The Pope and the Power of Humility

Few events have defined Pope Francis’ young papacy as much as his monumental decision to break from tradition in the Holy Thursday ritual of washing the feet. The moving witness of him bending over and cleaning the feet of twelve marginalized poor (non-Italian) young men and women may be remembered as an important moment in 21st Century Catholicism. Francis’ sacramental gesture—like the event at the Last Supper which it symbolically commemorates—challenges commonly held conceptions of power and greatness.

Francis’ prophetic action at the juvenile detention facility, along with his other notable actions in recent weeks, displays a different style of leadership that hopefully will establish a renewed tone for the church and its relationship to the world. At the core of this renewed “style” is clearly the Christian virtue of humility. If caritas (love) was the virtue that defined the pontificate of Benedict XVI, I suspect that humility will be the virtue to define the pontificate of the first Jesuit pope.

In contrast to popular conceptions of power, Francis reminds us of a deeper understanding of power informed by love of the God who humbled God’s self for us (Philippians 2:8) and the model of Mary whose Magnificat highlights the integrated relationship between humility, greatness, and justice (Luke 1:46-55).

While it may seem counter-intuitive, the Catholic tradition has long stressed the centrality of humility and dependency for genuine strength. Thomas Aquinas, for instance, stresses that greatness or magnanimity is not opposed to humility. Indeed, true greatness, he argues, requires humility and a disposition of vulnerability to God, the other, and the self (II-II. 129.3). 

In both words and deeds, Pope Francis reminds us of a fundamental Christian perspective on power and leadership that is too often lost in ecclesiastical pageantry, consumeristic capitalism, and obsessive patriarchy: real greatness is only possible if one is humble and open to God, oneself and the other. How this style of leadership will impact the life of the church around the world has yet to be seen.

Two Dangers of Humility

As we follow with interest Francis’ witness and teaching on humility, we must be attentive to two dangers. One is that humility will become conflated with humiliation and self-disparagement. Far too often in Christian history, the notion of humility has been misconstrued to oppress and subjugate people and groups—particularly women and minorities (as Valerie Saiving points out). This, however, is an erroneous understanding of this essential Christian virtue. In What’s the Point of Being a Christian, Timothy Radcliffe, OP aptly clarifies the true meaning of humility:

Christian humility is not about feeling that one is a despicable worm. Humility is having a proper respect for oneself….It is liberation from rivalry, from the compulsion to measure myself against other people. Humility gives me a proper ambition for what I can do, freeing me from fantasies of what I am not able to do…Humility is the virtue that gives us back courage, with a realistic understanding of who we are and what we can be with the grace of God (133).

In other words, humility, as the pope recently pointed out in discussing the sacrament of confession, is incompatible with any sense of shame. By contrast, true humility gives us the confidence that compels us to do great things (to be magnanimous) for Christ and his kingdom. As the pope teaches, humility enables us, with the help of grace, to be “signs and tools of life.”  Humility and meekness, Francis preaches in another recent homily, serve as a weapon against the destructive forces of evil in the world.

A second danger is that Francis’ witness and teaching on humility will become domesticated as people seek to relegate the virtue of humility to a special caste of people within the church (religious, popes, Jesuits, priests, etc) and thus ignore the implications of this for all the baptized. In recent days, Francis himself has insisted on the centrality of humility for each and every Christian and not just a select few.

Calling Forth the Church of Yes

The election of Pope Francis comes at a critical moment in the life of the church, when many people would question the “greatness” and power of the church. Many are concerned the church’s loss of temporal, economic, and cultural influence in many parts of the world means a loss of power. This has caused anxiety for many as parishes and schools are closed and priests and nuns begin to be accorded less respect in some cultures. In response, the temptation is to close in on oneself and give into a prideful puritanism or sectarianism. The virtue of humility, however, suggests a different response. Instead of closing in on ourselves, the humble approach acknowledges our vulnerability and dependency on others.

This is not easy. But with the help of grace, we can hold on to a different sense of power that is open to the reality of God and the other. Such a sense of humble power calls us, as the pope recently said, to become a church of yes:

“May we ask the Lord that the Holy Spirit aid us always to become a community of love.  Of love for Jesus who loved us so much”; a community “of the yes which brings to fulfillment the commandments”; may this community ever have “open doors. And may it defend us from the temptation to become – perhaps – puritans, in the etymological sense of the word, searching for a para-evangelical purity, a community of ‘no’. For Jesus asks first of us love, love for him; and he asks us to remain in his love”.

Kevin Ahern is a PhD candidate in Theological Ethics at Boston College.  He blogs at Daily Theology, where this post is also featured.