands and feet only. In others, there are wounds on the forehead and the side as well. And in still others, scrapes on the knees appear. One of the most common discrepancies is the wounds in the side. These vary in location from the right side, to the left, some above the heart, and some below it. Further, the shapes of these wounds vary from a small slit to open wounds in the shape of a cross.
The figure in the Shroud of Turin reflects what many believe is a person who died of crucifixion. In this case, however, the wounds in the hands of this person are actually in the wrists rather than in the palms, giving rise to the notion that Jesus may have been attached to the cross through the wrists. If this were the case, some believe the stigmata should reflect this, but to date, only one stigmatic has demonstrated wounds on his wrists, and this by a modern stigmatic in Rome (Brother Gino Burresi).
All of which gives rise to the question, "If stigmata is a divine manifestation, why isn't it consistent?" Scientists and doctors alike are baffled by the appearance of stigmata. There have been many theories, but no definitive answers. Most believe that the wounds are psychosomatic. If this is true it would explain the inconsistency of the marks, since the placement would correspond with the subconscious mind's understanding of the crucifixion.
On the other hand, in probably the most noted study on the topic Stigmata by Ian Wilson (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1989), the author concludes: "Nonetheless, stigmata are a fact, and remain a genuine mystery; the flesh really does change, and the repeated accompaniments to the phenomenon may have a great deal to teach us."
Is stigmata for real? Certainly it is to those blessed with the sign. As for the rest of us, it will have to remain a matter of faith -- or not.