Several days ago I had the privilege of presenting a series of workshops for the diocesan congress of the Diocese of Fresno. This annual event brings together clergy and religious, professional and volunteer ministers, and young adults from around that diocese for a time of formation, catechesis, and renewal. It was a wonderful event and one that I hope more dioceses will plan in the coming years, especially because it gave the participants an opportunity to engage new ideas and develop new skills for ministry.
During one of my presentations, I spent time discussing humility with the participants. Sadly, I was reminded that “humility” is a word that isn’t looked on too kindly in our world today. In fact, when many people hear words like “humility” and “humble” they immediately think of “humiliation” or of becoming a doormat to be walked on by someone else. That’s truly an unfortunate perspective because, as St. John Cassian observed, “Humility is the mother of all the virtues.”
So, then, what is humility?
Humility comes from the Latin word humus, which simply means “earth.” And, in a sense, this tells us all that we need to know about this great Christian virtue: to be humble means that we remember our “earthiness.” Or, to say it another way, it is to accept and admit who and what we are.
When God made Adam, God formed him from the dust of the ground. And while Adam recognized God as his Creator, God saw his creation as “good.” Humility, then, isn’t about being down on ourselves. To be humble means that we recognize that each of us is God’s beloved creation—his children—and that we rely on God’s goodness and mercy every moment of every day as we journey through life. Humility, however, also means that we admit that each of us is a work in progress. Every man, women, and child is made up of diverse gifts, talents, graces, and virtues, but each of us is also in need of forgiveness and mercy for the times when we have made bad decisions, given in to temptation, and sinned. Humility is the virtue that allows us to recognize that we are equal in the sight of God, who loves each of us and continuously invites us into a deeper and richer relationship.
Humility is at the core of the Gospel we will hear proclaimed this coming Sunday as Jesus tells us about two men—a Pharisee and a tax collector—praying in the temple. In a brilliant play on words, Jesus observes that the Pharisee “took up his position and spoke this prayer to himself, ‘O God, I thank you that I man not like the rest of humanity” (emphasis added). His prayer—offered to himself and not to the God who created and sustained him—was a tribute to his self-righteousness and also showed that he had no understanding of humility. The tax collector on the other hand, a public sinner and social pariah, “stood off at a distance and would not even raise his eyes to heaven … and prayed, ‘O God, be merciful to me a sinner.’” Jesus ends the lesson with words we know well: “Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”
This coming Sunday marks the Church’s annual celebration of World Mission Sunday. This is a day set aside each year to focus on the call that each of us has to be missionaries—evangelizers—in the world today. In his Message for World Mission Sunday, Pope Francis reminds us:
“All of us are invited to ‘go out’ as missionary disciples, each generously offering their talents, creativity, wisdom and experience in order to bring the message of God’s tenderness and compassion to the entire human family. By virtue of the missionary mandate, the Church cares for those who do not know the Gospel, because she wants everyone to be saved and to experience the Lord’s love. She ‘is commissioned to announce the mercy of God, the beating heart of the Gospel’ (Misericordiae Vultus, 12) and to proclaim mercy in every corner of the world, reaching every person, young or old.”
As we reflect on this call, we also remember that humility is essential for everyone who wants to share the good news of God’s mercy and love. We can only proclaim mercy and love when we recognize that we ourselves are loved and forgiven by our Creator God. There is no place for pride and arrogance in the Christian life and there is certainly no place for exclusivity and judgment, as we saw in the “prayer” of the Pharisee.
So, as we prepare for World Mission Sunday, offer a prayer of thanks for the gifts that God has given to you and reflect on how you can put your gifts, talents, and skills at the service of the Gospel!
Br. Silas Henderson, SDS
Almighty ever-living God,
increase our faith, hope and charity,
and make us love what you command,
so that we may merit what you promise.
Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son,
who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever.
—Collect for the 30th Sunday in Ordinary Time. Excerpt from the English translation of The Roman Missal © 2010, ICEL. All rights reserved.