• RSS Queering the Church

    • An error has occurred; the feed is probably down. Try again later.
  • RSS Spirit of a Liberal

    • To my Republican Friends July 6, 2020
      You voted for Trump even though you didn't like him. Doubted his character. Questioned his fitness for the job. Yet, your aversion to Hillary was even greater The post To my Republican Friends first appeared on Spirit of a Liberal.
      Obie Holmen
    • Wormwood and Gall a Midwest Book Award Finalist May 4, 2020
      The Midwest Independent Publishers Association (MIPA) recently named Wormwood and Gall as one of three finalists for a Midwest Book Award in the Religion/Philosophy category. The awards program, which is organized by MIPA, recognizes quality in independent publishing in the Midwest. The post Wormwood and Gall a Midwest Book Award Finalist first appeared on S […]
      Obie Holmen
  • RSS There Will be Bread

    • An error has occurred; the feed is probably down. Try again later.
  • RSS The Wild Reed

    • For Rita Coolidge, Love Is Everywhere January 25, 2023
      A mid-week “music night” this evening at The Wild Reed, just to mix things up a bit!It’s Rita Coolidge and Keb’ Mo’ with “Walking on Water,” one of a number of standout tracks from Rita’s sublime 2018 album Safe In the Arms of Time.I came across this album shortly before the pandemic while perusing the racks of CDs at Cheapo Discs in Blaine, MN, something I […]
      noreply@blogger.com (Michael J. Bayly)
    • Photo of the Day January 20, 2023
      See also the previous Wild Reed posts:• Wintering• Brigit Anna McNeill on “Winter’s Way”• Brigit Anna McNeill on Hearing the Wild and Natural Call to Go Inwards• Winter Beauty• Winter Light• After Record-Breaking Snowfall, a Walk Through the Neighborhood• Saaxiib Qurux Badan – January 4, 2023• Photo of the Day – December 23, 2022• Winter . . . Within and Bey […]
      noreply@blogger.com (Michael J. Bayly)
  • RSS Bilgrimage

  • RSS Enlightened Catholicism

  • RSS Far From Rome

    • the way ahead March 23, 2013
      My current blog is called the way ahead.
      noreply@blogger.com (PrickliestPear)
  • RSS The Gay Mystic

    • A saint for the millenials: Carlo Acutis beatified today in Assisi. October 10, 2020
       A saint for the millenials: the young Italian teen, Carlo Acutis, who died in 2006 of galloping Leukemia, will be beatified today in Assisi by Pope Francis (last step before being officially declared a saint). Carlo came from a luke warm Catholic family, but at the age of 7, when he received his first 'Holy Communion', he displayed an astonishing […]
      noreply@blogger.com (Unknown)
    • Ronan Park and Jack Vidgen: The Travails of Gay Pop Stars October 28, 2019
      (Jack Vidgen)Quite by accident, through a comment from a performance arts colleague of mine, I stumbled across the recent bios of two boy teen singing sensations, both of whom made a big splash worldwide 8 years ago. The first, Jack Vidgen, won Australia's Got Talent Contest in 2011 at the age of 14, primarily for his powerful renditions of Whitney Hust […]
      noreply@blogger.com (Unknown)
  • RSS The Jesus Manifesto

    • An error has occurred; the feed is probably down. Try again later.
  • RSS John McNeill: Spiritual Transformations

  • RSS Perspective

    • I Can't Explain January 27, 2023
      I like this 1964 song written by Pete Townshend and performed by The Who, which came out when I was 13 and still fairly optimistic about life :)
      noreply@blogger.com (crystal)

John Paul II’s Penitential Practices and Competing Narratives about Sanctity in the Postmodern Church

There was a time, before the Second Vatican Council prompted religious congregations to return to the charisms of their founders, when practices of self-abnegation including self-flagellation were de rigueur in some communities.  Some orders, in fact, practiced self-flagellation in a communitarian setting.  A Redemptorist priest I once knew described to me how his community would gather on designated evenings in a dark hallway, where they’d recite the penitential psalms while whipping their bare backs.  They also wore cilices, little devices for self-torture with sharp points, which are tied tightly around one’s thigh to induce pain when one moves.

These practices—in particular, the enforced, institutionalized, all-together-now mortification of the flesh in a communitarian setting—tended to go by the wayside in religious life with Vatican II.  They did so for a good reason: they ultimately had little to do with what being a nun, priest, or brother was really all about.  They had little to do with the charisms and missions of religious communities, with the calling of a community to tend to the sick, live among the poor, teach, provide shelter for the homeless, assist immigrants, etc.

Whip for Self-Flagellation

But though Vatican II’s   ressourcement—its movement of return to the biblical and patristic sources of theology and spirituality—pointed us away from practices such as self-flagellation, sleeping on the floor, wearing hair shirts or cilices, we now learn that Pope John Paul II routinely practiced self-whipping and spending the night on the floor with his arms extended in the shape of the cross.  And we’re being told by those promoting the cause of his sainthood that these practices provide capstone proof of his extraordinary holiness.

The claim that John Paul II practiced self-flagellation and other out-of-the-ordinary penitential practices is made in a new book promoting the cause of his canonization, entitled Why He’s a Saint.  At its launch earlier this week, the promoter of the cause of JPII’s sanctity, Msgr. Slawomir Oder, noted that the book’s claims rely on the testimony of more than a hundred people who knew John Paul.    The book indicates that Karol Wojtyla was already engaging in these practices prior to becoming pope, and continued them throughout his papacy.

According to Msgr. Oder, Wojtyla/John Paul kept a belt hanging in his closet, which he designated for the special purpose of whipping himself.  Oder also notes that John Paul II practiced self-mortification, in particular, before ordaining bishops and priests.

These disclosures, which are apparently intended to silence anyone expressing doubt about the extraordinary sanctity of the late pope (and which are already being used to that effect [and see here]), speak to one of the most noteworthy and ambiguous developments in Catholicism at the end of the 20th century, one out of whose effects Catholics still live.  With Vatican II, Catholic bishops worldwide, in union with Pope John XXIII, discerned the Spirit calling the church to return to its biblical and patristic roots in order to strengthen its ability to interact creatively with a rapidly changing postmodern culture.

Vatican II Context of Critique of Practices of Self-Mortification

And at precisely the moment in which the worldwide church was hearing the Spirit’s call to retrieve biblical and patristic notions of the church that had been lost sight of in the period of the church’s reaction to the Reformation and the rise of modernity, John Paul II and his chief theological advisor, Joseph Ratzinger (now Benedict XVI), began a counter-move from the center of the church.  A backwards move countering Vatican II’s retrieval of lost aspects of the tradition in order to strengthen the church in its encounter with postmodernity; a move that in key respects not only stopped the momentum created by Vatican II, but turned the clock back on what that council sought to effect.

The restorationist agenda of John Paul II and Ratzinger centers on retrieving medieval models of church polity that revolve around the exalted status of ordained men—a status that sets clergy apart from the rest of the church.  Whereas Vatican II had sought to reassert the ancient (and deeply biblical) notion that the Spirit resides in all the people of God, and had encouraged collegial governance in which bishops would respond more freely to the needs of local churches that they know better than Rome does, John Paul II and Ratzinger wished to move the church back to a hierarchical, top-down, Rome-centered model of church.  A model in which being ordained sets one decisively apart from the rest of the people of God—in which being ordained gives one a status above the rest of the people of God.


And so the self-flagellation and sleeping on the floor, arms outstretched: just when religious communities began to discard such practices as they returned to the charismatic foundations of their particular institutes, the papacy itself moved in precisely the opposite direction—to retrieve these medieval practices, with their strong connections to a piety that exalts the clerical members of the church while ignoring the way in which laypersons often display extraordinary sanctity in their everyday discipleship in the world.

With Vatican II, the Catholic church made a step forward—a step forward designed to place Catholic ideas and values in fruitful, effective dialogue with the postmodern world.  With John Paul II and Ratzinger/Benedict, the Catholic church has chosen to step decisively backwards—several steps backwards.  Back to medieval practices like self-flagellation, and to the claim that such practices are self-evident signs of extraordinary holiness, particularly when performed by a priest and above all a pope.

The Theological Critique of Practices of Extreme Self-Mortification

To appreciate the schizophrenic confusion and stasis that this one-step-forward, two-steps-backward dynamic has produced in the Catholic church, it’s important to look at the theological—the sound theological—reasons why religious communities moved away from self-mortifying practices like scourging oneself or wearing cilices after Vatican II.  There’s first a psychological-theological reason, one which accepts the sound theological insight that modern psychological findings can be important in helping people to pursue lives of Christian vocation more effectively in a communal setting.

What some self-mortifying forms of medieval spirituality found unquestionably holy—beating oneself, fasting to extremes, wearing hair shirts and cilices, sleeping on the floor—modern psychology sees with considerable ambiguity.  To put the point differently: from the standpoint of modern psychology, the connection between such practices of self-mortification and holiness is not self-evident at all.

There’s first of all the fact that some people may actually enjoy inflicting pain on themselves for psychological reasons that can range from deeply embedded sadomasochistic impulses to a crippling sense of guilt that one seeks to eradicate by punishing oneself.  There’s, as well, the fact that some of these practices, when performed in a community setting—e.g., whipping oneself while praying the penitential psalms with members of a community—can have an erotic component that’s perhaps, shall we say, at a remove from the spiritual goal one hopes to achieve through self-flagellation.

And all of this is to say that it’s not self-evident that beating oneself, wearing a cilice, denying oneself sustenance, or sleeping on the floor is holy.  Something else has to be present in the life of someone using such means to holiness—something else in the character and behavior of the person performing the practices—to demonstrate that such spiritual practices lead to holiness and not to some other ends.

For Christians, that something else is love: love embodied in one’s relationship with others.  Practical compassion is the heart and soul of the Christian life.  If penitential practices promote practical compassion in the life of a particular Christian, then it seems they might be considered signs of holiness—or, perhaps better, aids to holiness.

But if they do not promote practical compassion—love enfleshed—then in and of themselves practices of self-mortification are not self-evident signs of sanctity.  Sanctity is demonstrated in how a person lives, what she does, whom she affects and how she affects them—not in practices of self-mortification.  That is, sanctity is demonstrated in such acts of practical compassion, if the definition of sanctity is rooted in scripture and longstanding Christian tradition about what constitutes the heart and center of the life of discipleship.

I have known some people who practiced pronounced asceticism, whose behavior did not strike me as particularly marked by compassion (though I cannot and would not pretend to look into the heart of another human being and pass judgment on that person’s standing before God).  And I’ve known at least one person who, at one point in her life, also engaged in rather extreme practices of self-mortification, who was, in my view, a person of distinct holiness.  In both cases, my reactions to these ascetics depended far more on what I observed in their treatment of others than on my awareness that they engaged in self-mortifying asceticism.

And this brings us back to the psychological points I’m pressing here.  In the case of several people I’ve known who deny themselves certain kinds of food and drink, who fast excessively, who routinely interrupt their sleep to pray, I’ve noticed a disturbing tendency to authoritarianism that moves in precisely the opposite direction from practical compassion.

There is, I suspect, in the psyches of some people who imagine that they have achieved a kind of self-mastery through extreme asceticism a link between the desire for self-mastery and the desire to master and control others. I have known at least one ascetic, a Benedictine monk who is now abbot of his community, whose spirituality revolves strongly around self-mastering practices of asceticism—and who is, in my view and that of many others who have been on the receiving end of this monk’s punitive behavior, more interested in dominating than loving others.

Again, I cannot and would not dream of pretending I have the right to look into this person’s heart and claim that I know how he stands before God.  I suspect he is far holier than I am, by almost any index one might use to judge holiness—including his penchant for denying pleasures to himself.

Still, in observing and working with this monk over a period of time, and in listening to the observations of others who know him well, I cannot help wondering if there is not some strong causal link between his asceticism, with its goal of self-mastery, and his coldness and inhumanity to others.  And if that’s the case, then I have to conclude that asceticism may not lead self-evidently to the practical compassion that is, in my understanding, the goal of the life of discipleship.  It may lead in precisely the opposite direction, to a desire to extend to others the mastery one believes one has achieved over oneself.

As I also note above, I have known at least one person, a nun, who practiced extreme forms of self-mortification at one point in her life, and who is one of the most outstandingly holy persons I have ever met.  I learned of the self-mortifications not from her but from others who knew her, including several other nuns.

At one point in her life, this nun fasted repeatedly until she was weak, and she also slept on the floor, interrupting her sleep several times each night to pray.  That is, she engaged in these practices until other sisters in her community found out about them and she was forbidden to continue them—particularly when the nights on the floor led to pneumonia.

And I am open to being convinced that these forms of self-mortification may well have had something to do with this nun’s outstanding holiness.  I’m open to being so convinced, because there did sometimes seem to be a direct correlation between the self-mortification and her willingness to spend herself in an admirably self-denying way in service to others.

This nun spent some years as a chaplain in a Catholic university.  As a chaplain, she lived in the women’s dorm, among the young women to whom she ministered.  And I know from what I observed of her behavior as a chaplain, and what others told me, that she often spent entire nights sitting up with someone who needed to talk to her—that she was always available when someone knocked on her door at any hour of the night, and that she denied herself sleep on many evenings in order to listen to someone’s painful story, encourage someone whose spirits were flagging, help someone through a hard patch.

Everything depends, it seems, on the use to which we put our practices of self-abnegation—on whether those practices tend towards generous, self-giving love or towards some other less desirable ends.  Ascetics like Teresa of Avila, who routinely got up before her sisters during the night as they went to the chapel for prayers, so that she could hold a lantern on the stairs and help them make their way in the dark, suggest that self-denial oriented to the service of others can be the means to extraordinary holiness.

But ascetics whose self-mortification rubs away humanity and undermines tenderness of heart: those ascetics can be the bane and not the blessing of a religious community.  Everything depends on love.

Everything depends on love, because it’s clear when we root the life of Christian discipleship in the narrative that ultimately norms the behavior of followers of Jesus—the gospels—that Jesus viewed practical compassion as the fulfillment of the whole law.  And this is the second theological reason that, in my view, accounts for the turn of most Catholic religious communities away from extreme practices of self-mortification following Vatican II, and towards a retrieval of the charisms of their founders—charisms grounded, without exception, in how those founders heard and responded to the gospels.

Bearing the Cross and Christian Discipleship

One of the primary effects of Vatican II’s return to the sources was to restore to Catholic spirituality—to place front and center for Catholic spirituality once again—the centrality of the gospel story, of the way in which the gospel narratives recount and reflect theologically on the life of Jesus.  When the gospels are read with careful attention to the cultural and historical context in which they were produced, it is clear that Jesus was not a world-denying ascetic who viewed the flesh as the enemy of the soul.

Marc Chagall, Jewish Jesus

He was, instead, a peripatetic Jewish rabbi who proclaimed that in his life and ministry, the promised reign of God was breaking forth in the world.  He both preached about what that inbreaking of the reign of God meant, and enacted the message of the inbreaking of the reign of God through symbolic actions.  His preaching and his symbolic enactment of his message were an invitation to those who heard his message of good news to respond by joining him as he wandered about teaching, and by emulating his behavior.

And that behavior had a strongly earthy, visceral, embodied component that is central to the message he proclaimed.  Jesus touched those he healed.  He took their wounded, disfigured bodies into his hands as he worked healing for them.

He invited himself to eat and drink with public sinners, with social outcasts who, in the culture of his day, brought uncleanness on anyone who touched or ate with them.  Jesus broke bread with them, and with his apostles, to demonstrate that the good news of God’s imminent presence in the world through the inbreaking reign of God was good news for everyone—for both souls and bodies, for the rich as well as the poor.  For the poor, the outcast, the despised and discarded first and foremost.

Because he ate and drank with sinners, Jesus was regarded by his detractors as anything but an ascetic.  He was charged with being someone who loved to eat and drink with a profligacy unbecoming a man of God.  His movement also included women, who traditionally did not consort with a wandering rabbi since their menstrual cycles made them unclean, a source of uncleanness for any man who touched them.

And because his behavior, which eradicated lines between the rich and the poor, the clean and the unclean, the righteous and the damned, turned upside down the world of those who needed these  lines in place in order to  consolidate their power at the top of the social hierarchy of his culture, he was crucified.  He was put to death on the cross, an instrument of capital punishment reserved for the lowliest of criminals in his society, a punishment designed to demonstrate to other refractory disturbers of the social order the fate they might expect, if they challenged the powers that be.

So there’s the cross in Jesus’s life, the cross, which is central to the gospel narrative, and anyone reflecting on the significance of the path Jesus walked, anyone who seeks to walk on that path, must take the cross into account.  Here, too, the attempt (abetted by tools of historical-critical research that became available to theologians in the late 19th and 20th century), to read the gospels in the cultural and historical context in which they were written casts significant new light that has shifted, for many believers, the meaning of carrying one’s cross in emulation of Jesus.

For the medieval piety that cherished practices such as self-flagellation or sleeping on the floor with one’s arms outstretched, self-mortification provides a privileged way of sharing with Jesus in his passion on the cross.  Punishing the flesh becomes an important way, for those who share the presuppositions of such piety, of carrying one’s cross in imitation of Christ.

But note that this piety depends on a worldview foreign to the gospels and the Jewish cultural milieu in which they were produced.  It depends on a body-soul dualism characteristic of Greek philosophy rather than of Jewish belief—a dualism that the Christian outlook began to incorporate as Christianity spread from its original Jewish cultural base into Graeco-Roman culture.  This dualism, which has been deeply influential in Christian thought and spirituality, views the body as an obstacle to the spirit, something to be beaten into submission by those who wish to live authentically spiritual lives.

This dualistic notion of body and soul, with its disdain for the material world, with its exaltation of suffering that beats the flesh into submission so that the spirit may thrive, is far removed from the Jewish cultural milieu in which Christianity was born, and which Jesus reflected as a wandering rabbi whose life became foundational for Christianity.  Nor does this body-soul dualism have anything to do with the theology of the cross in the gospels—with the call of Jesus, in the gospel narrative, for his followers to take up their cross and walk with him.

As Mennonite theologian John Howard Yoder noted in his ground-breaking 1972 study The Politics of Jesus (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1972), the gospels do not view the cross as any and every kind of suffering a follower of Jesus may endure.  Instead,

[t]he believer’s cross is, like that of Jesus, the price of social nonconformity.  It is not, like sickness or catastrophe, an inexplicable, unpredictable suffering; it is the end of a path freely chosen after counting the cost (p. 96).

The gospel narratives’ meditation on the cross and its significance for the Christian life relates bearing the cross to discipleship—to taking up one’s cross and walking after Jesus as a disciple doing what Jesus did, as one who lived within the present world a vision of the world’s possibility never completely incarnated in its current political, cultural, religious, or economic structures:

The cross of Christ was not an inexplicable or chance event, which happened to strike him like illness or accident.  To accept the cross as his destiny, to move toward it and even to provoke it, when he could well have done otherwise, was Jesus’ constantly reiterated free choice.  . . .  The cross of Calvary was not a difficult family situation, not a frustration of visions of personal fulfillment, a crushing debt, or a nagging in-law; it was the politically, legally-to-be-expected result of a moral clash with the powers ruling his society (p. 129).

Not just any suffering, then, and certainly not physical punishment inflicted on oneself in isolation from the struggle one encounters as a disciple of Jesus to live the values of the gospel in a resistant world: the cross is about discipleship, in the gospels’ telling of Jesus’s life story and their reflection on the significance of that story.

Retrievals of the profound meaning of the story of Jesus’s cross-bearing in recent scripture scholarship such as Yoder’s challenge us to think very differently about the role of suffering in the Christian life, and about the connection of suffering to Christian discipleship.  They challenge us to think very differently than our medieval forebears did about practices such as self-flagellation and sleeping on the floor with our arms outstretched.

From the standpoint of the gospels, there is an inbuilt cost, an inbuilt and predictable suffering, when we choose to walk the way that Jesus walked.  That suffering arises from our attempt to incarnate the values of the gospel in the world in which we live—through our life in communities of faith and of practice remembering Jesus, and through the ministry of those communities to the larger world.

There is inbuilt asceticism in the Christian life, insofar as we live, hope, work, and put up with one another (and with ourselves) in the communitarian context.  With its communal context—its re-membering of the story of Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection in a communal context, over and over throughout history—there is a world of inbuilt asceticism designed to temper our tendency to selfishness, pride, despair, and other besetting sins.

There is about ascetical practices like self-flagellation, indeed, an extrinsicism that is perhaps easier than the constant hair-shirt quality of seeking to live according to the gospel in a communitarian context with others hearing and responding to the gospel along with oneself.  In the struggle to hear and live the gospel communally (and, in the life of discipleship, there is a constant communal context to this struggle), there is a never-ending process of whittling away one’s rough edges, tempering one’s expectations, chastening one’s certainties about what one knows with absolute conviction to be true and right.

And that asceticism—that cross—is even more apparent when members of the faith community seek to embody the values of the gospel in the world through active discipleship: through ministry.  Particularly when we choose to place ourselves in solidarity with those for whom daily existence is a constant struggle for survival—when we stand with the millions of the world’s citizens who struggle to find enough to eat each day, to obtain shelter, medicine, education, freedom from oppression—we will find the cross.  We will find the cross among the millions of the world’s citizens who would not dream of needing to punish their bodies through self-flagellation as clerics and religious have often done, because merely living in this world and trying to hang onto existence are, in their own way, punishment enough for those citizens.

Competing Narratives about Holiness in 21st-Century Catholicism

This lesson of the embodiment of the cross through a discipleship of solidarity with the wretched of the earth is one that a number of holy witnesses to the gospel gave to the Christian community during the papacy of John Paul II.  Because he spoke out in defense of the poor of Central America, Archbishop Oscar Romero was murdered in 1980 by a death squad closely connected to military leaders of El Salvador.  He was shot as he stood at the altar celebrating Mass.

In the same year, lay minister Jean Donovan and Sisters Dorothy Kazel, Maura Clarke, and Ita Ford were raped and murdered by a military death squad in El Salvador.  Their crime was that they lived among and assisted the poorest of the poor in El Salvador.  Donovan and Kazel had stood vigil with Archbishop Romero’s body following his assassination.

Romero, Donovan, Kazel, Clarke, and Ford are now venerated by many Catholics who regard these followers of Jesus as icons of holiness in the world today—as saints who show us what it means to be a disciple of Jesus, bearing the cross, in the postmodern world.  Though there have been many voices raised asking that these saints be canonized—including the voices of millions of poor and struggling Catholics in Latin America—John Paul II placed a moratorium of fifty years on any talk about the canonization of Oscar Romero.

By contrast, when John Paul died, a campaign that appears to have been orchestrated began even before his funeral, in St. Peter’s Square, to have him declared a saint immediately with shouts of santo subito! ringing out among those gathered to mourn in the square.  And the revelations of this week that John Paul practiced self-flagellation and slept on the floor at night with his arms outstretched are part of that campaign—a political campaign, one has to note, which seeks to place the stamp of canonization on the church-politics of John Paul II and Benedict XVI, and on the re-clericalization of the church these two popes have sought.

Ita Ford, Maura Clarke, Dorothy Kazel, and Jean Donovan

And so at this point in history, many Catholics find ourselves caught between competing narratives about what it means to be a follower of Jesus in the world today: between a narrative that seems entirely consistent with what the entire church heard the Spirit saying to us at Vatican II—the martyrdom of Oscar Romero, Jean Donovan, Dorothy Kazel, Maura Clarke, and Ita Ford—and a narrative that seems to be essentially about asserting the power and privilege of clerics in the church—the revelation that Pope John Paul II practiced self-flagellation and other extreme forms of self-abnegation.

It seems almost certain that, from the center of the church, the latter narrative will prevail, while the other continues to exist on the margins of the church.  At the same time, it seems almost certain that, for increasing numbers of Catholics, the more compelling narrative of what it means to be a holy follower of Jesus in the world today is the former narrative, and insofar as we who are the church, too (since the church is much more than its clerical elite), remember and celebrate that narrative, it will be carried forward in the memory of the church.  And who knows—since such things have happened in the past, when the faithful cling to what they know is central to the gospel story despite the center’s determination to impose another worldview on us—there may come a point in the history of the church when it will be regarded as a far more credible story about holiness than the story of the previous pope’s self-flagellation.


57 Responses

  1. Well stated. The comments about the people engaging in ascetic practices who also engage in controlling behaviors also reminds me of Evagrius’s comment on your blog about the members of the hierarchy who are oblivious of the pain they cause others being practical atheists.

    • Thanks, Kathy. Yes, I thought of Evagrius’s insightful comments at Bilgrimage when I wrote that section of this posting. Your summary of Evagrius’s point as a point about “practical atheists” is brilliant.

      My thinking here is also influenced by James Carroll’s wonderful book Practicing Catholic, with its insights about how theological reflection arises from ethical reflection in the church right now–and should arise from ethical reflection.

  2. Excellent commentary.

  3. lol ok at times I know I’m just a tired mum and misread things . I honestly thought this was about the pope having bad gas! at first misreading self-flagellation I wondered what on earth the interest in an elderly mans bodily functions would be . Then I got it .
    you know you go about your daily life , living , raising kids , going to school , having tea and then stuff hits you and you remember there are really messed up people out there in the world . yep . some are in the church .
    honestly when I meditated on this subject a few yrs ago It did make me think why would God have you whip yourself , harm yourself when suffering comes naturally . why on earth would God , Jesus ask you to do such a thing when there is a starving mother and child in Africa or right down the street from you in your home town for that matter . Lets see what would God ask of a single celibate male . sit and harm yourself in my name ? duh . yet they would say people who slash their wrists are sinners ?
    give me a break . yes it makes me mad . maybe they should rather think perhaps if this is what being a catholic brother , sister ,priest means it possibly isn’t their calling ? it reminds me of the Kahlil Gibran story Kahlil the Herotic .
    again God is not complicated ,people are the ones who mess it up . Honestly I’d love to shake people who do this and just say get off your bleep bleep and go feed a child . then again maybe they shouldn’t be anywhere near children .
    I best get off to bed so I can rise with my own .
    great post .

    • Rox, there’s a world of common sense in your response. And it helps me understand why huge numbers of Catholics who have read the reports about JPII’s self-flagellation are responding with dismay–“weirded out,” as one blogger wrote in a discussion of this at another site.

      When one places what ordinary people live through day by day in their “ordinary” lives beside this self-whipping, it makes the need to inflict pain on oneself . . . odd. Almost like a luxury. In this case, a luxury reserved for clergy who are at such a remove from “ordinary” life that they don’t have to endure its everyday slings, arrows, ups, and downs, which are full of asceticism in their own right.

      What all of this says to me is that the church would be far healthier if it paid attention to “ordinary” lives and “ordinary” experience, and less to the medieval claptrap that’s all about exalting clericalism.

      P.S. You have given me quite a laugh with your initial misreading of self-flagellation.

  4. Excellent stuff here, Bill.

    There re so many important strands brilliantly tied together – such as the connection between self-mortification and the absence of love, or the historical origins in medieval conceptions of religion, that this piece is going to deserve regular re-reading and digestion.

    • Terry, thanks–I value your positive response immensely.

      As I keep thinking about this story, I also keep thinking about how Opus Dei promotes many of these practices, and about how JPII favored and protected Opus Dei (and the Legionaries of Christ).

      And that raises questions for me about just who is driving this santo subito process, and where the fierce reaction arises, when one raises questions about JPII’s life and legacy.

  5. I know countless athletes who push their bodies to the limits–pain, vomiting–as preparation. Have done it myself. Have you ever watched a Nike commercial? Did you ever work hours on end, sleep deprived to meet a writing deadline? Do you know any farmers?Have your ever followed a presidental candidate on the campaign trail? There are countless examples.

    Any professional that seeks to do his or her absolute best has to self-mortify. The purpose of self-mortification as practiced by a religious is to achieve holiness. A holiness that denies the self and thus emulates the Passion of Christ or his 40 days of fasting in the desert. I accept it at face value just as I do when professionals seek to do their best.. Your tying this to an assertion of power and privilege to benefit clerics is a mighty swing and a miss.

    • Thanks, Elastico. I’m interested to hear that you have pushed your body to the limits for athletic reasons–pain and vomiting.

      And when I think of the application of this version of muscular Christianity to the message of Jesus and the meaning of sanctity, I’m back again at the centrality of love:

      “If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and surrender my body to the flames,[b] but have not love, I gain nothing” (1 Corinthians 13: 1-3).

      Love’s what it’s all about.

      • Huh? Muscular Christianity? Christ willing accepted the spitting, the slapping , the crowning, the piercing, the jeering, the taunting, the mocking, the nailing. Seems you have a problem with the example setter. Yes, it is all about self-giving love and charity. That even includes the written work.

        • Do you mean that the example setter was some sort of athlete who pushes himself to train until he vomits, Elastico?

          It’s not the example setter with whom I have problems. It’s with a macho interpretation of him that has little to do with the figure about whom I read in the gospels that I have problems.

          • Obviously, you were never an athlete or you would not make such a silly statement in your first sentence. Or perhaps it is a judgment. Naughty, naughty, naughty, Bill.

            I stand by my point that self-mortification (denying of self for a greater goal) can be found in any life. That includes popes. Because you cannot see that when it involves a member of the Catholic hierarchy, and can only and always see the bogeyman, leaves the impression you are less intellectual and more ideologue/demagogue. Comes across as just another angle in your lifelong quest to self-justify. But then I would not know that becasue I don’t know you, any more than you know the interior life of Wojtyla.

          • Thanks for your reply, Elastico. You say you stand by your statement about the connection between sanctity and athleticism.

            As do I. I feel sure being an athlete leads to virtue in many lives, and that many sportsmen are men of outstanding virtue.

            That being said, I don’t see any intuitively obvious connection between being proficient at athletic activities and being a saint. The fact that anyone would expect that connection to be obvious astonishes me, to be frank.

            Nor does an argument for the athletic approach to the spiritual life necessarily imply an endorsement of practices like beating oneself with a whip or wearing a chain that digs into one’s flesh.

    • Elastico:

      I agree with you. I don’t see the connection between penitential practices and competing narratives. It seems like quite a stretch.

      Mr. Lindsey,

      Your claim is that these disclosures are intended to silence anyone who doubts the sancity of this Pope. Is that your interpretation, the late Pope’s interpretation, or someone else’s? I am not aware that the late Pope ever claimed that he was holy than thou, or that he ever acknowledged that he engaged in this practice.

      Why make such an interpretation when there are so many more and generous (i.e. loving) interpretations that you could offer?

      • I linked to two postings that support my claim.

        Why are you not responding to those, or mentioning them?

      • Mr. Lindsey,

        I just don’t get the connection between penitential acts of the former Pope and the assertion that he was asserted the power and privilege of the clerics and the Church.

        It’s hard for me to see how the lives of the former Pope and Oscar Romero are competing narratives. They are almost identical narratives of what it means to be a follower of Jesus Christ.

        Why such an ungenerous evaluation of the Pope’s life? Does it matter who sits on the left side and who sits on the right side?

        • Mr. Ludescher, you say, “I just don’t get the connection between penitential acts of the former Pope and the assertion that he was asserted the power and privilege of the clerics and the Church.”

          Well, for one thing, as my article notes, the new book that reveals JPII’s penitential practices makes this correlation, by noting that he engaged in the practices in particular before he ordained priests and bishops.

          For another thing, that JPII did re-assert the power and privilege of clerics following Vatican II, which stressed an ecclesiology centered on the presence of the Spirit in the whole body of Christ, is undeniable. Even at the council itself, Wojtyla voted in favor of the Bellarminian definition of the church as a “perfect society” with hierarchical order, vs. the people of God image of the church.

          If the two narratives of sanctity–JPII’s and Romero’s–are almost identical, then why did JPII thwart any discussion of Romero’s canonization? Does that mean that JPII should not be canonized, given that the narratives are almost identical?

          And why is it ungenerous to ask such questions? Should popes be beyond criticism? Are all popes who died automatically saints?

          What does the process of identifying and making saints mean in the church, if we’re not allowed (we the people of God) to express our views about who is or is not a model of holiness?

          • Mr. Lindsey:

            Popes aren’t above criticism, nor are they necessarily holy. Much of Church history includes men who appear to have ascended and stayed as Pope by less than admirable means. As a human institution, the Church has often advanced clerics whose primary interest was wedded to their own interests, political interests, or career advancements.

            But, as Elastico points out, there is a possible genererous narrative that one could attach to Pope Paul II’s alleged use of self-flagellation. First, one must question the veracity of the reports. To the extent that it is true, it was certainly a well-kept secret, i.e., not something that Pope Paul bragged about or imposed upon others. Lastly, there are acts of self-denial, like forty days in the desert, that can be strengthening and spiritually illuminating.

            Perhaps the Pope used it as a reminder of his prison camp days, lest he forget how evil men can be to each other. Perhaps he used it as a means to teach himself humility lest he forget that he is only a man. It is really hard to know his rationales.

            To the extent an author of a book thinks that the Pope’s self-flagellation is a cause for sainthood, I am in agreement with you. It may be that his practice reveals a deep-seated psychosis. It certainly doesn’t reveal anything of his holiness. But, I am not aware that the Pope ever made a statement about such practices, nor did he ever suggest that Catholics should engage in such practices.

            Fory years ago, my father used a strap to discipline me. He did it because he loved me; physically disciplining me was the best way that he knew how to be a good father. I am not going to go back now and change my opinion because present day society takes a different view of his actions.

            Lastly, if I remember correctly, when Bishop Romero rose to his position, he did not want to get involved in the social injustice that he saw. Initially, he was not a willing participant in the causes that eventually led to his death. In the end, it was his steadfast obedience to the Lord, and the Church that cost him his life.

            I’m not competent to say whether Pope John Paul II or Bishop Romero deserve sainthood or in what order if they do deserve it. Nevertheless, they both have much to offer us in the form of their lives. I wouldn’t call their lives competing narratives so much as different narratives of sanctity.

            Whether the Church is becoming “clericized” or “laitized” is, for the most part, an academic question. In reading the encyclicals of these two last Popes, I see a generous spirit without any hints of domination or control. “God is Love”, “Hope Saves”, “Truth and Love”. What is there not to like about these documents? I see these documents as a truer sign of the Pope’s heart than some secret revealed years after someone’s death.

          • Two comments, Mr. Ludescher:

            1. “First, one must question the veracity of the reports.”

            As my posting notes, these reports appear in an official study prepared to support the canonization of John Paul II. As my posting also notes, the person summarizing the results of that study in a press conference this week is the church-appointed postulator for the cause of JPII’s canonization. And as I also note, Msgr. Oder stated in that conference (and the book states this as well) that its reports rely on the testimony of more than a hundred (114 is, I believe, the figure given in the book) people who knew JPII personally and witnessed his behavior.

            2. “Whether the Church is becoming ‘clericized’ or ‘laitized’ is, for the most part, an academic question.”

            I must profoundly disagree. This question is far from academic for the thousands upon thousands of people who have reported that they have been sexually abused by Catholic clerics when they were children, and who have consistently found that, when they report their abuse, the pastoral leaders of the church support the abusive clerics while refusing to assist those who have experienced childhood sexual abuse by clerics.

            The policy of hiding, protecting, and moving around priests who have abused children, while combating those who report such abuse, emanates directly from Rome, and was characteristic of the papacy of JPII. Cardinal Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict, whom JPII appointed his chief theological watchdog, instructed bishops worldwide to hide cases of clerical abuse and to report them only to Rome, not to civil authorities–though sexual abuse of minors is a crime in most parts of the world.

            This policy reflects an assumption on the part of JPII and Ratzinger that clerics belong to a higher caste within the people of God, one that ought to be above accountability. The choice of JPII and Ratzinger to hinge the future of the church on the maintenance of a clerical system that has clearly grievously harmed many members of the body of Christ is causing millions of Catholics now to leave the church.

  6. I am reminded of a scene from Richard Winston’s biography of Thomas Becket. As most people know, Becket was, whenever able, given to great ecclesiatical show, appearing with a great retinue and the most costly and elaborate vestments possible.

    When the monks of the chapter returned to move his body from the place where Becket had been slain in the cathedral, they for the first time learned that, under his magnificent garments, he was wearing a hair shirt, and they immediately recognized him as one of themselves. The luxury of his exterior he deemed necessary only for addressing the world, which takes account of such things.

    • Fascinating, Illejane. And thank you for helping make my point. Yes, hair shirts, cilices, and self-flagellation are, indeed, relics of medieval Catholicism–just as you point out.

      What’s interesting, too, in your juxtaposition of this story with my posting is that it raises a very disturbing question about the refusal of JPII to permit discussion of the canonization of Oscar Romero.

      Who, like Becket, was slain in church–while Romero was saying Mass.

      And so we have a 20th-century narrative of holiness that echoes salient aspects of the medieval story, and yet a pope practicing medieval forms of self-punishment is unwilling to entertain the possibility that the 20th-century archbishop murdered at the altar is a saint.

      Interesting, isn’t it?

  7. This text is simply one of the best statements that I have read in years on this subject: it is deeply insightful, balanced, well-resourced, and places the focus of holiness where it belongs–ON LOVE.

    Simply well-articulated!

  8. I would also recommend reading in conjunction with this Gordon Urquhart’s “The Pope’s Armada,” in which Urquhart writes about Focolare, the Neocatechumenal Way, and Communion & Liberation and Pope John Paul II’s encouragement of these groups (as well as Opus Dei and Legionaries of Christ.) Urquhart is a former Focolare member.

    • Kathy, thanks for this very helpful reference. I will definitely look for this book. I’m interested in it because there were reports (which seemed credible to me) following the santo subito campaign in St. Peter’s Square that Chiara Lubich and the Focolare folks were very instrumental in organizing that campaign.

  9. Great post, brilliant in many ways, and the ‘kicker’ is the reference to Oscar Romero, a worthy candidate for canonization if ever there was one.

    • Jayden, thank you. Romero has been in my mind lately, I think, because the anniversary of the death of Jean Donovan, Dorothy Kazel, Maura Clarke, and Ita Ford just passed again this December.

      And when I read about JPII’s self-flagellation practices, and then began to think about his moratorium on discussion of the canonization of Romero, what began to occur to me is that we do have two very different narratives about what it means to be holy developing in the church after Vatican II.

      To me, it seems obvious that Romero, Donovan, Ford, Clarke, and Kazel are saints. It seems less obvious to me that JPII was a saint.

      And it’s interesting that it infuriates a certain segment of Catholics to say that about JPII–which makes me wonder what’s driving this canonization process.

  10. I am fascinated by the thought that anyone would think it holy to beat themselves up, or let others beat them up, allow oneself to whip someone’s bare back. It is a sign of sickness, not holiness to whip oneself, or to whip others.

    When one whips oneself on the back they leave wounds on their back that will need tending to by another person or the wounds could get infected. While someone is tending to these self-afflicted wounds they could be tending to those who are already wounded in wars, car accidents, earthquakes, etc. With a shortage of priest, one would think that priests would want to be healthy so that they can care for those that truly need healing.

    I watched on the news last night a woman who is four months pregnant who lost her leg in the earthquake in Haiti. They can not treat her with the pain medication because she is pregnant. She lies in a tent in the hot weather in agony. While at the same time members of the Catholic Church are whipping themselves, tending to their self-inflicted wounds and ignoring the cries of the poor. There is something gravely wrong with this picture.

  11. William , there was a really great doc. I watched on PBS once about Pope JP II , the relationship between JP and Romero was explained very well . From a human viewpoint , again seeing people as human , how we form our behaviours , character etc.
    The whole issue was not so much Romero himself it was the Pope’s own struggle personal struggle and yes thoughts , resulting from his expereinces etc. communisim . Of course a whole other issue . Did this effect JP as a human being of course it did . I’ve ferinds who are polish , rissuian etc. thier wieew of cuba and communism is very different then that of my dh & myself. People form impression , via experience , lifestyle etc. Did Pope JP II have prejudice regarding the political issue communism . of course he did .
    It is abosultely not judgment to see error in someone . It si perfectly ok to see the none truth in a pope’s behaviour etc.
    Pope JPII also wrote many beautiful writings , especially towards the unborn and poverty . I think we need to be able to look at people as people we all make right and wrong choice . the pope is absolutely no different . It is also not wrong to notice these wrong choices and see how possibly we can change them for the good.
    conversion cannot happen if we just pretend the pope is infellible . Pope Bennidict was blessing the ferrarer car race in italy when he first became pope it seemed very not thr right thing to do with the hole issue of wealth vs poverty issue and global warming . Really when canada has aboriginal people living like in the third world etc. it appeared to be pretty shameful thing the pope taking time to bless cars .
    So now we can look on and be thankful it appears someone in rome has been educating to practice perhaps more envirnmentaly friendly means to help our planet etc. good does come from acknowldging the wrong we have done not by hiding it .
    I so love love Oscar Romero’s writings . He was a wonderful thinker was he not . I’ve very dear friends from El Salvador , one was altar boy in a church for yrs and yrs . He has big issue with Oscar Romero but won’t talk about it just when I mentioned the sainthood of him my friend said I don’t think so . Oscar Romero he also was a human capable of making wrong choices . My whole issue is the way common people are told to pretnd the people are on the top are somehow not capable of being sinful and do not need recognize that behaviour and its effects just because of position .

  12. Elastico, Christ’s example was NOT for us to go around whipping ourselves, or behaving like the Roman soldiers and whipping others. This is a violence against oneself and the tendency to commit other violence on others will occur with such a mindset on violence being “holy.”

    Fasting or being in prayer in the desert with Jesus is one thing, and it is quite another thing to imagine that whipping yourself brings you any closer to God or to fulfilling Christ’s teachings.

    I believe that inflicting oneself by whipping is actually a very selfish act, is a misguided theology and it discounts the true life of Jesus and his teachings. One would tend to take their own self-inflicted pain and turn it into the pain of the Lord, but mostly what it does is create pain for others. It is a selfish pain because it is self-inflicted or self-willed. Jesus did not will to be flogged or crucified. It is the free will of the rulers and the scribes and the law that flogged and crucified the Lord. “Not my will” said Jesus. Jesus obeyed God’s will which is that all of us have free will and God will not intervene to prevent men from using their own free will, even if it meant Jesus’ death and crucifixion on a cross.

  13. It’s interesting to note that types of “self-mortification” such as self-flagellation etc; are considered to be desirable while ascetic practices such as yoga and zen meditation are considered suspect.

    The first type is designed to subjugate the rebellious body while the second type masters the body. The distinction is that the first requires external force while the second requires internal control.

    Perhaps the Pope should have practiced the second type. I wonder if it might have resulted in a different outcome.

    The second type is practiced widely in Benedictine monasteries especially by the younger monks.

    • Excellent points, Evagrius. I often lament that the work Thomas Merton was doing at the end of his life to build a bridge between the meditative practices of Eastern religions and those of Christian monasticism was cut short by his untimely death.

      I like very much the distinction between the brutal subjugation of the body in some forms of asceticism, and the internal control at which yoga and zen aim–without that brutal subjugation of the body. It’s hard to imagine the kind of macho blood and gore with which Mel Gibson imagines the passion of Christ applied to zen and yoga masters.

      The fact that some Christians can find in Jesus and his suffering warrant for the brutality and violence of machismo speaks volumes, it seems to me, about how off-track the tradition of bloody self-mutilation has taken Christianity.

      • “I like very much the distinction between the brutal subjugation of the body in some forms of asceticism, and the internal control at which yoga and zen aim–without that brutal subjugation of the body.”

        I think you must be thinking about another zen. Many, many koans end with a blow from a staff.

        • Thanks, Rick. And yes, I know that many koans end with a blow from a staff.

          Which I see as in no way comparable with the practice of beating one’s back bloody–as, e.g., the Opus Dei founder is said to have done–with repeated self-inflicted blows from a whip.

          As my statement notes, one represents a brutal subjugation of the body. The other represents an attempt to train a person engaged in meditation to develop internal control–and that form of training does not rely on brutal forms of self-inflicted pain. Nor does it glorify pain as an end in itself.

          Important distinctions, it seems to me.

          • I’m not sure that Christian asceticism “glorifies pain as an end in itself.” I always thought it was about self discipline. Has anybody made reference to St. Paul’s statement about subjegating the body, or the common practice of fasting (which of course Jesus engaged in)?

            Not that I’ve ever done any of that (other than the minimal “fasting” we observe twice a year). Frankly, it seems kind of strange to be having a discussion focused on whether Catholics are too austere. Many, perhaps most, American Catholics, I am afraid, are like myself–overweight and often overindulgent. Excessive asceticism does not seem to me be running rampant in American Catholic culture.

          • But, Rick, I didn’t say that “Christian asceticism” glorifies pain as an end in itself. We’re talking here about a form of Christian asceticism that is extreme, marginal, and widely suspect in the post-Vatican II church–for good reasons. The statement about glorifying pain as an end in itself refers to what Escriva, the founder of Opus Dei, writes about his notion of asceticism. As my posting about connections between Pope John Paul II’s self-flagellation and Opus Dei note, there were strong ties between Opus Dei and JPII. Escriva is said to have beaten his back until blood covered the floor and spattered the walls.

            You say it seems to be strange to be having a discussion focused on whether Catholics are too austere. That’s not what I understand us to be discussing here. We’re discussing the revelation that the former pope, a candidate for sainthood, practiced self-flagellation.

            Surely that’s a worthwhile discussion to have because 1) JPII was pope, and a very influential one, 2) he is being considered for sainthood, and 3) we’re all trying to make sense of a complex, rich, ambiguous tradition as we live our own spiritual lives in the Catholic context today.

  14. Once again , God never asks us to harm ourselves or others. Never . also to impose suffering on on ones self claiming it to be being one with Him is ridiculous .
    He asked us to look beyond the suffering to find the joy the great love He has for us . This is the suffering we endure naturally as human beings . Such as I as a mother would for a child . Or hardship in order to help any other human being . The pain Jesus suffered was not self inflicted .The pain caused was from others and it was sinful behavoiur . Good came out of that sinful behaviour . God allows the bad to happen , evil to happen, it is up to us to bring the lesson from that and turn that lesson into good. God will never ask you to partake in or give us permission to sin . He allows us that choice in our free will but never does he approve of our sinful choice .
    Jesus walking and fasting , taking bitter herbs etc. had purpose it was not intentionally to bring upon suffering . Once fasts to cleanse , to form union etc. fasting as well is not suffering at all if done properly . Jesus did not fast to promote suffering . We fast to cleanse there is a purpose .
    Absuive & twisted behaviour has nothing to do with ones position or status , religion , economical background etc. we are all capable of placing the stereotype on each other . However that said it is far easier to hide disfunction via power and money . The same abuses that happen in the nieghbourhood of the crack user happen in middle calss or upper class suberbs it is just much easier to keep it hidden . The church is no different then any other part of our society there will be it is a given those who choose to practice abusive sinful behaviour . Some will not believe they are indeed doing so . Also children will have been abused in a buddist temple just the same as being abused within a catholic church it is indeed anywhere and everywhere . that people twist and get demented ways of practice even convincing themselves it is of God . No one is immune to that ,be they pauper or pope . We are all capable of partaking in sinful choices .

  15. wow ! this sure is a hot topic .
    not totally on topic but I thought because rick mentioned fasting perhaps some might be interested I wrote a small post awhile back on my natural catholic blog about fasting and biblical fasting etc. the why I do this and purpose etc.
    our priest friend does a traditional aboriginal fast each yr along with the sundance . He is also aboriginal . I fast but have not been called to the sundance as of yet for some it is just not what the Creator is asking of them .
    anyway I love the fast very much and I can say it for me personally has nothing to do with inflicting suffering , pain etc.
    I tried to post the link . if it dosen’t work , my blog is titled The Natural Catholic . very simple , natural and it is non political 😉

    • Roxie, thank you for letting us know about your blog. I will post the link to the blog and the posting on fasting: here it is.

      It’s interesting that what you say here is very much what I was writing yesterday about fasting in various religious traditions, in my posting that clarifies what I understand asceticism to be.

      You were writing this comment as I was preparing that posting–synchronicity, it seems to me.

  16. […] I offer these two signposts to readers today?  I do so because I want to add a clarification to  the two postings I made here (and here) recently about ascetical practices of self-mortification that include self-flagellation, […]

  17. The real pain in life doesn’t come from self inflicted and there for personally controlled physical pain. It comes from the pain inflicted on us by others. The kind of emotional, psychological, and physical pain we don’t control. That’s the whole message of Jesus’s crucifixion. He endured pain He Himself did not choose for Himself and did not control. The most painful of those inflictions undoubtedly came from the betrayal of His own followers, not the whips of the Romans.

    • Colleen, thank you–these are very important distinctions. You’re right: Jesus did not choose to inflict pain on himself.

      And the pain he endured came from choosing the way that led to the cross–a way that included the inability of his followers to understand and to be with him as he walked in that way.

      (I’m missing your blog tremendously, by the way!)

  18. William,

    I wish I had an actual source to cite right now, but I’m sure I’ve read somewhere that Archbishop Oscar Romero engaged in self-flagellation and other “extraordinary” acts of mortification.

    Really, I feel as if the great majority of saints and holy figures that we remember engaged in these extreme actions, including not only “conservatives” like John Paul II, but mendicants like St. Francis and Blessed Mother Teresa.

    I’ve been torn on the issue of extreme asceticism/mortification for some time, for some of the reasons you discuss here. But if so many of the saints engaged in these practices, who are we to refute their efficacy and holiness?

    • Thank you for your reply, Mike.

      As Cardinal Georges Cottier, theologian of John Paul II’s household, wrote on Feb. 4, self-mortifying practices should always be done under spiritual direction, because they can easily become pathological.

      And as Fr. Mihaly Szentmartoni, director of the Spirituality Institute at the Gregorian University, recently stated, such practices can beome pathological by becoming ends in themselves, or self-punishment for real or imagined sins. This Vatican official suggests that encouraging young people to do direct hands-on work with the poor would be a healthier approach to asceticism.

      Who are we to ask questions? We are Christians–like Fr. Szentmartoni and Fr. Cottier. We are Christians trying to find our spiritual path in a complex world and a Christian tradition full of all kinds of practices and beliefs, some of which have been discarded over time because they are aberrations and not healthy expressions of our beliefs.

      Should we return to the idea of disfiguring our faces to please God–as St. Rose of Lima did when she rubbed pepper and lye into her skin? Or should we return to the idea of living on a pillar for years like St. Simeon Stylites>

      You see where the “who are we” suggestion leads, don’t you? It leads to no norms at all, no critical questions at all. As long as we’re told that the person engaging in such behavior is holy, it’s presumably an expression of holiness.

      Most people in the church today don’t buy that uncritical conclusion for very valid reasons. It seems to me extremely unlikely that God is calling us to rub lye into our faces to burn our skin, or that God is calling us to beat our backs raw with whips.

      What matters is love.

  19. jeven if Oscar Romero or mansy saints , popes etc. may have taken part in self-flagellation does not make it right , saints were / are sinners just like you & I . not all behaviour or practices are leading one to holiness . Holiness is merely being whom the Creator has called one to be , when we are being open to reciecvng , cleansing , woning our sin etc. this is holiness . How many saints were missed just because of the issue of race or the burning times etc. I love ST.THomas A but wow he was also very powerful enough to have people labeled herotic or witch if he liked .
    I think of Hildegard or Francis how they indeed may not have reached the title of sainthood had they been born of a different era .
    Being aboriginal the sundance reminds me of self-flagellation . I personally do not agree with cutting as a form of experession however it does not mean I do not undertsna dthe concept or where it is coming from . In the end like anything if there is not a clear line regarding if behaviour is sinful , like Mother Theresa said , it never was betewen you & them anyway it is between you and God .
    What one may find sinful another may not . yoga for instance,and meditation many far right or so called traditionalists say yoga is taking part in sinful behaviour and displeasing to God .
    When I as a person meditated on this I was led to Padre Pio , would he have gone off to india to learn meditation or practiced yoga ? probably not . Yet Mother Teresa , had no problem attending hindu temples , kneeling praying , I’ve no doubt she practiced some form of yoga as she had taken advice on many occassions from new age personal advisors etc.
    so who was holy and who was the sinner ? Padre Pio or Mother Teresa ? the fact and truth I beleive is they both were and are exactly who God created them to be both holy yet as human both sinners capable of sinful behaviour .
    Some sin is very cut and dry , do not kill , do not rape a child , do not beat your wife etc.
    It is however wrong to judge what one may view as sinful . It is up to God if the choice / behaviour is sinful in the end . God would never tell a child rapist they cannot receive communion but the person smoking two packs of ciggerttes a day can . He wishes to give and share His love with each and everyone of us especially when we are being sinful , that is the time we are most in need of allowing Him to come into our heart . I am ok with the church telling me what they believe to be sinful behaviour . That is thier opinion and right to say so . However it is not up to them to sit and tell me when I’m sinning and how I will be judged etc. If they wish to educate me on what they beleive is sin that is perfectly fine with me but as a responsible child of God my Father , my Creator wants me to figure it out . If I am open to dealing with and woning what is my sinful choices that is all He asks . Be able to admit my faults , failures etc. and move on . He is going to let me know very quickly if I have been wrong , been sinful etc. if I am open to receiving His grace , Sinners , never , never will approach God out of judgement from others . It always pushes them further away .
    so personally choosing to whip oneself for Jesus is this sin ? for me it would be most definately . If it was sinful or holy to saint Francis well I’m sure he already found out didn’t he 😉

    • Roxie, I think you were posting at the same time I was, so I didn’t see your reply until after I sent mine through.

      You make outstanding points. Oscar Romero is a very good illustration of the process the church went through after Vatican II, in its thinking about these issues. In the early part of his life as a priest and bishop, he was a strongly conservative Catholic, who was even close to Opus Dei and in favor of its penitential practices like using of a whip.

      But when he began to come into direct contact with the poor through his work as a priest and bishop, he changed. He began to speak of solidarity with the poor and work on their behalf as the real center of Christian life and asceticism.

      And he was martyred as a result. Strangely enough, John Paul II–who was exceptionally holy because he whipped himself, we’re now being told–then placed a 50-year moratorium on talk about canonizing Romero.

      So it would be very strange for anyone to try to argue now that we shouldn’t ask critical questions about JPII’s self-flagellation because there was a a time in his life when Romero practiced it, too. You are exactly right, what’s important in this discussion is how we live out practical compassion. For Romero, the needs of the poor came to be far more of a call to holiness and asceticism than self-flagellation did.

  20. lol Bill I looked at my reply and it was way up there on the post I haven’t a clue what is going on
    I love Oscar Romero writings so much he is one of those soul people who brings so much peace to my heart . When I learned of JPII treatment of him during his visit etc. I had such a sadness in my heart , then when I prayed about it within days I saw the PBS doc. I mentioned before . I then could see the human side . I had a beautiful vision after that of in heaven how the two come to hold hands because all hurts are healed , all prejugudice aknowledged and dealt with .
    Is it not so so beautiful how when we are open to understanding He sends us just what we need

    • Hi, Roxie–how these programs work is a mystery to me. Your reply shows a 9:45 posting time and mine a 9:53 posting time, but I didn’t see yours till I had posted mine. That could be because the notice that there was a reply to this thread didn’t reach my email inbox until after 9:53–but I didn’t see your reply on this thread, either, when I logged in! There seems to have been a delay before it appeared.

      I love Romero for the reasons you describe, too–and your phrase “soul people” is so wonderful! He reaches my heart, in way that, I’m sorry to say, JPII never has. I see in Romero a very human man, willing to revise what he thought, when it became clear to him that the theological worldview in which he had been raised prevented his being the bishop God called him to be–someone walking among and binding up the wounds of the sheep.

      When he saw how the practice of letting the rich have weddings in cathedrals, while the poor were excluded, affected the poor, he simply abolished those rules: the church is for everyone, he maintained. And, in particular, for the least among us.

      For which the rich elites of Latin America hated him, since they believed they owned the church and did not want the poor defended. And yes, absolutely, the shameful way in which JPII treated Romero–both in life and after Romero died–hurt. And still hurts.

  21. As a once conservative Roman Catholic I knew this happened. We need to return the church to a solid footing. Phase one: root out the S&M deivants, pedophiles, homosexuals, and liberals in the priesthood who cover up criminal acts. Homosexallity is not a crime or sin. The homosexual desire and act however is. Their are criminals in the church and need to be brought to civil justice. Next allow priests to marry. A man needs a woman and a woman needs a man. It is as God intended. Consider allowing women to become Deacons as a first step to intergrating the priesthood. Next, return to solid Roman Catholic Christian principles. Stop the Post Modernest Bullshit and the flock will return.

  22. P.S. The Maryknoll and S.J.’s that got capped by the “Latin American dictators” and their American CIA counterparts in the 80’s secret war got what they deserved. They were Marxist revolutionaries, actively engage in “armed proletariat struggle”. In shot they were Charlie Tangos and got what was comming to them. Liberation Theology is an athiest Trojan horse.

  23. Being Pure, Praying each day, spreading love and help, live the poverty with hope… plz help me Jean-Paul 2 putting this in my deep mind, soul and head.. plllzzz Love you

  24. […] John Paul II’s Penitential opentabernacle.wordpress.com […]

  25. […] John Paul II’s Penitential opentabernacle.wordpress.com […]

  26. John Paul II was one of the greatest and holiest Popes ever. He believed that body and soul are a composite, not separate “istitutions.” Wisely, he new the immense superiority of the spirit over the body, and that he body needs to be subject to the spirit. The body is neither good nor bad.But there is nothing holy in the human body. It’s concupiscence, also neither good nor bad, is capable of causing evil to the mind. This is why self-denial and restrant of the body can sometimes help in places like monasteries, where there is often temptation, But not only monasteries. In every family, the children are often “all body”, and little spirit. Such tend to disrespect parents, be cussy and unruly. Often they lie and steal to satisfy their “bodily” urgings. For that there is nothing like the rod! The Bible is unequivocal about that. The spirit grows every time the body gets humbled! That is probably John Paul II’s viewpoint.

  27. The world is seething with crime! This is how it used to be when people had common sense, when sepfrestraint was taught by parents and schools! It was called natural upbringing and it worked. Today, in the U.S., we have 2.4. million people either on parole or in jail, thanks to Dr. Spock. The feminists irrationally fear the return to the good all days. They think that the husbands will “abuse” their persons. This is false perception. In Christian marriage the persons are equal, so abuse is unthinkable. As for the body, it must not be regarded as “having dignity from itself.” It does not! Any dignity that it has, comes from the spirit! This is why a child or a wife can be spanked by the husband, without losing their dignity in a Christian marriage! On the contrary, the purpose of spanking is to restore their wholeness, which is to say, the whole dignity or their spirit!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: