Book: John Paul II Whipped Himself, Weighed Retiring

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Wojtek Laski / Getty

Pope John Paul II waves to a crowd in Gniezno, Poland, during a visit to his native country in 1997

A new book by the priest in charge of the Vatican's official case for Pope John Paul II's sainthood is packed with fascinating — and, apparently, meticulously verified — revelations. The one that grabbed most of the headlines was the claim that John Paul whipped himself with a belt, an act of corporal penitence designed to draw the flagellator closer to Christ's suffering, and one that is usually associated with a very distant century, or a Dan Brown novel.

"As some members of his close entourage in Poland and in the Vatican were able to hear, John Paul flagellated himself," writes Monsignor Slawomir Oder, the Polish prelate who collected testimony in his role as "postulator" for the Pope's canonization. "In his armoire, amid all the vestments and hanging on a hanger, was a belt which he used as a whip."

But the book, Why He Is a Saint, also contains a revelation that puts John Paul in a decidedly more modern light and has much deeper implications for the church's future. Oder confirms lingering rumors that the long ailing Pope had approved plans that would have allowed for his resignation from the papacy for health reasons, effectively ending centuries of papal commitment to lead the church until death.

According to the book, John Paul on Feb. 15, 1989 signed a document clearing the way for him to step down if necessary. Five years later, suffering from a growing number of ailments, including the lingering effects of a 1981 assassination attempt, the Pope updated details of the procedure "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." He also charged his then doctrinal chief, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger — now known as Pope Benedict XVI — to investigate the implications for the church of having a living "Pope Emeritus" while his successor tried to establish his reign. The vexed question of papal resignation has become increasingly important as a result of modern medicine's ability to potentially extend a Pontiff's life long past his ability to effectively run a 1 billion-strong global church.

John Paul, as we know, went on to serve for life, despite a very public battle with the debilitating effects of Parkinson's disease. By all accounts, he had all his mental faculties up until his April 2005 death. Still, behind closed doors, top Vatican officials had been debating the implications of John Paul's declining physical condition, including his grave difficulties in speaking. Others have noted that as the Pope became weaker, infighting and maneuvering escalated among some of his deputies. Cardinal Ratzinger never openly questioned John Paul's decision to stay on, though some reports cited his concerns about a potential leadership vacuum.

It is not known whether Pope Benedict, who at 82 is considered in excellent health, has signed any specific new directives about his own succession. John Paul's stance on the issue, however, is largely seen as signaling a green light on papal retirement that Benedict may very well take into account if his own health begins to deteriorate. Conservative Catholic writer Vittorio Messori, who has co-authored books with both John Paul and Benedict, noted that the "canonical" question of resignation was never in doubt, citing Celeste V's decision to step down in the 13th century.

Messori explained that if a Pope decided he was no longer capable of leading the church, he would convoke a Consistory of all the world's Cardinals at the Vatican. After they accept his resignation, the Cardinals would elect a successor, and the ex-Pope would "return to the status of simple priest in some hospital or monastery."

But wouldn't this bring the risk of internal conflict, particularly if the former Pope doesn't agree with the decisions his successor makes? "Look, I loved [Karol] Wojtyla," said Messori, referring to the former Pope's baptismal name. "But if he would have decided to resign, I would have continued to pray for him, but I would have obeyed his successor."

Right now, John Paul fans are praying for his rapid rise to sainthood. Benedict has already waived the five-year waiting period after death to start the process. The next step would be beatification, which some predict will happen in October, once a miracle has been officially attributed to his intervention.

Other eye-opening details of the new book include the fact that in 1981 John Paul forgave his would-be assassin as he was rushed to the hospital after being shot in St. Peter's Square. At first, he believed the gunman had been a member of the left-wing Italian terrorist organization the Red Brigades. (He was in fact a Turkish nationalist named Mehmet Ali Agca, who last week was released from prison.) Also, beyond the self-flagellation, John Paul sought to move closer to God by sleeping on the hard floor of his papal bedroom. The physical suffering he inflicted on himself may in fact help propel him to sainthood faster than anyone before him.