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The Stigmata of Lilian Bernas

Investigative Files

Joe Nickell

Volume 28.2, March / April 2004

Canadian Lilian Bernas claims to exhibit—“in a supernatural state”—the wounds of Christ. On March 1, 2002, I observed one of a series of Bernas’s bleedings. It was the eleventh such event that “the Lord allows me to experience on the first Friday of the month,” she told the audience, “with one more to come” (Bernas 2002). But was the event really supernatural or only a magic show?

Stigmata

Popularly associated with saintliness, stigmata refers to the wounds of Christ’s crucifixion supposedly reproduced spontaneously on the body of a Christian. Following the death of Jesus, about a.d. 29 or 30, the phenomenon waited nearly twelve centuries to appear (putting aside a cryptic Biblical reference to St. Paul [Galatians 6:17]). St. Francis of Assisi (1182-1226) is credited with being the first “true” stigmatist (after a man with the crucifixion wounds was arrested for imposture two years earlier).

Following St. Francis, a few hundred people have exhibited stigmata, including several saints-most recent Padre Pio (1887-1968). He was canonized in 2002, although not for his stigmata, the Catholic Church never having declared the alleged phenomenon miraculous (D'Emilio 2002; Tokasz 2003).

Indeed, in addition to its copycat aspect, stigmata is suspect on other grounds. It appeared in mostly Roman Catholic countries, notably Italy, until the twentieth century. Also, the form and placement of the wounds has evolved. For example, those of St. Francis (except for his side wound) “were not wounds which bled but impressions of the heads of the nails, round and black and standing clear from the flesh” (Harrison 1994, 25).

Subsequently, stigmata have typically been bleeding wounds, albeit with “no consistency even remotely suggesting them as replications of one single, original pattern” (Wilson 1988, 63).

It is well established that many stigmatics were engaging in trickery. For instance, Magdalena de la Cruz confessed, during a serious illness in 1543, that her stigmata had been faked. In 1587, Maria de la Visitacion, known as the “holy nun of Lisbon,” was caught painting fake wounds on her hands. Pope Pius IX privately branded as a fraud Palma Maria Matarelli (1825-1888), stating that “she has befooled a whole crowd of pious and credulous souls.” And more recently, in 1984, an Italian court convicted stigmatic Gigliola Giorgini of fraud (Wilson 1988, 26, 42, 147).

The twentieth century’s two best-known stigmatics-Theresa Neumann and Padre Pio-were suspected of deception. A Professor Martini who conducted a surveillance of Neumann observed that blood would flow from her wounds only when he was persuaded to leave the room, as if something “needed to be hidden from observation” (Wilson 1988, 53, 114-115). And a pathologist who examined Padre Pio concluded that his wounds were superficial at best and that the side “wound” had not penetrated the skin at all (Ruffin 1982, 146-154, 305).

Catholic scholar Herbert Thurston (1952, 100) found “no satisfactory case of stigmatization since St. Francis of Assisi.” He believed the phenomena was due to suggestion, but attempts to duplicate it experimentally through hypnosis have ranged from the doubtful to the unsuccessful. As to St. Francis, his extraordinary zeal to imitate Jesus may have led him to engage in a pious deception (Nickell 2000).

A New Stigmatist

Enter Lilian Bernas, a Catholic convert (in 1989) and one-time nursing-home worker. She first exhibited stigmata during Easter of 1992, having previously received visions of Jesus. According to one of her two self-published booklets, Jesus appears frequently to her, addressing her as “My suffering soul,” “My sweet petal,” and “My child” (Bernas 1999).

The Archdiocese of Ottawa, Ontario, where she then lived, established a commission to investigate Bernas’s claims. “The inquiry did not make a judgment on the authenticity,” stated a spokeswoman for the Archdiocese, Gabrielle Tasse. Tasse told The Buffalo News, “It doesn't really concern the general public. It just creates propaganda.” The Catholic Church often resists publicity regarding supernatural claims, noted the Rev. Thomas Reese, a Jesuit priest who edits the weekly Catholic magazine, America. “The church is very skeptical of these things,” Rev. Reese explained (Tokasz 2003).

Bernas now resides in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario, living with a retired couple whom she asked to take her in in 1996, supposedly at Jesus’s request. They are impressed with Bernas whom they regard as a “victim soul” (one who suffers for others). In 2001 the Ottawa Citizen published a profile of Bernas (Wake 2001), apparently provoking displeasure from her home archdiocese of Ottawa. Their policy (according to a spokesman for the Buffalo Diocese) is “that she is not to speak publicly because her faith journey is private” (Tokasz 2003).

However, Bernas does speak publicly, addressing the faithful and the curious at various churches. I attended a talk she gave, for example, at Resurrection Church in Cheektowaga, New York. Although she claimed Jesus guided her in her talks (she sometimes departed from her prepared text), she said that “the Devil” was at her elbow at all times and that she had to struggle with pride and self will. She spoke of Lent, of praying the Rosary, and other Catholic topics, and claimed that Jesus had given her “a vision of aborted babies” (Bernas 2002a).

Afterward, she answered questions from those who gathered around her. Asked what Jesus looked like, she said he appeared as we did, solid. She added that he had shoulder-length hair with a beard and a mustache, and wore a white robe. In other words, he exhibited the conventional likeness of Jesus as it has evolved in art. Bernas’s devotees exhibit a portrait of Jesus, “drawn under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit on May 20, 1994, By Lil Bernas.”

The Wounds

I asked Bernas about her wounds, noting that there were reddish scars on the backs of her hands. She replied that she had also bled from the palms on occasion, but that no marks were left in those instances. She told me she was “permitted” to retain those on the backs of her hands and also on the tops of her feet. Someone asked about cross-shaped wounds (she has, for example, an apparent cruciform scar on her right jaw near the ear), and she stated that such stigmata were of the Devil, that before her genuine stigmata came she had periods of possession (Bernas 2002a).

I found the absence of wounds on the palms and soles highly suspicious. A sham stigmatist might well avoid those areas which would be subjected to additional pain-and made more difficult to heal-whenever one walked or grasped something. But a person truly exhibiting the nail wounds of Jesus should have his or her hands and feet completely pierced.

When I subsequently attended an exhibition of Lilian Bernas’s stigmata (at Navy Hall, Niagara-on-the-Lake, March 1, 2002), my suspicions were increased. Not only was the bleeding already in progress when she appeared, but there were only the most superficial wounds. These were limited to the backs of the hands and tops of the feet, in addition to small wounds on the scalp, supposedly from a crown of thorns (John 19:2). The latter were only in the front as if merely for show. (See figure 1.)


Figure 2: Although Bernas attracts the credulous, her stigmata do not convincingly replicate the wounds of Christ’s crucifixion.

Figure 2: Although Bernas attracts the credulous, her stigmata do not convincingly replicate the wounds of Christ’s crucifixion.

Significantly, there was no side wound, like that inflicted on Jesus by a Roman soldier’s lance (John 19:34; 20:25, 27). Such a large wound would represent a real commitment by a fake stigmatist. It rarely appears, and then usually in a questionable fashion. Bernas exhibits a photo of an alleged wound in her left side, but it lacked rivulets of blood and- conveniently-was claimed to have soon disappeared without a trace. Bernas did say she was to receive a side wound later in the day (Bernas 2002b), but of course the crowd would not be there to witness the alleged happening.

The side wound was not the only one of Bernas’s stigmata reputed to have unique properties seemingly best displayed in photographs. Bernas exhibits other photos that depict a squarish nail head emerging from a hand wound (harkening back to St. Francis); a thorn in her forehead that supposedly emerged over a week’s time; even an entire crown of thorns that allegedly materialized around Bernas’s head-believe it or not!

As we watched Bernas bleed, I regretted that we were not getting to see such remarkable manifestations. I observed that her wounds soon ceased to flow, consistent with their having been inflicted just before she came out. After she had spoken to the audience for about an hour, people gathered to speak to Bernas (figure 2). (While shaking hands with her, one man attempted to get, rather surreptitiously, a sample of her blood, presumably as a magical "relic.” He clasped his other hand, containing a folded handkerchief, against the back of her hand. Unfortunately the blood had dried, and even rubbing did not yield a visible trace.)

Although I shook Bernas’s bloody hand, I obtained a better look at a wound shortly before, when she hugged the woman in front of me and thus placed her hand virtually under my nose. I noticed that the actual wound looked like a small slit, but surrounding that was a larger red area; this appeared to have been deliberately formed of blood in order to simulate the appearance of a larger wound, like one formed by a Roman nail. (For my demonstration of a similar effect see Nickell 2000, 27-28.)

Assessment

Bernas makes still other supernatural claims. For example, she says towels from her stigmata sessions, put away in plastic bags, allegedly “disappear within 48 hours” (Wake 2001). (I will wager they would not vanish while in my custody.)

Such outlandish and unsubstantiated claims should provoke skepticism in all but the most gullible. Yet a professor of philosophy at a Catholic college took exception to my views. I had told The Buffalo News that, on the evidence, I regarded stigmatics as “pious frauds,” and I said of Lilian Bernas’ stigmata: “Everything about it was consistent with trickery. Nothing about it was in the slightest way supernatural or intriguing” (Tokasz 2003).

Professor John Zeis (2003) replied with the astonishing statement that “Trickery is consistent with any reported miracle (including Jesus’ resurrection) but that is no reason to reject belief in the miracle.” He found more reasonable a priest’s statement that “It is up to each person to believe or not.”

CSICOP Public Relations Director Kevin Christopher (2003) responded: “Zeis is suggesting that objective evidence is irrelevant. What, in fact could be a more unreasonable conclusion?” Christopher also replied to Zeis’s claim that “the Skeptical Inquirer is biased against claims concerning faith in the miraculous.” Stated Christopher: “The magazine’s mission is to inform its readers about the state of the evidence for paranormal and supernatural claims. When the evidence is poor or nonexistent, it is not 'biased' to report that fact. It is, in fact, a moral duty.”

Acknowledgments

I am grateful to Martin Braun for advising me of a lecture by Lilian Bernas. Benjamin Radford (Skeptical Inquirer) and Jenny Everett (Popular Science) accompanied me to witness Bernas’s stigmata and shared valuable notes and observations. I also received very useful material from John Zachritz.

References

Joe Nickell

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Joe Nickell, Ph.D., is Senior Research Fellow of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry (CSI) and "Investigative Files" Columnist for Skeptical Inquirer. A former stage magician, private investigator, and teacher, he is author of numerous books, including Inquest on the Shroud of Turin (1998), Pen, Ink and Evidence (2003), Unsolved History (2005) and Adventures in Paranormal Investigation (2007). He has appeared in many television documentaries and has been profiled in The New Yorker and on NBC's Today Show. His personal website is at joenickell.com.