Papal Humility

With Pope Francis’ election in March, the world has been overwhelmed by his humility and simplicity. The distance of six months can help us reflect a little bit on what started it: Pope Benedict XVI’s resignation announcement of February 11, and two big actions indicate that Benedict’s humility is also profound, calling for meditation on this virtue for all of us.

It is extremely rare for anyone holding power to give it up freely. Most world leaders have had it taken from them, either by death, military defeat, electoral defeat or public embarrassment. A Pope hadn’t freely surrendered the papacy in centuries, and never one who was in full possession of his faculties and who was working well. The last Pope to abdicate, Gregory XII, did so to end a schism, and the last to do it from his own volition, Celestine V, was an extraordinary holy man who probably should never have been elected, and only served 5 months. It would be a stretch to call Benedict at the height of his powers, but his mind is still clear even though his body is getting weaker.

The ability to recognize that strength wasn’t enough and lay everything aside took great courage and great humility. It’s a great temptation to think “they can’t do this without me,” but Benedict had the wisdom, self-confidence and faith to know better. It’s also clear he didn’t think “they’ll be better off without me.” When leaving a job, finding that balance to respect the work that’s been accomplished while handing to another’s care is delicate and challenging. From what I saw I think Benedict found that balance.

Some speculated how much influence he’d continue to have from his retirement, how often he would appear. He’s kept out of the spotlight, and now I don’t think anyone would accuse him of trying to manipulate events from his converted monastery on Vatican Hill.

The second great act of humility Benedict gave us this year is turning his last encyclical over to his successor. As an author, it’s bad enough letting my work go to an editor even though all of us generally need one. For those of us involved in creative or scholarly endeavors, the idea of handing something we’ve worked and fretted over for someone to finish in our lifetime is like handing over a child for someone to finish raising. It was expected Benedict would turn his last encyclical into a personal work and publish it under his own name later this year, and no one would have objected if he’d done that. The announcement Francis would take it up was a bit surprising, however in the end it’s a powerful statement not only of faith but continuity.

Benedict was interested in the preferential option for the Poor as well, although no one during his papacy seems to have amplified that message. Sandro Magister tells this story in a recent article on Pope Francis (that I’ll link on Friday):

It was during his third and last voyage in Germany, in September of 2011. In Freiburg, pope Joseph Ratzinger wanted to meet with a representative group of German Catholics “active in the Church and in society.” And to them, as also to the bishops of Germany who were present almost in their entirety, he serenely addressed words of deadly severity, extremely demanding. Entirely focused on the duty of a poor Church, “stripped of worldly wealth,” “detached from the world,” “freed from material and political burdens and privileges,” in order to be able “to dedicate itself better and in a truly Christian way to the whole world.”

So then, that discourse of his met with a chilly reception and was rapidly hushed, in the first place by those to whom the pope had addressed himself. Because precisely at them he had taken aim with precision, asking for a change: at that German Church which he knew very well: wealthy, satisfied, bureaucratized, politicized, but poor in the Gospel.

Balancing passionate commitment with humility is very difficult. We can get tempted to dive deeper into our ego in so many ways, especially if we given stewardship of a larger project that not only benefits many, but also plays into what we think are our God given strengths. It’s tough to be completely committed to what we’re doing right up to the moment we hand it over, then to walk away into the silence. In this year, Pope Benedict XVI has given us a profound example of humility, modeling Christ’s self emptying that Philippians 2: 5-11 speaks of so eloquently,

Have among yourselves the same attitude that is also yours in Christ Jesus,
Who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God something to be grasped.
Rather, he emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
coming in human likeness;
and found human in appearance,
he humbled himself,
becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross.

Because of this, God greatly exalted him
and bestowed on him the name
that is above every name
that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,
of those in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue confess that
Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.

I hope the papal humility that’s been shown us this year by Popes Benedict and Francis will give us a lot of food for contemplation in the years to come.


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