Why Pope John Paul II Whipped Himself
"In the end, all of the revelations about flagellation and such may be more of an unfortunate distraction from the testimony of the pope's final years, when he struggled against a growing paralysis but continued to write and travel and appear in public and show the zest for life he always had—a kind of self-mortification that was also a powerful public witness for those who were similarly aged or infirm."
Still, we should understand the late pontiff's self-flagellation as part of a more comprehensive Catholic theology. According to Chris Castaldo, author of Holy Ground: Walking with Jesus as a Former Catholic, John Paul II's views can be found in a 2002 homily he preached about St. Pio of Pietrelcina, a Capuchin priest famous for his self-flagellation. Today you can still visit Pietrelcina and see gory traces of his self-affliction. Honoring this saint, John Paul II quoted Galatians 6:14: "But may I never boast except in the cross of Our Lord Jesus Christ." According to the pope, Pio showed the redemption of Christ by conforming to the Cross.
"Is it not, precisely, the 'glory of the Cross' that shines above all in Padre Pio?" Pope John Paul II asked. "How timely is the spirituality of the Cross lived by the humble Capuchin of Pietrelcina. Our time needs to rediscover the value of the Cross in order to open the heart to hope. Throughout his life, he always sought greater conformity with the Crucified, since he was very conscious of having been called to collaborate in a special way in the work of redemption. His holiness cannot be understood without this constant reference to the Cross."
Protestants recoil at mention of collaborating in the work of redemption, because believers have been sanctified by the once-for-all offering of Jesus Christ on the Cross (Heb. 10:10). But perhaps we may still resonate with the spiritual benefits of self-denial. Though we reject self-flagellation as a misguided effort to relate to Christ, we may pursue other disciplines prescribed by Scripture to express our need for God. Maybe the best example is fasting, a common Old Testament practice assumed by Jesus as a means of connecting with God (Matt. 6:16-18). But just as our age scoffs at self-flagellation, so also many skeptics consign fasting to the over-zealous.
"Christians in a gluttonous, denial-less, self-indulgent society may struggle to accept and to begin the practice of fasting," Don Whitney writes in Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life. "Few disciplines go so radically against the flesh and the mainstream culture as this one. But we cannot overlook its biblical significance. Of course, some people, for medical reasons, cannot fast. But most of us dare not overlook fasting's benefits in the disciplined pursuit of a Christlike life."
Do you want to strengthen your prayer life? Discern God's leading? Find an outlet to express your grief to God? Confess your utter dependence on God? Whipping is not necessary, but self-denial is a vital means of Christian growth. As Jesus prepared for his earthly ministry, he fasted. His example compels us to do the same.
Collin Hansen is a CT editor at large and co-author of the forthcoming book, A God-Sized Vision: Revival Stories That Stretch and Stir (Zondervan).
Copyright © 2010 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
Previous Theology in the News columns available on our site include:
Theodicy in Light of Eternity | Theologians see hope for the future based on the past. (Jan. 25, 2010)
Finding Meaning in the Pentateuch | Powerful endorsements bolster John Sailhamer's new tome on the Bible's first five books. (January 11, 2010)
My Top Ten Theology Stories of 2009 | Counting down the events, debates, and books that shaped evangelical theology over the past year. (December 28, 2009)
When the Pastor Suffers | Matt Chandler comforts an anxious church following his Thanksgiving seizure. (December 14, 2009)