Tuesday, January 26, 2010

John Paul II and Penitential Practices

“The first brothers and, for a long time, those who still came after them mortified their bodies not only by excessive abstinence from drink and food but even by vigils, the cold, and manual work. They even wore cinctures made of iron and cuirasses if they could obtain them and the roughest hairshirts they could find. That is why the saintly Father, considering that the brothers could become sick from this practice—which is what did happen in a short time to many of them—forbade, in a chapter, any brother from wearing anything on his flesh except his tunic.” (Paragraph 2, Legend of Perugia)

The above reading is from an early biography of St. Francis of Assisi. It came to mind as I read on the National Catholic Reporter website a story about Pope John Paul II and his penitential practices. A book in Italy reports that the Holy Father was known to sleep on the bare floor; and to use a belt as a discipline whip.

Now I know that such penitential practices have a long tradition in Western Christianity. The holiness of a saint was proven by how hard he or she treated their body. Even Francis was known for severe fasting, denying himself sufficient clothing against the elements. But Francis would realize the damage he was doing to himself and would apologize to his body for the rough treatment he put himself through.

For me, penitential practices, such as abstinence and fasting, is to help to discipline our selfish urges, making it possible for us to give of ourselves to God and to our brothers and sisters. It is not to punish ourselves for our sins or the sins of others. God does not desire our suffering; He desires an open heart, ready to receive His love.

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