Holiness and Sanctity

Italian stigmatics and the Holy Office in the nineteenth and early twentieth century

Leonardo Rossi

Saints are present in our daily life. Every day the memory of a saint is celebrated. Every job has a patron saint. Each church has numerous paintings and frescoes of saints. Some subway stops, neighbourhoods, and even cities (as San Francisco) are dedicated to them. But who is the saint? Who elects s/he? What are the criteria for accessing holiness? According to the Roman Church, the saints are those who distinguished themselves for their heroic virtues or those who sacrificed their lives for the Catholic religion (martyrs). Over the centuries, the Roman Church has developed a complex system of verification, recognition, and election of the heroes of the faith (sanctity). For Catholic believers, they are particular figures who have an intercession function between earth and heaven and who show special signs of divinity (holiness). The saints of the faithful are not always the saints of the Church.

Among the most controversial figures there are stigmatics, those who carry the wounds of passion in their flesh: for the Vatican, most of the time, they are dangerous false saints, while in many cases they are famous popular saints. In this research project, I studied stigmatics in the nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Italy and in particular the censorship of ecclesiastical authorities against them, especially the Holy Office. The studies carried out have shown that in the first half of the nineteenth century only the bishops (and the local courts of the Inquisition) had the task of investigating the stigmatics within their diocese. From the 1860s onwards, after the end of the Papal State, the Holy Office claimed a central and widespread control over the nation. This centralizing trend became more marked in the early decades of the twentieth century, when dozens of new cases were reported in Italy, bringing the Inquisitor fathers to speak about an alarming “overflowing mysticism.” However, despite the censorship by the clergy, some stigmatics were popularly recognized as ‘living saints’ and some of them were later officially canonized. This research has shown that still in the contemporary age holiness and sanctity were similar but not exactly the same concept.

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