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Many are those who claim to experience "stigmata." Just as there was an eruption of seers and locutionists in the late 1980s to early 1990s, so is there now, in the current decade, an eruption of those who say they bear representations of the wounds of Christ.

Some exhibit outward signs -- blood on the palm, "thorn" pinpricks on the forehead; even the shoulder wound. Others suffer it invisibly.

The ones that actually exhibit blood draw the greatest attention, of course, and while such an experience at first may seem like hands-down proof of authenticity (and holiness), this is probably the area of Catholic mysticism most in need of caution. In fact, the devil often manifests in this regard, as most poignantly shown many years ago when a stigmatic nun in 15th-century Cordova, Spain, was found at her deathbed to be in need of an exorcism.

That same century, another nun was found to be artificially creating the wounds by painting her skin.

In our own time, there are dozens who are known for the wounds, from housewives to priests. Venezuelan mystic Maria Esperanza was known for it. So is a nun who allegedly experienced prophecy in Japan. A Franciscan cleric sometimes had exudation of blood in the form of a cross on his forehead. Many suffer in a special way during Lent. In Constantia, New York, a Filipino woman named Emma de Guzman allegedly has stigmata and other reputed mystical gifts (like Esperanza, even a rose that supposedly rises out of her flesh). Blood pours down her face. A bleeding Host appears on her tongue. It is very much like phenomena reported in Naju, Korea. We must let you discern it.

In the town of Rosales, province of Pangasinan, in the Philippines, the Blessed Virgin Mary reputedly has been appearing to Rowel Darang since 1987. "On Good Friday of 1993, during the Stations of the Cross, Rowel felt pain on his side, so severe that he was unable to finish the Stations," we are told. "The pain recurred the next day, but this time Rowel persisted and finished the prayer. On Easter Sunday, Our Lady told him about the significance of stigmata and asked him if he would accept the pain in reparation for sins. Rowel replied he would. On May 29, the wounds appeared on the palms of his hands and started to bleed. Later, Rowel would also feel pain in his feet from invisible stigmata."

It is a time to be cautious at the same time open and yet skeptical. Stigmata is not visually compelling that it seems like a mystical slam dunk: beyond scrutiny.

It is precisely that assumption that attracts deception.

One must always ask: In cases where there is actually the flow of blood, might it be a result of extreme psychosomatic response (the mind affecting the flesh), or an evil spirit? Does it come from God when it is unsightly?

In many cases through history (there are at least 400 known stigmatics), the "wounds" have been accompanied by other phenomena such as the odor of sanctity. Often, it is associated with goodness on a level beyond average devotion. This certainly can be placed on the positive side of the ledger.

In the 1990s, we had lunch with a man named Irving "Francis" Houle from Escanaba, Michigan, who died last January.

Careful to remain out of the limelight, his stigmata, as explained by Father Robert Fox, of Fatima Family Apostolate, began on Good Friday in 1993. The following June 6, his brother Reynold was to witness it.

"At 12:45 a.m., Francis called and said to me, 'Reyn, do you want to come in and put your hands on my head? You may receive some special graces. I think I am getting the crowning with thorns."

When his brother entered the spare room where Francis was staying, the stigmagtic was "out of it" -- not even aware he was there.

"The suffering I witnessed started with his head pains, then the pain went to his feet. His feet were moving all over in great pain as if he were being crucified. Then the pain went to his hands. His movements were very slow and he would holler and make mournful sounds.

"After the foot movement stopped, Francis slowly moved his right hand up and stretched it out, as if someone were guiding his hand to prepare it for the first nailing.

"Then I noticed a lot of finger movements. It looked and sounded like he was being nailed to the Cross. He was moaning in quick agonizing moans. I could tell he was in terrible pain...

"He was in great agony. Even though I could see that his hands had been nailed down in the suffering, he kept moving his fingers over and over, as in agony and moaning real loud sounds.

"When his left hand moved off his chest very slowly, it went right past me while I was kneeling near his bed and I thought at first he was reaching for my rosary that was lying there. But all the while it was his left hand stretching out to be nailed.

"Now I don't mean that I myself heard sounds of hammers pounding in big nails. No. But from Francis would come the irregular groans or shouts of pain like in the rhythm of nails being driven into his hands. [It was] like at each pound he would holler in pain. It was so loud, if I had the windows open I'm sure the neighbors would have heard and wondered."

This comes from Father Fox's book, A Man Called Francis.

And so we see the snippet of one reputed stigmata. The suffering often took place between midnight and three a.m. -- when, Francis said, many great sins were committed. We can meditate on that.

For years after, Francis traveled around Michigan and Wisconsin, praying over the sick and winning the applause of the Marquette diocese -- which upon his death carried a lengthy article about him (rare in diocesan newspapers). One Marquette bishop, Most Reverend James H. Garland, said that he could "find no fault with the activity that he is exercising" and that "it seems to be helpful to many people." His successor, Bishop Alexander Sample, agreed.

Why stigmata? Why would the Lord have others share His agony?

Perhaps -- just perhaps -- Irving Houle was given the crucial insight. "All hurts, persecution, betrayals and pain are the Passion," the Lord allegedly explained to him. "You will continue to suffer. This is all for conversions; many, many will be saved."

[see also: Michigan man had the healing touch]

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