If you think you've got it, think again
From the moment Jorge Cardinal Bergoglio adopted the name “Francis” the world has seen a pope for whom the virtue of humility is primary. His outward gestures at humility are famous. Rejecting the papal car, he rode back to the St. Martha guesthouse on the bus with his fellow cardinals. The next day he quietly slipped out to pray at the Basilica of St. Mary Major and stopped to pay his hotel bill. The symbolic gestures continued: his permanent residence at the St. Martha Guesthouse, his welcome of trash collectors and cleaners to daily mass, his outreach to the homeless and all those on the margins. These outward gestures preach the gospel of humility in a powerful way to a world hungry for the beauty, truth and goodness of the gospel.
While Francis’ gestures of humility are important, we should stop and ask ourselves what they are really worth. Critics say they are empty gestures. Washing the feet of prisoners, embracing people with disfiguring diseases and reaching out to the mentally ill, the disabled and the poor make for good press and are wonderful photo opportunities, but are they really any more than window dressing? Furthermore, couldn’t it be argued that these very gestures are somewhat showy? Is it really humble to kiss lepers and wash the feet of prisoners if the cameras are rolling? Is it humble to tell the whole world you are living humbly? Wouldn’t it have been more humble to live in the apostolic palace in simplicity as previous popes have done? Are outward shows of humility humble at all?
To make such objections is to misunderstand the prophetic nature of the papal office. One of the main functions of the papacy is that of a figurehead. The pope symbolizes Catholicism as Queen Elizabeth symbolizes all that is best of Great Britain. As the head of the Catholic Church every pope plays a symbolic and ceremonial role through which he incarnates and lives out the values and beliefs of the Catholic religion. Each pope does this in a different way—bringing his own gifts and personality to the task.
Throughout his ministry Pope Francis has been a man of the people. He has lived in a modest apartment, done his own cooking, taken the bus to the office and remained close to the poorest of the poor. It is natural and right that he brings these same gifts to the office of the papacy. The papal office magnifies these gifts and amplifies them to proclaim to the whole world that the primary virtue for all Christians is humility.
It is easy to misunderstand what humility really is. Being submissive and oppressed by another person is not humility. Being falsely pious and lowly is not humility. Being overly scrupulous in religion is not humility and neither is service to the poor necessarily a sign of humility. Humility is an elusive virtue because if you think you have it you probably don’t. Humility is something which can be experienced even if it cannot be explained.
The best way to understand humility is to first understand pride. Pride is the vice that counters humility. We often think of arrogance as pride, but that is only a superficial manifestation of pride. At its heart pride is the attitude that I have done nothing wrong and that there is nothing to apologize for. A proud person believes himself or herself to be okay. They honestly see themselves as good and righteous and not in need of help. A self-sufficient person is proud. A self-righteous person is proud. Anyone who believes himself right and good is proud. The proud person is pictured in the gospel by the person who says, “I thank you God that I am not like that sinner over there…”
If that is the definition of pride, then it becomes obvious that there are very many people in the church itself who are guilty of the worst sin of all: pride. We therefore come to understand that humility is the basic, gut-level understanding that we are not good, not righteous and not okay as we are. Humility is the awareness that we need others. We need grace. We need help. We need God.
Now we come to understand Pope Francis’ emphasis on the poor, the needy, the immigrant and the disabled. Now we understand why he shines the spotlight on the homeless, the AIDS victim, the starving, the martyrs and the murderers. He reaches out to the flotsam and jetsam of society because there he sees humility. There he sees humanity’s need for God. There he sees the gospel in action, for the gospel is the message of God’s good news for those in peril.
By focusing on humility Pope Francis brings the world back to the most basic of gospel truths: that mankind is needy. The human race is hungry for the Bread of Life. Humanity is thirsty for the Water of Life. The human family is poor, and in this essential neediness we find a humble humanity—a humanity desperately in need of the Divine Mercy.
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