The late Pope John Paul II, who has been put on the fast track to sainthood by the Vatican, regularly whipped himself as an act of penance to feel closer to God, and signed a secret document saying that he would step down as pontiff if he became incurably ill, according to a new book.
"Why a Saint?" by Monsignor Slawomir Oder, the Vatican "postulator" in charge of the canonization process, says the Polish-born Pope performed self flagellation as a bishop in Krakow and continued to do so in the Vatican after being elected Pope in 1978.
"In his wardrobe, among his vestments, there hung on a clothes hanger a special belt for trousers which he used as a whip," Monsignor Oder says. He said self flagellation was "an instrument of Christian perfection" emulating the sufferings of Jesus Christ.
He added that in Poland the former Bishop Karol Wojtyla often slept on the bare floor to practice self-denial and asceticism, often disturbing his bed in the morning to pretend he had slept in it and so avoid drawing attention to his act of penitence.
The fact that John Paul whipped himself in "bodily penance" was first revealed last November by Sister Tobiana Sobodka, a Polish nun who worked for Pope John Paul in his Vatican apartment and at the papal summer residence at Castel Gandolfo in the hills south of Rome.
In "Santo Subito" (A Saint Now) by Andrea Tornielli, the Pope's biographer and Vatican correspondent of Il Giornale, Sister Sobodka, who belongs to the Order of the Sacred Heart of Jesus said “We would hear it –- 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."
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.” Saints who flagellated themselves include St. Francis of Assisi, St. Teresa of Avila, St. Ignatius of Loyola, Mother Teresa and St. Thomas More.
Last month Pope Benedict XVI recognized John Paul II’s "heroic virtues," a step towards beatification, which is expected in the autumn after the Pope has approved a miracle attributed to John Paul involving a French nun inexplicably cured of Parkinson's disease after praying to him. This will then be followed by canonization, which requires proof of a second miracle.
Monsignor Oder confirms that in 1989 John Paul, who suffered from Parkinson's disease, prepared a document stating that he would resign "in the case of infirmity which is presumed incurable, long-lasting and which impedes me from sufficiently carrying out the functions of my apostolic ministry." Popes are normally elected for life.
The last Pope to step down voluntarily was Celestine V in 1294. Pope John Paul asked Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, then head of the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and now Pope Benedict, to study the theological implications of papal resignation.
The book also says John Paul forgave Mehmet Ali Agca, his would-be assassin, in the ambulance on the way to the hospital moments after he was shot on May 13, 1981, in St. Peter's Square. Agca was released from prison in Turkey this month and has vowed to pray at John Payul's tomb in Rome.