St. Francis of Assisi was the first one recorded in history to have the gift of the stigmata—the 5 wounds of Jesus.
On or around the Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross 1224, St. Francis went up a mountain called La Verna to pray that he might love GOD more and become more conformed to Christ Jesus. Suddenly a Seraph appeared in the likeness of Christ Crucified. A seraph is a fiery angel on fire with the love of God, one of the Seraphim—the angels nearest to Our God Who “is a consuming fire” (Heb. 12:29). Rays emitted from the apparition and St. Francis found that his hands, feet and side were now wounded.
Today September 17th is the Feast of the Stigmatization on the Franciscan liturgical calendar.
In 1993, Pope JPII made a pilgrimage to the shrine built on La Verna. Here is the homily (excerpted) he gave while he was there. Please read it when you get a chance. It’s good stuff… it might seem long, but it’s not. Really.
Saint Francis’ sole boast was the cross
1. Behold the man “in whose time the house of God was renovated and in whose days the temple was reinforced” (Sir 50:1).
We stand here in his footprints. Here the Poverello of Assisi walked. Here he revealed the great love burning in his heart, the love which made him resemble his Beloved, the Crucified: “I bear the marks of Jesus on my body” (Gal 6:17). Paul’s words were wondrously fulfilled in him…
Francis embraced whole truth of Gospel paradox
3. The stigmata, the scars of Christ’s passion on Francis’ body, were the special sign which revealed the cross that he took up every day, in the most literal sense of the word. Did not Jesus say: “If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. Whoever loses his life for my sake will save it” (Lk 9:23-24)?
Francis embraced the whole truth of this paradox. The Gospel was his daily bread. He did not confine himself to reading its words, but through the expressions of the revealed text he set out to discover the One who is the Gospel itself. In fact, in Christ the divine economy is revealed in full: “losing” and “gaining” in their definitive, absolute sense. By his life Francis proclaimed and continues to proclaim today the saving word of the Gospel. It is difficult to find a saint whose message could withstand so deeply “the test of time”.
…Behold: he who “lost his life” for Christ “has saved it”. He saved it in a wonderful way.
4. The stigmata which Francis received in this place, La Verna, are a particular sign. They are the deepest witness of the Poverello’s truth.
[He] authentically and profoundly “boasted. . . of the cross of Christ”. Not of anything else; solely “of the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ” (cf. Gal 6:14).
A sign of likeness in virtue of love.
The Apostle Paul says this and Francis of Assisi repeats it: through Christ’s cross and the power of love “the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world” (Gal 6:14).
The world does not want to be crucified: it flees the cross. People run away from being “crucified to the world”. That is how it was in Francis’ day, and it still is today. The struggle between the “world” and the cross goes on forever; it is a baffle with the cross of salvation!
It could, therefore, seem that Francis has become something of an irrelevant, useless witness. Whoever says to Christ: “My Lord are you, apart from you I have no good” (Ps 16:2) seems to offend the contemporary mentality. Indeed, man often does not acknowledge the Lord as being over him: he wants to be the master of himself and the world. This is why Francis’ message is becoming an even greater sign of contradiction. A message of this kind should be rejected, yet it is increasingly sought after.
Saint Francis strove to imitate Christ by self-denial
5. It is a message which is a pressing call to return to Christ, to rediscover in his cross “the path and the flame of truth” (St. Bonaventure, De triplici via III, 5): the truth which makes us free because it makes us disciples of the divine Master.
Saint Francis’ spiritual journey was marked by this faithful following of the God-Man, whom he strove to imitate without reserve in self-denial and total self-emptying (cf. Phil 2:7). This makes him, as Saint Bonaventure says, “that most Christian pauper” par excellence (cf. Legenda major VIII, 5). This journey and following reached its climax on La Verna with the imprinting of the stigmata. That moment, even in the agony of his flesh, was his proclamation of victory, similar to what Saint Paul referred to in the second reading we listened to a little while ago: “I bear the marks of Jesus on my body” (Gal 6:17).
The stigmatization on La Verna thus represents that visible conformity to the image of Christ which makes Francis the example to which every Christian can aspire in the process of drawing ever nearer to God the Creator and Redeemer. In this regard the words spoken by the Poverello at the end of his life are significant: “I have done my duty; may Christ teach you yours” (St. Bonaventure, Legenda major XIV, 3).
6. These words do not represent a self-satisfied introspection, but rather an offering of humble gratitude for what the Lord had done in him. Their meaning is nothing other than this: may Christ teach you, as he taught me, to be his disciples.
There are two lessons of the divine Master in particular that Francis followed with complete fidelity: obey the Pope, the Vicar of Christ on earth, venerate and imitate his most holy Mother Mary.
The legitimation of his work in the Church, including the institution of a new religious order, depends entirely on the words of the first chapter of his rule: “Brother Francis promises obedience and reverence to the Lord Pope”. In this same perspective, shortly before dying, he recommended to his brothers to “keep the faith of the holy Roman Church” (St. Bonaventure, Legenda major XIV, 5).
Then, too, Saint Francis “embraced the mother of the Lord Jesus with an indescribable love” for having made “the Lord of Majesty our brother” and “after Christ he put all his trust in her” (St. Bonaventure, Legenda major IX, 3).
He imitated Mary in her meditative silence, especially after having been stamped by Christ, on this mountain, with the signs of his passion, thus showing that the greater the privileges God bestows, all the greater is the recipient’s duty to conceal them. “The evangelical man, Francis”, Saint Bonaventure tells us, “came down from the mountain bearing with him the image of the Crucified. . . engraved in the members of his body by the finger of the living God”; “aware that he had been given a royal secret, to the best of his powers he kept the sacred stigmata hidden” (Legenda major XIII, 5).
Love alone can prevent the failure of humanity
7. “He protected his people against brigands and strengthened his city against the enemy” (Sir 50:4).
Dear brothers and sisters, this passage from the book of Sirach which we listened to at the beginning of Mass refers to Christ himself: in all circumstances he “protects his people”. The cross has rooted him in human history; it has rooted him in human hearts.
“The world crucified” in Christ is always revealed anew as “the world loved”: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son” (Jn 3:16). Francis bore witness to this boundless love and continues to do so even in our days.
Love alone can prevent the failure of humanity and the world: that world by which man is “besieged” and threatened in various ways.
8. Behold, we come to you, O Francis, in this place which was dear to you. We come to you to be strengthened once again in the conviction that love is greater than every negative power. We greet you at the end of the second Christian millennium! The Church and the whole human family salute you! And we pray to you, the Poverello of Assisi, “Strengthen the sanctuary in our day, too! Strengthen the Church!