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JPII and Self-Flagellation

Interesting stuff about the late pope’s ascetical practices from a forthcoming book by the Monsignor who’s promoting his candidacy for sainthood:

Pope John Paul II whipped himself with a belt, even on vacation, and slept on the floor as acts of penitence and to bring him closer to Christian perfection, according to a new book by the Polish prelate spearheading his sainthood case. . . .

At a news conference Tuesday, [Monsignor] Oder defended John Paul’s practice of self-mortification, which some faithful use to remind them of the suffering of Jesus on the cross.

“It’s an instrument of Christian perfection,” Oder said, responding to questions about how such a practice could be condoned considering Catholic teaching holds that the human body is a gift from God.

In the book, Oder wrote that John Paul frequently denied himself food — especially during the holy season of Lent — and “frequently spent the night on the bare floor,” messing up his bed in the morning so he wouldn’t draw attention to his act of penitence.

“But it wasn’t limited to this. As some members of his close entourage in Poland and in the Vatican were able to hear with their own ears, John Paul flagellated himself. In his armoire, amid all the vestments and hanging on a hanger, was a belt which he used as a whip and which he always brought to Castel Gandolfo,” the papal retreat where John Paul vacationed each summer.

For a fellow so deeply known for his book Theology of the Body, I can’t help but find this at least a bit odd/interesting. I certainly think there is plenty of good and fitting modes of ascetical practice (like fasting, vigils, etc.), but I find something deeply incongruous between the act of self-flagellation and the affirmation of the body’s goodness and dignity.

When does bodily discipline simply degenerate into bodily denigration?

H/T: Sully


  1. myles wrote:

    I’m reminded of Talal Asad’s arguments for physical disciplines among the monastics as producing truth and power.

    Wednesday, January 27, 2010 at 6:02 am | Permalink
  2. Gene McCarraher wrote:

    I always thought there was something creepy, not just about JP II and the whole maudlin cultus surrounding him, but about the “theology of the body,” explicated in a book which manages to make sex boring and turgid.

    Wednesday, January 27, 2010 at 6:07 am | Permalink
  3. Dennis wrote:

    Why the Pope did these things, I don’t know. I’ve never done that. I’m sure it’s for humility. Also, in Catholicism, suffering can be tied to prayer so maybe through his suffering, he can fill up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions per Colossians 1:24. I don’t know.

    This does remind me of a story I heard once. When I was in Mexico City a few years back, I was being driven by a hotel chauffeur who told me he used to be the driver for a famous US News Anchor whenever he was in Mexico. He told me a bunch of cool stories and one was about the Pope.

    He said there was one time when the Pope had just arrived into Mexico…very likely jet lagged and tired wanting to rest. He was staying in the bishop’s residence and when they took him to his room, the guy told me it was a really simple small room with just a bed and a crucifix. The only problem was that it was blazing HOT in the room.

    The Pope after a long day and long fligh turned to the bishop and said, “There’s no way I’m sleeping in this room tonight!” At that point, they put the Pope into a house of a Parishioner–presumably air conditioned.

    Perhaps, there were times like that where he felt guilty about what he said or did and made up for it through sleeping on the floor (in that instance perhaps) or since no one on earth would reprimand the Pope, he thought it best that he have some form of punishment for not being Christlike at times.

    Wednesday, January 27, 2010 at 6:17 am | Permalink
  4. Chris Donato wrote:

    It’s sounds so strange to modern ears, I hesitate to even comment.

    Wednesday, January 27, 2010 at 7:15 am | Permalink
  5. Hill wrote:

    “I beat my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize.”

    Maybe he was just “taking the scriptures seriously,” as they say.

    Wednesday, January 27, 2010 at 7:30 am | Permalink
  6. Oh dear…

    Wednesday, January 27, 2010 at 2:13 pm | Permalink
  7. Halden wrote:

    Or maybe he’s taking that one in an overly literal sense? My mind keeps going to: “Do not let anyone disqualify you, insisting on self-abasement . . . These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-imposed piety, humility, and severe treatment of the body, but they are of no value in checking self-indulgence.” (Col 2:18, 22-23)

    Wednesday, January 27, 2010 at 2:58 pm | Permalink
  8. roger flyer wrote:

    I think Chris has the right take…and ‘post-modern’ ears

    Wednesday, January 27, 2010 at 3:22 pm | Permalink
  9. Josh Rowley wrote:


    Wednesday, January 27, 2010 at 4:25 pm | Permalink
  10. I guess being the pope and being shot just wasn’t badass enough for ‘im.

    Wednesday, January 27, 2010 at 5:17 pm | Permalink
  11. Although I was Catholic I was married in the Mead Avenue Gospel Tabernacle in Yakima Wa. Then, the cong. was mostly white, poor and working class, Appalachian and Ozark replants; ‘holy rollers’ that brought their snake-handling, tongue-speaking, miracle-working ‘liturgy’ with them to the valley looking for work. Generous and kind folks that took Jesus serious. But, to my Sicilian/Catholic family they were as dangerously bizarre and foreign as Hottentots and Hegelians! In contrast, I was raised on the glorious stories of St. Rose of Lima and Saint Veronica (both ardent self-flagellants) like the following from Veronica’s diary: “Our Lord appeared covered with open sores, a Crown of Thorns on His Head. Blood spilled from His precious Body, as He said, ‘See what sinners have done to Me.’ Seeing the great agony that my Lord was in, I begged Him to give Me His Crown. He placed it on my head; I suffered so much, I thought I was dying.” Mother Mary Catherine told us that the other nuns could see the impressions of the crown of thorns on her head through her veil, the blood at times dripping from her eyes because of the deep wounds inflicted by the long sharp thorns. Sealed with this stigmata, Veronica’s body became an indelible sign of the Lord’s total communion with her, one of everlasting unity and love. Later she writes “In an instant, I saw five shining rays shooting out from His Wounds, coming towards me. I watched as they turned into little flames. Four of them (the flames) contained the nails, and the fifth one contained the lance, golden and all aflame, and it pierced my heart. The nails pierced my hands and feet.” Veronica took the crucifix off the wall in her cell and embraced it saying: “My Lord, pains with pains, thorns with thorns, sores with sores, here I am all Yours, crucified with You, crowned with thorns with You, wounded with You.” Whew! well, I reckon some of you are already scrambling for your Foucault or Cisoux, others for the fourth book in Calvin’s institutes, chapter 10: “OF THE POWER OF MAKING LAWS. THE CRUELTY OF THE POPE AND HIS ADHERENTS IN TYRANNICALLY OPPRESSING AND DESTROYING SOULS” (Calvin, now there’s a back aching for the lash!). Some might even be ready to move to Pennsylvania, renounce the internal combustion engine, drive a buggy and grow oats! (last weekend I watched giant, blue, ninja smurfs copulating with a ‘tree of souls’). All this is to say…….

    Wednesday, January 27, 2010 at 10:07 pm | Permalink
  12. mike w wrote:

    when it is disconnected from the grace of God working through you to love others. Suffering without love is a waste

    Thursday, January 28, 2010 at 10:41 pm | Permalink

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