As Pope John Paul II’s beatification cause moves forward, more is coming to light about the late pontiff’s life, including testimonies that he occasionally scourged himself and sometimes prayed nonstop for many hours.
John Paul II often put himself through “bodily penance,” said Sister Tobiana Sobodka, a Polish nun who worked for the Pope in his private Vatican apartments and at his summer residence in Castel Gandolfo near Rome.
“We would hear it,” said Sister Sobodka, who belongs to the Order of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. “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."
Emery Kabongo, a secretary of John Paul II, also backed up the claim. “He would punish himself and in particular just before he ordained bishops and priests," he said. “I never actually saw it myself but several people told me about it.”
The testimonies appear in "Santo Subito," a new book by Andrea Tornielli, a Vatican correspondent for the Italian newspaper Il Giornale.
The Catholic Church’s tradition of corporal mortification is founded on the Christian belief that Jesus Christ, out of love for mankind, voluntarily accepted suffering and death as the means to redeem the world from sin.
The church teaches that Christians are called to emulate Jesus and join him in his redemptive suffering. This means that they try to “die to themselves” every day.
Usually, such mortifications take the form of fasting and abstinence, especially during Lent. But some people in Church history have undertaken greater sacrifices, such as frequent fasting or using a hair shirt, a cilice (a small, light, metal chain with little prongs worn around the thigh), or discipline.
John Paul II used to whip himself, according to the recent testimonies. In 1986, in his annual Letter to Priests, John Paul wrote: “What one must see in these forms of penance — which, unfortunately, our times are not accustomed to — are the motives: the love of God and the conversion of sinners.”
Many of the church’s greatest saints flagellated themselves, including St. Francis of Assisi, St. Teresa of Avila, St. Ignatius of Loyola, Blessed Mother Teresa, and St. Thomas More. Some members of the church group Opus Dei are also known to wear a cilice — a practice that gained notoriety in "The Da Vinci Code."
“Mortification helps us resist our natural drive toward personal comfort which so often prevents us from answering the Christian call to love God and serve others for love of God,” said the Rev. Michael Barrett, a priest of Opus Dei. The "Da Vinci" book/movie's "masochist monk, who loves pain for its own sake, has nothing to do with real Christian mortification.”
As well as this corporal discipline, Tornielli’s book also recalls the late Pope’s love of prayer.
“When Karol Wojtyla prayed, he was not distracted by anything,” Kabongo said. “I remember that when serving in the papal apartments, you were told that, when the Holy Father was praying, even if it was something important, you had to wait to tell him because for him prayer came first. God came before everything else, even the world’s problems.”
Arturo Mari, for many years the Pope’s personal photographer for the Vatican newspaper, recalled how the late pontiff would make a point of praying hard for the local people of the countries he visited.
“It seemed that he identified with them in their suffering,” Mari said. “I remember in Vilnius, he remained praying on his knees for six hours without stopping.”
Meanwhile, John Paul II’s cause for beatification moved closer, with news that the Vatican Congregation for the Causes of Saints voted last week to approve a decree testifying to his "historic virtue. "
This means that Pope Benedict XVI could declare John Paul II “venerable,” the penultimate step to beatification, in a matter of weeks. But there is a growing consensus that it is wise not to hasten the cause.
Cardinal Stanislaw Dziwisz, John Paul’s long-serving private secretary and a keen proponent of a speedy beatification, told reporters in Argentina last week that the Polish bishops “do not want the Pope to rush [the cause]. He should analyze it properly.”
Another Vatican official said there is still much to know about John Paul, and a hasty beatification would amount to “beatifying the personality, not the person.”
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