Mario Martinez, of Vanderbilt University, is investigatingthe causes of stigmata, the mysterious wounds resemblingthose Jesus received when crucified that sometimes appear onpeople’s bodies.

Usually it turns out to be self-mutilation, he says, but inrare cases, true stigmata occur. ”I wouldn’t try to reduceit to a black or white thing,” he says. ”My job is to rule(things) out. That’s really the job of the scientist.”

In 1989, Martinez became interested in how emotions andspiritual beliefs affect the immune system, and this led himto stigmata. He has investigated cases for various bishopsof the Catholic church in this country, Europe and theCaribbean. The Catholic church does not officially recognizestigmata, and when it cannot be disproved by scientificmeans, the church leaves it open to individualinterpretation. Stigmata were in the news recently when PopeJohn Paul II named Padre Pio, one of the most famousstigmatics, as a saint. Padre Pio lived in Italy and hisstigmata first appeared in 1918. However, he was notcanonized because of his wounds, but because of the miraclesof spontaneous healing that were attributed to him.

Stigmata can be puzzling–for instance, the wounds ofstigmatics don?t get infected, as if they have what Martinezcalls a ”superimmunity.” He thinks this happens when aperson’s belief is so strong that it changes the body’sbiology. ”I believe in miracles, but I also believe thatthe miracle is really the ability that we have, the power ofbelief,” Martinez says.

The stigmatic?s beliefs also reflect the type of wounds thatoccur on his body. Padre Pio’s wounds were in his palms,where the nails were traditionally believed to have beendriven into Christ’s hands. But archaeologists now know thatthe nails were actually driven into the wrists of thecrucified, so the bone structure of the arms could supportthe weight of the body. More recent stigmatics have woundsin their wrists instead of their hands, says Martinez.

Martinez worked with one man whose wounds were extremelypainful, yet he viewed them as a gift from God. ”Theconflict was [that] to give it up might mean beingungrateful to God, and to keep it is to live a life ofsuffering,” he says. He told the man to focus on Christ’slove, and not his suffering. After about a month and a half,the man’s wounds became infected and then began to heal.

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