In early 2017 I sent a short essay, written in the thirteenth century, to my colleague who works for a contractor for NASA and the U.S. Space Program. My colleague is one of the world’s leading experts in aeronautics, and I am a professor of Religious Studies, specializing in Catholic history. My colleague knew nothing about the source, and what it represented. I knew it was the first written account describing the stigmata of St. Francis of Assisi, the Catholic monk whom the current Pope chose as his namesake. It was written by a witness to the event, Brother Leo, the secretary of St. Francis. It describes an aerial anomaly that crashes through the earth’s atmosphere to deliver what appear to be rays of light that rip open wounds on the hands and side of St. Francis. He later dies from these wounds, with Brother Leo at his side.
My colleague, who is not Catholic, was not aware that this event is famous and has been interpreted by Catholics as being the first case of the Catholic charism called the stigmata, or the wounds of Christ. He read the account and gave his interpretation. Brother Leo writes, “In the center of that bright whirlpool was a core of blinding light that flashed down from the depths of the sky with terrifying speed until suddenly it stopped.” And there is more. My colleague wrote, “This appears to be a real object that has all the signs that it has broken through the atmosphere, created blue and white sparks, is spinning, and even appears to have given off some type of radiation, judging from the wounds that appear on the hands of the witnessing monk. There is a database of similar types of accounts of contemporary aerial phenomena.”
Why did I send my colleague the description of this event? Am I suggesting that St. Francis’ wounds and sighting of an aerial object, which occurred in the thirteenth century, were the result of a UFO encounter? I am not. Am I suggesting that modern accounts of anomalous aerial phenomena are sightings of angels, which is what Brother Leo called the spinning, living aerial object? No, I am not stating that, either. These conclusions would be too simple, and would probably be wrong.
What I am suggesting, however, is a research strategy that takes into account the real social and cultural effects of sightings like St. Francis’ and Brother Leo’s. I am not suggesting that, as researchers, we can know exactly what St. Francis saw, or experienced, or what modern experiencers see or experience. What we can know and study, however, are the cultural effects produced by these experiences. In my field, it is very obvious that this particular experience resulted in one of the longest and most enduring religious devotions and beliefs: the stigmata event of St. Francis, in which billions of Catholics believe. This is not insignificant. These events produce real effects. Their cultural impacts are substantial.
This brings me to the contents of this brilliant book. Each of the contributors in this volume is sharply aware of the futility of concluding. Instead, they offer strategies for understanding—understanding the phenomena, and understanding its social and cultural effects. In this way, their work is sophisticated and relevant. It is relevant because the latest research on belief in UFO phenomena places it on par with belief in God. More young people believe in UFOs and in the potential existence of extraterrestrial life than believe in God. Let that sink in. Roughly eighty percent of young people, and about sixty percent of older people, are believers.
“UFOs AND THE POWER OF BELIEFf” by D.W. Pasulka is an extract from her contribution to UFOs: Reframing the Debate edited by Robbie Graham.