Thursday, March 14, 2013

A Humble Pope Is Teaching: Are We Listening?

Humility is a word that is being used a lot these days.  In the days preceding the papal conclave, if you live in Boston, you heard a lot about Cardinal Sean O'Malley and his humility.  In the twenty-four hours after the conclave, we have heard a lot about Pope Francis' humility.  It's kind of a difficult thing to figure out because if your humility all of a sudden gives you celebrity status and everyone is talking about how humble you are, it starts to feel to me like it is a little . . . well . . . not so humble.  So, for instance, whenever a newspaper columnist is trying to talk about Cardinal Sean's humility, they inevitably say something like, "Eschewing the ornate cardinatial attire, Cardinal Sean humbly wears a simple brown habit and sandals."  From this, the reader is apparently supposed to conclude that all of the cardinals who wear red must not be as humble.  But, and I think Cardinal Sean would be the first to agree, there are many priests who wear sandals who are filled with pride and many priests who wear shoes who are very humble. 

Similarly, the media is making a big deal out of the fact that Pope Francis went to his hotel this morning to pay his bill.  (And, I like that story too!)  They are all saying this shows how humble he is.  But, the very fact that it attracted so much media attention complicates things.  In other words, how can public acts of humility still be considered humble if they attract so much attention and accolades? 

I ask these questions not because I doubt their humility, but to understand how this all works.  And, I think it has something to do with the nature of public persons and the importance of symbols.  For instance, Jesus probably suffered many humiliations in silence in his life, but at some point, he washed the feet of the twelve apostles.  In a sense, Jesus publicly "showed off" his humility.  He did something publicly that symbolized his interior humility.  He did this in order to teach a lesson.  "What I have done, so must you do."  That quasi public act of humility was recorded in the Gospel of St. John and is repeated at the Holy Thursday Mass each year.  The liturgy considers it important for the people (and the priest) to see the priest publicly performing an act of humility.  It doesn't make the action less humble because it is performed publicly.  But, the public nature of the act is really intended to remind everyone of the interior necessity of imitating Christ in his humility.

Similarly, I'm not particularly interested in the pope paying his bill at the hotel or Cardinal Sean's choice of wardrobe.  I'm only interested in the lesson that those things intend to teach us about the Christian life.  Presumably, neither the Cardinal nor the Pope do those things so that everyone can talk about how humble they are!  But, they nonetheless do them.  As teachers, they need to teach not only in word, but also in deed.  And so, those public moments of humility are really intended as signs pointing to something beyond their own personal humility.  If the terminating point in these acts was for people to say, "Gee, isn't he humble," then that would really be a spiritual disaster!  Instead, the terminating point in these acts is the person of Christ and his Gospel.  These acts of humility are intended to bring people closer to the Gospel by removing any potential obstacles.

Those public acts of humility that are seen by all are really just small indicators of something that is far more profound and interior.  I've seen public acts of humility that simply reveal the beauty of what true humility is.  For instance, Pope Benedict XVI's resignation.  Yes, Pope Benedict wore fancy liturgical vestments and was the POPE!  One month ago, he decided to go and spend the rest of his life in quiet prayer for the sake of the Church.  That's humility!  Cardinal Sean's brown robe really doesn't mean much to me.  But, if you are ever at a gathering with Cardinal Sean, you can't help but notice that he often fades into the background.  He's not the center of attention and is happy to have it that way.  That's humility.

One of the things that I like about Pope Francis' election is that nobody was really talking about him before it all began.  I like that he was from Argentina and has spent his whole life there.  As little bits of background begin to come out about him, there is one story that I am particularly curious about.  Apparently, he was the provincial of the Jesuits for a period of time and, much to the dismay of many under his authority, he led the Jesuits in a manner faithful to the Church and didn't allow the community to go astray.  At the end of his faithful service as provincial, they banished him to a small high school to teach chemistry!  I'd like to know more about that experience in his life.  What was in his soul at that moment?  I imagine it was an opportunity to grow in true humility.  Fidelity to the Christ is its own reward.

Oftentimes, when people talk about Cardinal Sean's robes or Pope Francis cooking his own meals, they do so as a way of saying, "Cardinals, Popes, and priests should be more humble."  Fair enough. We should be.  But, so often they say this in a very prideful way.  Those who often talk about these things do so as if they were spiritual masters who are up to the task of telling everyone else how humble they should be.  On the contrary, Pope Francis, Cardinal Sean, and many other humble people don't go around telling others that they should start being more humble.  Instead, the Pope, the Cardinal, and others follow the path of the one who is truly humble, the one who took on the form of a slave, was born in the likeness of men, and who humbled himself to die on a cross. They teach others to be humble by just being humble.

When the Pope or the Cardinal performs some public act of humility, it is not so others will say, "Look how humble he is."  And, it is not so that hypocrites can go around pointing the finger at some perceived lack of humility present in others.  Instead, these public acts of humility--which arise from a profound interior humility--are a . . . humble . . . reminder to ALL OF US of Christ's command: "What I have done for you, so you must do." 


  1. Father Barnes,
    I could not agree more. I would go one step further to say we need our beautiful rituals to keep us looking up. I also contend that the media would like to turn our Holy Father into a social activist, a communist. What they write means nothing to me. I love Pope Francis, the Vicar of Christ. I believe the media is, not surprisingly, trying to strip him of his supremacy by making him out to be a Ghandieque/ Dali Lama (no disrespect intended, they are good men) personality, something they admire; he is NOT, he is the Vicar of Christ. Let us not be confused. He was chosen by God.
    Thanks Father.....

  2. by the way....
    when I was watching a clip from Mass out of the Vatican this morning I had a thought; do you think we could have one line for communion that has a kneeler, from time to time, to receive the Blessed Sacrament from a priest?