Pope John Paul II used to whip himself with a belt and sleep on a bare floor to bring himself closer to Christ.
He had a particular belt for self-flagellation according to the Italian-language book, Why He Is a Saint: The True John Paul II Explained by the Postulator of the Cause of Beatification” (Rizzoli Publications). A postulator is an official who presents a plea for beatification or canonization in the Catholic Church.
In the book, the postulator, Polish Monsignor Slawomir Oder, together with journalist Saverio Gaeta, director of the magazine Famiglia Christiana, compile several testimonies that reveal details about the pope’s life.
“As some members of his own entourage were able to hear with their own ears, both in Poland and in the Vatican, Karol Wojyka flagellated himself,” the book says. “…in his wardrobe, among his soutanes, he had hanging a particular belt for trousers that he used as a whip, and which he would ensure was always taken to Castel Gandolfo.”
The fact that John Paul II whipped himself in “bodily penance” was first revealed last November by Sister Tobiana Sobodka, a Polish nun who worked for Pope John Paul in his Vatican apartment and at the papal summer residence at Castel Gandolfo in the hills south of Rome.
In Santo Subito (A Saint Now) by Andrea Tornielli, the Pope’s biographer and Vatican correspondent of Il Giornale, Sister Sobodka said: “We could hear it – we were in the next room at Castel Gandolfo. You could hear the sound of the blows when he would flagellate himself. He did it when he was still capable of moving on his own.”
He must have been really going at it hard if they could hear him in the next room!
When I read the Pope was flagellating himself I immediately thought of three other Catholic self-flagellators:
– The albino monk from Opus Dei in Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code. He beat himself to chastise his body.
– The monk Berengar, the assistant librarian in The Name of the Rose. He whipped himself in penance for his homosexual desires and affairs. He pressured the young illuminator, Adelmo, for sex in exchange for access to a forbidden book. Adelmo committed suicide. Berengar, doubly guilty, had a loud whipping session within hearing of visitors Brother William of Baskerville and his novice, Adso of Melk.
– The chanting, wailing penitent flagellators in Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal, inflicting self-punishment with birch wands in hopes God will spare them the Black Plague.
“When members of or former member see the monk go at it in the movie (The Da Vinci Code), they just burst out laughing, it’s so nutty, said the Rev. Michael Barrett, a priest of Opus Dei.
“There is no blood, no injury, nothing to harm a person’s health, nothing traumatic,” he added. “If it caused any harm, the Church would not allow it,” he wrote on the Opus Dei website when the movie came out in 2006.
“This voluntarily accepted discomfort is a way of joining oneself to Jesus Christ and the sufferings he voluntarily accepted in order to redeem us from sin. The Da Vinci Code‘s masochist monk, who loves pain for its own sake, has nothing to do with real Christian mortification,” Fr. Barrett said.
Do religious self-flagellators receive a perverse sense of gratification of the flesh by causing it pain?
Not according to retired prefect of the Congregation for Saints’ Causes, Cardinal Jose Saraiva Martins. In the case of saints who subjected themselves voluntarily to rigorous penance, these practices had nothing to do with psychological imbalance, he emphasized.
He said: “The saints are in the first place very normal persons. If this wasn’t so they wouldn’t be able to be saints. There are many saints who did penance and saw this as a way to bring their body under control; it has nothing to do with psychology.”
One of our most recent saints, St. Josemaria Escriva, the founder of Opus Dei, didn’t shy away from pain: “Blessed be pain. Loved be pain. Sanctified be pain…Glorified be pain! (The Way, 208). “If you realize that your body is your enemy, and an enemy of God’s glory since it is an enemy of your sanctification, why do you treat it so softly?”
Future historians and investigative journalists may uncover what was Pope John Paul II’s connection to Opus Dei. How was he helpful to them? How were they useful to him? It appears he adopted their self-mortification practices.
But would Pope John Paul II been more “saintly” if he would have spent the time instead comforting a sick child in a hospital; stand outside an abortion clinic and offer his hand and financial support to an unmarried, pregnant woman about to enter; or make it known to the corps of elite Catholic business titans and government officials clean water for drinking, sanitation and agriculture was needed for all people, but especially the poor who have no other alternatives or place to go?
I think so. Sometimes it is much easier to beat yourself up than do the right thing.
Conservative Catholics must be more a little dismayed at the thought of John Paul the Great whipping his back and buttocks with a belt. I know I would be. What would I say if my children asked me about it? Sheesh.
For more flagellation on the Pope’s behavior:
CAUTION CHURCH AHEAD: “Pope beats himself up for his failings: Unfortunately, they’re the wrong failings.
Slate: The Allure of the Whip by Niklaus Largier. The article also discusses Historia flagellatium written in 1700 by the abbe Jacques Boileau.
Here’s the video on YouTube of Silas, the Opus Dei monk, chastising his body. Would you say there was an erotic element to this ritual?
And for all of you busy, multi-tasking, but still pentitent-minded Catholics, don’t miss: Great Inventions: The Flagellator – Convenient Hands-Free Self- Flagellation.