Yesterday, the world was made aware of yet another reason that Venerable Pope John-Paul II should be advanced to the altars. Msgr. Slawomir Oder, in his book, Why A Saint? revealed spiritual aspects of the late Pope’s spiritual life previously unknown. Namely, John-Paul practiced acts of penitence and self denial in his pursuit of a deeper understanding and relationship with the suffering Jesus.

While often portrayed incorrectly in treatments by the secular media, Catholic acts of self-mortification, penance and self denials are part of the accumulated traditions of the Catholic Church‘s spiritual heritage. Traditional acts of penance and fasting are often overlooked by Catholics except during the required days of strict fasting and abstinence from meat during the penitential season of Lent. However prior to the reforms of the Second Vatican Council, abstinence from meat was a universal practice for Catholics globally every Friday. In addition to abstinence, the Eucharistic fast before the reception of Holy Communion was not always the one hour regulation which we observe today. Part of the reforms of the Second Vatican Council, Pope Paul VI initially introduced a fast before Holy Communion that was three hours before reception of the Sacrament. That replaced the previously more stringent fast that was observed from midnight prior to reception of the Holy Eucharist, where medications and even water were included as part of the abstinence before Communion. The practice of the fast before the reception of Holy Communion in our contemporary Catholic Church allows Catholics to exclude medications and water from the regulations of the Eucharistic fast.

In addition to fasting, the tradition of acts of self denial has always been part of the Church’s depository of spiritual practices. For most Catholics, such acts of self denial are usually reserved for the penitential season of Lent. For example, Catholic of the 20th century would frequently deny themselves certain foods, such as sweets and candies during the Lenten period, so as to “make sacrifice” for their sins and offenses. The practice is still common today, and this author knows of many Catholic that, “give-up” certain dietary items for Lent such as candy, potato chips, alcoholic beverages in preparation for the great celebration of Easter. Other acts of self denial include activities such as refraining from watching television during Lent, prolonged days of fasting during the season and other small acts of denial. The revelation of Pope John-Paul’s habit of occasionally sleeping on a hard floor rather than in a comfortable bed is another example of self denial consistent with the Church’s admonitions and traditions.

Most strikingly the revelation that the late Pontiff employed the technique of auto-flagellation, namely striking oneself with a leather strap or other instrument is the most revealing point of John-Paul’s spirituality. Most Catholics are familiar with the movie, The DaVinci Code, where a monastic member of Opus Dei is shown flagellating himself with a scourge and even drawing blood. This portrayal of self-mortification as part of the Catholic spirituality is keenly exaggerated in the sensational blockbuster for Hollywood’s purposes. However, self-mortification, such as striking oneself with a whip over the back and shoulders has frequently been a part of the spiritual journey for those that want to associate themselves more closely to the sufferings of Christ on His journey to the cross. The actions of self mortification more closely highlight the physical suffering of Christ’s Passion and Death. The Catholic that engages in this activity experienced a heightened sense of awareness of the Passion and in a mystical and spiritual manner participates in Christ’s suffering.

Pope John-Paul’s spiritual activities of self -mortification, self-denial and penance were never intended for public revelation on the part of the former Pope. However, these activities have only come to public scrutiny during the process the Church has developed in declaring an individual as a Saint of the Catholic Church. Catholics need to appreciate the spiritual development and activities of individuals as they seek to participate more deeply in the mystery of Christ’s suffering. These individuals are seeking a heightened sense of spiritual awareness that unites them more closely to the Church and Jesus Himself.

Revelations of the late Pope’s spirituality that included self-denial and mortification are clearly indicative of the deeply intense spiritual relationship that was unfolding in John-Paul’s life, pontificate and teachings. While largely attributed to spiritual forefathers known for their mysticism and sanctifying activities, the individuals we call saints practices forms of self-denial and self-mortification in pursuit of perfecting their spiritual lives. The work by Msgr. Oder clearly shows the remarkable nature of John-Paul’s life that was part of his unseen persona and an integral part of his spiritual life.

Revelations of activities that promote spiritual discipline and aspirations of a deeper union with Christ in a mystical manner only highlight and accelerate the call for John-Paul’s canonization and proclamation as a Saint. Perhaps a deeper understanding and appreciation of this man’s search for personal holiness serves as an exceptional example of how we are all called to live a Catholic life deeply searching for a deeper relationship with the Church, the Mystical Body of Christ and unity with the Pascal Mystery.

John-Paul II…Sainthood NOW!

Hugh J.McNichol is a Catholic author and journalist writing on Catholic topics and issues. He attended Saint Charles Borromeo Seminary in Philadelphia, where he studied both philosophy and theology. He writes frequently at http://verbumcarofactumest.blogspot.com & http://nothing-left-unsaid.blogspot.com . Hugh writes about his Irish Catholic upbringing and educational experiences at http://graysferrygrapevine.blogspot.com . He has contributed works to Catholic News Agency, Catholic Online, The Irish Catholic, Dublin, the British Broadcasting Company, London and the Philadelphia Bulletin, Catholic Exchange, Pewsitter.com, Blogger News Network & The Catholic Business Journal and Wilmington Examiner. Comments are always welcome at hjmn4566@gmail.com.

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