St. Francis of Assisi spent many years trying his best to imitated Christ Jesus and as such, to actually live the Gospel. To this day, Franciscans around the world strive to live the Gospel life.
Francis lived as a poor man, though his family was wealthy. He sometimes wore the clothes of a beggar. But most often, the habit of a penitent. That is a badly patched grey robe with a hood and a rope belt. Even a leather belt was considered "too rich" for Il Poverello – the little poor man.
To him, Christ was: "My God and My All." That is the motto of Franciscans around the world.
Most people believe that St. Francis received the stigmata at the time of his initial conversion. This is not true. It was close to the end of his life.
In the year 1224, two years before his death, Francis traveled to Mt. La Verna to spend 40 days preceding the feast of St. Michael the Archangel in prayer and fasting. Such had been his custom for years. It was at that time that he received the stigmata.
What is the Stigmata? Stigmata are the marks of the Passion. Very often people count each hand and each foot, for four wounds. That's not how they are counted. The "five wounds of the Passion" are as follows: 1) Nails through the hands, 2) Nails through the feet, 3) Spear through the side, 4) Crown of thorns, 5) Scourging at the pillar.
We are most familiar with images of St. Francis having the nail wounds in both hands and both feet. Many reports say St. Francis carried the 5 wounds. Not according to St. Bonaventure. According to St. Bonaventure, he only had three. Not that that's a bad thing. I'd be a whiney baby sitting in a pool of my own tears if I just had ONE!
St. Bonaventure tells the story of St. Francis and the Stigmata: "Francis was raised to God in the ardor of his seraphic love, wholly transformed by sweet compassion into Him, who, of His exceeding charity, was pleased to be crucified for us. On the morning of the feast of the Exultation of the Holy Cross, as he was praying in a secret and solitary place on the mountain, Francis beheld a seraph with six wings all afire, descending to him from the heights of heaven. As the seraph flew with great swiftness towards the man of God, there appeared amid the wings the form of one crucified, with his hands and feet stretched out and fixed to the cross. Two wings rose above the head, two were stretched forth in flight, and two veiled the whole body.
"Francis wondered greatly at the appearance of so novel and marvelous a vision. But knowing that the weakness of suffering could nowise be reconciled with the immortality of the seraphic spirit, he understood the vision as a revelation of the Lord and that it was being presented to his eyes by Divine Providence so that the friend of Christ might be transformed into Christ crucified, not through martyrdom of the flesh, but through a spiritual holocaust.
"The vision, disappearing, left behind it a marvelous fire in the heart of Francis, and no less wonderful token impressed on his flesh. For there began immediately to appear in his hands and in his feet something like nails as he had just seen them in the vision of the Crucified. The heads of the nails in the hands and feet were round and black, and the points were somewhat long and bent, as if they had been turned back. On the right side, as if it had been pierced by a lance, was the mark of a red wound, from which blood often flowed and stained his tunic."
The feast of the Exaltation of the Cross was last Friday.
St. Francis tried to hide stigmata for some time. He was unable to keep the wounds secret from the brethren. After his death they were carefully examined, and they were attested by an ecclesiastical decree.
To commemorate the importance of the wounds, Pope Benedict XI instituted a special feast which is celebrated on September 17th, not only by all branches of the Franciscan Order, but throughout the Latin Church.
Many psychologist say that the stigmata is produced through a sort of autohypnosis. An individual spends so much time meditating on the Passion of Christ that they imprint themselves, through the power of their own minds, with the wounds.
Padre Pio, a well known and highly documented stigmatic, laughed at this idea. He told the psychiatrist who suggested this to him that the man should meditate on a bull for several decades to see if he wound end up sprouting horns.
People think that we Christians are so desperate for proof of God that we'll accept any old thing as a miracle. I can tell you with absolute certainty that - in the Catholic Church - any potential miracle is subject to a barrage of tests.
During his lifetime (1818-1912), Dr. Antoine Imbert-Gourbeyre identified over 320 cases of genuine stigmata. There have been plenty of fakers. One of the most well known being Magdalen de la Cruz. She was a Poor Clare who lived in Cordoba, Spain. Many regarded her as a saint. She eventually confessed that her stigmata was false. The work of the devil. She lived the next 14 years in solitude and great piety.
With the "discovery" that the palms of a corpse nailed to a plank couldn't support the body - there came the launch of stigmatics with holes in their wrists. Such as the one played out in the film Stigmata. I actually liked that film quite a bit. Even though the film maker was somewhat clueless...
An even more recent "discovery" was the "oops" we forgot the Romans supported the feet so a corpse can hang indefinitely with nails through the palms.
So. How do Franciscans celebrate this feast day? This Franciscan seems to have a non-stop appetite today. What else does one do on a feast day? FEAST!!