John Paul II and the value of suffering

Hoo boy. This story is just tailor-made for breathless secular reporting: Monsignor Slawomir Oder, the “postulator” for Pope John Paul II’s cause for sainthood, has published a book titled Why He’s a Saint that claims, among other things, that the former pope practiced self-flagellation:

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.

While there had long been rumours that John Paul practiced self-mortification, the book provides the first confirmation and concludes John Paul did so as an example of his faith.

A few thoughts on this, in no particular order:

1. I’m a little skeptical of this report. While Oder’s book is supposedly “based on the testimony of 114 witnesses,” still no one actually saw this happening — and Oder himself isn’t exactly impartial here. Not to say it couldn’t be true, but I’m not necessarily convinced that it is.

2. On a rational level, I know that the Church has scads of saints — both men and women — who practiced just such self-mortification (and more), so in the case of a very spiritually mature person proceeding under guidance, I understand that flagellation is acceptable.

On a gut level, it squicks me out a bit. I fully endorse the benefits of fasting; I can get behind the idea of occasionally sleeping on the floor, or taking the odd cold shower; but there’s a mental hurdle for me at anything that draws blood or leaves bruises. It’s not a particularly well-defined objection, I admit, but there it is.

3. Our secular culture — which can understand sacrifice for physical benefit but not for spiritual benefit — will have absolutely no idea what to do with this, and so end up in the deep end of albino-monk speculation.

But really, we don’t have to go digging for examples of John Paul’s heroic endurance of physical trials — his long, public battle with Parkinson’s is, to my mind, a more affecting example of the redemptive value of suffering than any private, voluntary mortification he may have practiced. That is the kind of saintliness that continues to inspire me.



Margaret Cabaniss is the former managing editor of Crisis Magazine. She joined Crisis in 2002 after graduating from the University of the South with a degree in English Literature and currently lives in Baltimore, Maryland. She now blogs at

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