His Holiness Francis, our new pope, was scripted immediately by the selection of his name “Francis” and the impressive action he displayed when he bowed before the cheering crowd and begged for their blessings and prayers. In the simple gesture of a bow, the beginning of his papacy was captured in the virtue of “humility.”
If there is one saint that has dominated the religious landscape in the last 800 years, it is St. Francis of Assisi. St. Francis is the co-patron of Italy; taking the name Francis was a signal to Rome and Italy of his acceptance as their bishop and the leader of the Vatican located in Italy. It was also a sign of his commitment to the poor as St. Francis is noted for his embrace of radical poverty as a living witness to the Gospel.
St Francis’ biographies are replete with stories of his love for the poor, visiting leper houses, hospitals, giving money and clothes to assist the poor and sick. But St. Francis also challenged others to live the essentials of Christianity in a simple manner.
The news media characterized Pope Francis’ humility by the fact that he rode the bus with the cardinals rather than taking the limousine available to the pope. This is secular humility as seen through the eyes of a world that values power and prestige not true religious humility.
It is not whether he would ride the bus rather than take a private car that marks humility. There are good reasons why he should be in a private car. Imagine a pope taking public transportation to a scheduled event. He would never be able to appear at his assigned ceremony. He would be mobbed by everyone who might recognize him.
It is also an important security measure to provide a mode of transportation. Sad to say, even the pope is not free from attacks by deranged individuals or assassination plots, e.g., Paul VI and John Paul II. True humility is found in the attitude of the person who does not demand a limousine and feels very comfortable riding the bus.
The great scholar and religious teacher of Catholic doctrine Jesuit Fr. John Hardon defines humility in his Modern Catholic Dictionary as: “The moral virtue that keeps a person from reaching beyond himself. It is the virtue that restrains the unruly desire for personal greatness and leads people to an orderly love of themselves based on a true appreciation of their position with respect to God and their neighbors. Religious humility recognizes one’s total dependence on God; moral humility recognizes one’s creaturely equality with others. Yet humility is not only opposed to pride; it is also opposed to immoderate self-abjection which would fail to recognize God’s gifts and use them according to his will.”
The attractiveness of a truly humble person is that he is dependent upon God, seeks to serve others with the gifts given by God and sees himself as one with his brothers and sisters. Pope Francis, in this best sense of humility, embodies that virtue.
Recently we released the archdiocesan pastoral letter, “Who do you say that I am?” The topic of the pastoral letter is ecclesiology (the study of church). The themes of mystery, sacrament and communion were selected to reflect an understanding of the church.
All this was planned well over nine months ago. For the last month we have seen the news media’s coverage of the church universal, trying to understand the church’s tradition and governance attempting to come to grips with the faith of more than 1.2 billion Catholics.
There was a fascination with all things papal, especially that six-foot smoke stack which signals that the election would continue (black smoke) or that we had a new pope (white smoke). No matter how hard the secular media tried, a true understanding could not be captured apart from “faith.”
Pope Benedict XVI, in his last address before his abdication, reflected on “Who do you say that I am?” Pope Francis in his first homily reflected on “Who do you say that I am?” Some might say that it is simply a coincidence. But people of faith might look to the guidance of the Holy Spirit listening to what God wants us to hear in this passage. Perhaps the same could be true of the pastoral letter.
Let me offer one other coincidence or message from the end of the pastoral letter addressing Mary as Mother of the Church. The one word she is most acclaimed for is “Yes,” her obedience to God’s will. “Mary also serves as the ultimate model of humility. Do not let the world define, or distort the virtue of humility, which is the cornerstone of all virtue and of sound interior life. Humility is nothing more than an unflinching evaluation of one’s self, with all the limitations that the human condition implies. But the virtue of humility may appear to be passé, dismissed as self-contempt or the unreasonable identification of our personal value with our own imperfections. On the contrary, humility, perhaps the single most significant virtue associated with the Mother of God, involves admitting the truth about ourselves. Fully aware of our weakness and sin, God has chosen us just as we are, and He graciously offers to shower us with his mercy and love.” (Pastoral Letter page 18).
The morning after his election, the new pope visited the Basilica of Saint Mary Major, entrusting his leadership to the Blessed Mother who was given to the church by her Son. Like Mary, Pope Francis responded to the call of the Holy Spirit with obedience, and like Mary, in true humility, he brings his imperfections before God, relying on his love and mercy.
Now, under the direction of Pope Francis, we move forward in the spirit of humility seeking in the name of Jesus to love one another.