As you've no doubt heard, it was recently revealed in a book entitled Why He's A Saint that the late John Paul II engaged in acts of self-flagellation in order to do "bodily penance" and move himself further down the path of Christian perfection.
Just for the record, I have nothing against the former Pope. By all accounts, he was an amazing man, and I have absolutely no doubt that he did countless amazing things and touched untold numbers of lives in utterly amazing ways. For example, one of the stories cited in the book recounts the ways in which John Paul quickly began the journey of forgiveness after the attempt on his life. That's remarkable stuff.
But, for the life of me, I can't get the self-flagellation thing. John Paul was right when he apparently remarked to his priests in his annual letter in 1986 that our times are not accustomed to such acts of penance. With all due respect to the Pope, our times are not accustomed to such acts of penance because such acts of penance are not healthy and wholesome and good for people.
Just think about it. If you walked into your bedroom and discovered your spouse or partner engaged in such behavior, you'd be very concerned. If you walked into the room of one of your children or grandchildren and discovered them engaged in such acts of penance, you'd be on the phone with a shrink in a skinny minute.
"What in the world are you doing, son?"
"I'm beating myself to help me become more in touch with Jesus' sufferings and to appropriately punish my body for sin and to discipline myself more deeply along the way to Christian perfection." Yikes.
As you all know, if you've read my Day1 sermons or a couple of my blogs, I have a keen interest in the ways in which religion can be both remarkably helpful and healing to people and sometimes injurious and wounding to people. And, when we lift up unhealthy behavior as a sign of Christian maturity, we do a great disservice to people, especially to whatever impressionable children and youth might fall victim to the message that doing bodily harm to yourself somehow speeds you down the path of spiritual maturity.
Not to mention what I will call the evangelistic implications of this story. As I have said before in my sermon "The Thunk, The Gap, and The Six A's," available in the Day1 sermon library, we Christians have a less-than-stellar reputation in the eyes of much of the world. It doesn't help that reputation for us to tacitly approve the idea that self-harm leads to spiritual maturity. That's why I'm saying something right here. The world knows better about behaviors such as this, and so should we.
Of course, we Protestants don't quite dig the whole sainthood thing. We understand the idea of special people who touch others and profoundly influence the world; we just don't elevate those people in quite the way our Roman Catholic sisters and brothers do. That said, let's assume for a moment that we all subscribe to the saint thing and the idea that such remarkable individuals should be moved into a different category.
In that case, I have no doubt that John Paul did many things to make him worthy of the designation of saint. Beating himself with a belt, however, is not one of them.