Was Pope John Paul Crazy or Holy?

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Bishop Thomas J. Tobin - Without a Doubt
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That’s the question some folks might be asking themselves if they read a recent Catholic News Service article about the spiritual practices of our late Holy Father.

According to Msgr. Slawomir Oder, the official promoter of the Pope’s beatification cause, “Pope John Paul II always took penitence seriously, spending entire nights lying with his arms outstretched on the bare floor, fasting before ordaining priests or bishops, and flagellating himself . . . When it wasn’t some infirmity that made him experience pain, he himself would inflict discomfort and mortification on his body.”

Msgr. Oder says that the Pope’s penitential practices took place both when Karol Wojtyla was Archbishop of Krakow in Poland and at the Vatican after he became Pope. “In his closet, there was a hook holding a particular belt for slacks which he used as a whip,” Msgr. Oder has written in his book.

Without a doubt the Holy Father’s severe penitential practices seem pretty excessive, perhaps even unhealthy, to the modern mind. Indeed the Church doesn’t encourage Catholics to punish themselves as the Pope did. But, keep in mind that in Pope John Paul we’re not dealing with the average Catholic or typical Christian. The Pope was a once-in-a-lifetime leader of epic proportions, bigger than life, burdened with enormous responsibilities, blessed with extraordinary gifts, and imbued with a profound, totally consuming, mystical spirituality.

There’s a fine line between a mystic and a masochist. But the difference is the motivation, the spiritual purpose of the discipline. It’s the same factor that differentiates fasting from dieting, and celibacy from bachelorhood. As one spiritual author wrote, “Any practice of asceticism must always be considered as a means to attain the end of union with God.” (Thomas Ryan, Fasting Rediscovered, p. 27)

I certainly can’t picture myself undertaking the severe discipline the Pope inflicted on himself, although I surely need the penance more than he did. Just getting out of bed in the morning, with its associated aches and pains, is plenty of bodily mortification for me.

I can tell you that as a young priest I was far more serious about fasting during Lent than I am now – sometimes going 36 hours with nothing but water. I attached prayer intentions to my fasting to increase my motivation and offered it up for the Catechumens of the Church, for fallen-away Catholics, for those who were ill, for the needs of family and friends, for unborn children, for peace in the world, for the faithful departed, and for the forgiveness of my own sins. Some of the “best” Lents I had – and therefore the best Easters – were those when I engaged in serious acts of penance.

But setting aside Pope John Paul’s particular ascetical practices, and mine, remember that the Church encourages every Catholic to participate in spiritual discipline and mortification. It’s an essential part of being a Christian. “All members of the Christian faithful in their own way are bound to do penance in virtue of divine law.” (Canon 1249) The Church sees its penitential practice as a fulfillment of the instruction of Christ who said, “If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily.” (Lk 9: 23)

In self-denial we do battle with the Devil, trying to overcome temptation as Jesus did during His 40 days in the desert. In our comfortable, self-indulgent, and hedonistic world, we absolutely need to strengthen our spirits, discipline ourselves, and practice a little detachment. That’s the reason for our Lenten fast and abstinence.

One author wrote, “I think fasting is part of the Christian life. Jesus fasted, and said that His followers would also fast when He was gone. Fasting is a way of deepening dependency, and thus if embarked upon in faith, can deepen our dependency upon God. It helps to remind me that I am a creature, totally depending upon God for everything. Fasting is an act of worship for me.” (Fasting Rediscovered, p. 18-19)

These practices, this self-denial, are especially helpful during the Season of Lent as we immerse ourselves in the process of conversion and reconciliation, as we prepare to share in the Lord’s suffering, death and resurrection. As the Lenten Preface says, the season is intended to “renew us in spirit, purify our hearts, control our desires and so to serve God in freedom, so that we can live in this passing world with our heart set on the world that will never end.”

Spiritual freedom – that’s another way of explaining the purpose of penitential practices. You see we sometimes get so attached to material things, to the things of the earth, that we lose our way; we forget the ultimate purpose of life. Detachment, then, is good for the soul.

So, what are your unhealthy attachments, your obsessions? What hinders your growth in the spiritual life? What should you fast or abstain from? Food and alcohol? Money and material things? Television and technology? Gambling and shopping? Gossip and rumors? Anger and grudges? Unhealthy relationships?

We probably don’t need to sleep on the hard floor, and we certainly shouldn’t wear hair shirts and flagellate our bodies. Let’s leave those practices to the truly holy, the mystics. But we should do something in this Season of Lent to discipline ourselves, strengthen our spiritual lives, repent of our sins, and keep us focused on our eternal destiny.