Modern Pope John Paul Used Ancient Ritual of Self-Flagellation

Pope John Paul II, whose world travels helped modernize the papacy, sometimes practiced ancient rituals of self-flagellation, including hitting himself with a belt that he kept in his closet, according to a new book.

The Polish pope would also sleep at times on the hard floor of his Vatican palace and muss up the bed to avoid drawing attention to his ascetic efforts at piety. The practice is intended to remind people of the suffering of Jesus on the cross.

Such rituals, reminiscent of scenes right out of "The DaVinci Code," although practiced by very few Catholics, were revealed in a new book about the late pontiff entitled "Why He's a Saint," written by Monsignor Slawomir Oder. Oder is John Paul's postulator, or the Vatican's main researcher and advocate for having him canonized a saint.

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The pope died in 2005 and his successor, Pope Benedict XVI, has fast-tracked a proposal for his sainthood. Oder has researched his life, collected boxes of documents and interviewed more than 100 people who knew or worked with John Paul.

Among the new book's many revelations: The pope had a mean sweet tooth and an occasional temper.

While it had been rumored that the late pope practiced self-mortification, Oder is the first to confirm it.

"As some members of his close entourage in Poland and in the Vatican were able to hear with their own ears, John Paul flagellated himself," according to the book. "In his armoire, amid all the vestments and hanging on a hanger, was a belt which he used as a whip and which he always brought to Castel Gandolfo," the papal retreat where John Paul vacationed each summer.

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In addition to whipping himself, the pope would sleep on the floor and deny himself food, Oder said at a news conference Tuesday. The book goes on sale today.

"It's an instrument of Christian perfection," Oder said, referring to the efforts at self-mortification, which he said showed a profound link to God and the suffering of the world.

The book emphasizes John Paul's compassion, which, Oder said, was displayed in the moments after he was shot by would-be assassin Ali Agca in St. Peter's Square in 1981.

The pope publicly forgave Agca four days later but "Why He's a Saint" reveals that John Paul forgave Agca almost instantly, pronouncing his forgiveness while in the ambulance en route to the hospital.

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Oder also writes that the pope intended to give a speech about forgiveness, using his own absolution of Agca as an example. In the never-delivered address, John Paul wrote that "the possibility of pronouncing it before -- in the ambulance that brought me from the Vatican to the Gemelli hospital where the first and decisive surgery was performed -- I consider the fruit of a particular grace given to me by Jesus."

Oder speculates that the pope decided against giving the speech "out of prudence" for the ongoing criminal investigation.

When the pope died at 85, he was suffering from Parkinson's disease and had lost the ability to speak before succumbing of sepsis shock and organ failure.

Years earlier, however, he considered retiring at the age of 75, the retirement age for bishops, and becoming an "emeritus pope." The proposal was reviewed by then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who is now Pope Benedict. John Paul never resigned and left the decision in the hands of "providence."

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