Knowing Our Place in The World – Twenty-second Sunday in Ordinary Time 2019
The Book of Sirach cautions us to perform our tasks with humility. As is his habit, Jesus uses a parable to drive home the point: Whoever exalts self will be humbled, and whoever humbles self will be exalted.
One of the words that has been used a lot to describe Pope Francis is the word humility. What is humility? It might be helpful to name some of the words we use for its opposite – pride, vainglory, self-centredness, and narcissism.
I knew a man who ended a long narcissistic monologue by saying, “Well, enough about me! What do you think of my sweater?” I hoped he was teasing, except everything I knew about him told me he was rooted in an obsession with himself and his self-importance. He could have benefitted from C.S. Lewis’s reminder that “humility is not thinking less of yourself, it’s thinking of yourself less.”
Humility is rooted in human self-awareness. It is presenting one’s real self to others, not some projection. The humble person is honest and knows herself and her imperfections and sinfulness. She knows that she is utterly dependent on God and others. The humble man has a modest estimate of his worth.
The word humility is taken from the Latin humus, which is translated as “soil” or “ground.” So, when we speak of Pope Francis being humble, we are saying that he is lowly, close to the earth, close to those around him. Saint Francis of Assisi is often held up as a model of humility. Recent studies on leadership show that leaders who possess humility are usually quite effective. The research suggests that humility includes self-understanding and awareness, openness and perspective taking. Pope Francis seems to fit the profile.
Most of us do not aspire to be humble. We usually prefer places of honour and respect to positions that are humble. That is why Jesus offered that parable from today’s Gospel. Thomas Merton said, “Pride makes us artificial and humility makes us real.”
If Pope Francis had changed his personality on the first night after his election, that would have been artificial. We are seeing the reality of this man. He is bringing his own personality to a role that is traditionally filled with pomp. That is not him.
Humility is a tricky quality. One can never claim to be humble. To do so is to be filled with pride. Only others can state that someone is humble. It is probably a struggle for Pope Francis to hear himself described as humble. If the words of people go to his head, he could start believing it and slip into pride. I can aspire to it, yet such ambition is probably a form of pride. Far better to pray to God for the grace to be open to his desires for me.
There is a good definition of humility from the African American poet Maya Angelou. “Humility is knowing your place in the world. It’s understanding that you are not the first person who has ever done anything important.” Pope Francis is no fool. He knows his place in the world and is at ease with it.
PLEASE NOTE: Due to a computer error, the blog item – Knowing our Place in the World was originally wrongly attributed to me instead of to the real author – Philip Shano, SJ. – A correction has been made. My apologies.