Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Papal self-mortification 

My mother was raised as a Roman Catholic (first in Budapest, and later as an immigrant here in the U.S.), but I was not, so I don't really have the standing to question the personal habits of a deceased pope, but the new book about John Paul II gives one pause for thought. The AP reports:
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.
I suppose that I have enough of my late mother's Catholicism in me to at least partly believe that it is via sacrifice and suffering that we can be closer to a state of grace; put in more secular terms, it's important to help others, and if in doing so, there are particularly trying episodes in life's trials and tribulations, we learn valuable things in that process.

There is, however, a difference between self-inflicted wounds and dealing with normal adversity, in my view. If you enjoy a good exercise program, you understand the difference between "good pain" and "bad pain" -- lactic acid build-up in muscles as contrasted with an injury to a joint or tendon. While self-flagellation exists in other faiths (including, for example, Islam), I find it remarkable that the head of a modern-day major Western church actually engaged in this practice. I don't believe that it has or will have any significant impact on John Paul II's legacy as a prominent figure in the history of the 20th Century, and the role he played in the ending of the Iron Curtain. It is interesting that Monsignor Slawomir Oder, the author of the new book, sees it as being helpful with process of beatification for the late pope.


By Anonymous JHE, at Tue Jan 26, 06:20:00 PM:

Different belt strokes for different folks. All that matters is that he didn't ask others to do the same.  

By Blogger Dawnfire82, at Tue Jan 26, 06:21:00 PM:

Being neither Catholic nor Shi'i, I offer my first impression; that the physical pain and discomfort one may suffer during self-mortification of the flesh is not as important as the psychological (theological?) commitment to get there.

If it were about pain, why not a chain or scourge and bed of nails? Is more pain more pious? I don't think so. I think the purpose is humility before God (probably a much more serious problem for a sitting pope than for you or me) and reminder about not placing material comforts above spiritual, not the punishment itself.

Contrasted with the behavior of many of his predecessors, I think it's completely admirable.  

By Blogger JPMcT, at Tue Jan 26, 07:11:00 PM:

Leave it to the AP to banner that headline. I suspect the AP presscorps will never forgive John Paul for his role in defeating the spread of communism.

It has all the characteristics of hearsay....somebody heard something, then told somebody else, then the biographer publishes the whispered gossip after the proponent is too dead to defend himself.

I strongly suspect, like many ritually orthodox members of MANY faiths, that he practiced ritual penance whilst praying...a psychological reminder of our position without the scars and bloodletting.  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Tue Jan 26, 07:25:00 PM:

What do John Paul II, Idi Amin and Charles de Gaulle have in common. Answer below.

If this is true, I suspect that John Paul II did it purposefully so as not to let the perks and pomp of the Papacy go to his head. I'd bet that he wasn't doing this when he was an ordinary parish priest. If true, remarkable ...

Answer: they were all rugby second rows.  

By Anonymous Mad as Hell ..., at Tue Jan 26, 07:27:00 PM:

Meant to sign ... I always put up a name.  

By Blogger Cas, at Tue Jan 26, 07:42:00 PM:

As an agnostic (non-practicing) Catholic, I understand what others have stated here, that the "pomp & circumstance" of the modern-day papacy might inflate his ego.
Also understand that many faithful followers of Jesus Christ feel that they come closer to understanding the physical, and psychological, humiliation that Christ suffered during the Passion that led to his Crucifixion by inflicting some type of physical suffering on themselves. I guess they feel that in order to come closer to God, they need to try to experience what he went through.
As the commercial says, "Not a sermon, just a thought"  

By Blogger Assistant Village Idiot, at Tue Jan 26, 11:06:00 PM:

Few in the modern era have much experience with this. I certainly don't. But I have at odd times in my Christian journey fasted during a season of especial prayer. I never went longer than a week, seldom more than two days, but I can recommend it.  

By Blogger Gary Rosen, at Wed Jan 27, 01:03:00 AM:

What JHE said, adding that even though I am not Catholic nor even Christian I have always had great respect and admiration for John Paul II and this doesn't change that a bit.  

By Blogger TimothyJ, at Wed Jan 27, 01:58:00 AM:

The Apostle Paul suggested that Christians strive to control the yearnings of the flesh. I can't imagine doing this myself, but I can imagine someone who felt that his fleshly appetites needed to be physically suppressed. I don't say this as any sort of dig at the Pope, but it evidently worked for him, and it's not my place to second guess anyone while they are on the path to Holiness.  

By Anonymous roadbud, at Wed Jan 27, 11:31:00 AM:

With JHE too. I'm not even Christian, but I can plainly see JPII was a great and good man. If he thought self-flagellation helped him get there, so be it.  

By Blogger Elise, at Wed Jan 27, 07:51:00 PM:

I'm not Catholic but I don't think this is unusual. Rumer Godden's novel, In This House of Brede, about a monastery of Benedictine nuns in the 50s and 60s talks about the nuns "taking the discipline" once a week. They didn’t use a belt but a nine-stringed flail. She says that it doesn’t hurt, but it does sting. One uses it where one smacks small boys and for no longer than it takes to say the Miserere which may not be drawn out. Nuns must be advanced in their commitment and their superiors must approve of the use. The reason behind this practice is:

Our whole Christian life is a dying to selfishness ... The sufferings and grief sent us are usually enough to effect this - if we let them ... if we pick up our cross daily as He told us, but for most of us, weak and soft as we are, some voluntary token penance that hurts is a help in schooling us to accept what God sends.

It is quite possible this custom has fallen into disuse since then but John Paul II clearly still practiced it and I imagine that the more powerful he became the more he felt he needed it. Based on what little I know about it, I think describing the flaggelation and the sleeping on the floor as acts of penitence is not quite accurate. Rather these are reminders of the need for surrender to God’s will and who needs those reminders more than the man who represents that will to his people?  

Post a Comment

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?