Pedro Pio (birth name Francesco Forgione) was born in Pietrelcina, Italy, on 25 May 1887. By the time of his death on 23 September 1968, he was a religious celebrity. Till today, his birthplace attracts a continuous stream of Catholic pilgrims seeking some divine assistance from the man. Along with his unmistakeable piety and devotion to his faith, he is one of the most famous stigmatics of the 20th century.

A fascination with stigmata

It was in 1916, while Europe was in the throes of its bloodiest conflicts, that Pedro Pio reported open lesions on his feet and hands said to mimic the crucifixion wounds of Jesus. According to popularly reported stories about Pedro Pio’s wounds, the lesions were perfectly round and witnesses spoke of a rose-like scent emanating from the man’s bloody feet and hands. Sources indicate that investigating medical doctors were flummoxed by Pedro Pio’s condition. He certainly wasn’t the first displaying stigmatic wounds, and he certainly won’t be the last. The fascination with stigmata is real, but the truth could be somewhat deflating.

Self-promotion or self-harm?

While the medical community has suggested underlying health conditions in some of the cases of stigmata investigated, many sufferers of the condition where bloody wounds miraculously appear on the hands and feet were not subjected to thorough scientific study. Most in the medical community even dismiss the claims of stigmata in individuals as a result. However, others have suggested there could be mundane reasons behind these dramatic and religiously bent bodily wounds.

In a highly documented personal history, Pedro Pio suffered from poor health since childhood, underwent cancer and pleurisy treatment, and was arthritic until his death. He was denounced as a fraud in his own lifetime by two previous popes before Pope John Paul II canonized him. Dr Agostino Gemelli, physician, psychologist and the founder of the Catholic University of the Sacred Heart in Milan went further and said Pedro Pio was a “self-mutilating psychopath”. And he could have been partially correct.

The case for mental illness

Extreme religiosity and obsession over the crucifixion of Jesus have suggested stigmata can be viewed as a psychosomatic condition. Psychology Today reports that in a study of 1, 000 participants, 16 per cent reported a physical symptom which stemmed from their psychological problems, which raises the issue over the power of suggestion.

And some individuals do resort to self-neglect, or self-harm when faced with mental distress. Since Christianity’s tenet for the ‘mortification of the flesh’ calls for the subjugation of the body through extreme piety, self-mutilation, unfortunately, happens in the form of flagellation and, yes, imitating the crucifixion wounds of Jesus as some so-called stigmatics were discovered to have done over the years. In other recorded cases, the wounds were found to have been unconsciously self-inflicted, leading to conclusions of hysteria, post-traumatic stress and personality disorders.

Other medical explanations

Purpura manifests as purplish or reddish spots as blood vessels break, leading to blood pooling beneath the skin. Typhus, meningitis, and rubella could be just some of the reasons for the outbreaks on the victim’s skin. It is a possible contender for stigmata-like symptoms. Yet another, more common explanation, is diabetic ulcers which can produce circular wounds on some parts of the body, mainly the feet. And then, there is Gardner-Diamond syndrome, rarely reported, but which predominantly affects Caucasian women suffering from mental illness or stress. This condition manifests on the patient’s arms, legs and face as several small, purplish bruises accompanied by a burning, itching or stinging pain. MIMS