Why Pope John Paul II Whipped Himself
Pope John Paul II projected a warm, grandfatherly image to the adoring public who flocked en masse to hear his homilies or watched on TV from home as he traversed the globe. So there was no small shock when a recent book revealed that the pope, who died in 2005, whipped himself with a belt and sometimes lay prostrate all night on the floor.
The pope apparently did not want aides to investigate his sleeping habits, going so far as to make his bed appear used by tossing around the sheets. Yet Monsignor Slawomir Oder, who is presenting John Paul II's case for canonization, detailed the behavior in an Italian-language book, Why He's a Saint: The Real John Paul II According to the Postulator of His Beatification Cause. Oder explains that the pope believed these acts of penance would affirm God's primacy and help him seek perfection. While self-inflicted physical suffering is unusual among Catholics, other notables have pursued holiness in this manner. Mother Teresa wore a cilice, a strap secured around the thigh that inflicts pain with inward-pointing spikes. Catholics are quick to point out, however, that these practices bear little resemblance to the bloody, masochistic flogging so graphically portrayed in the movie based on Dan Brown's novel The Da Vinci Code.
So how do Catholics explain self-flagellation, a practice so foreign to Protestants, let alone non-Christians? Several writers have defended the late pope. Writing for the National Catholic Register, Jimmy Akin faults a "pleasure-obsessed culture" for portraying the pope's behavior as repulsive.
"Self-mortification teaches humility by making us recognize that there are things more important than our own pleasure," Akin writes. "It teaches compassion by giving us a window into the sufferings of others—who don't have a choice in whether they're suffering. And it strengthens self-control. As well as (here's the big one I've saved for last) encouraging us to follow the example of Our Lord, who made the central act of the Christian religion one of self-denial and (in his case) literal mortification to bring salvation to all mankind."
Indeed, the pope believed suffering brought him closer to Christ, according to Oder. For precedent, the pope appealed to Colossians 1:24, where the apostle Paul writes, "Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in Christ's afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church." With no parallel in the New Testament, this verse has vexed biblical commentators for centuries. Surveying the Old Testament apocalyptic literature, Peter O'Brien understands "what is lacking" to mean that God has appointed a measure of suffering before the end comes. Paul's suffering on behalf of the Colossians, whom he never even met, helped to fill that gap. The suffering he endured for the sake of the gospel in his apostolic ministry united him with other Christians and even Christ himself, who suffered untold anguish on the Cross.
Yet for all the hardship he bore (2 Cor. 11:16-32), Paul did not harm himself in pursuit of this union. Suffering found him, and he even pleaded unsuccessfully with God to relent (2 Cor. 12:7-10). God allowed this suffering in order that he might demonstrate his power in Paul's weakness. Whether we seek suffering or not, aging does the same by inflicting hardship on nearly all of us. Does our theology prepare us to endure? As John Paul II aged, Parkinson's disease visibly ravaged his once-vigorous body. He even considered resigning, something no modern pope has done, even though Catholic bishops usually retire at age 75. Politics Daily columnist David Gibson points out that the agonizing end to John Paul II's life deserves more attention than his private suffering.