Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Unmasking Humility

Twenty Second Ordinary Sunday Year C

At the age of 76 a practically unknown Latin American cardinal, Jorge Mario Bergoglio, became a world-wide household name and a flashy magazine cover star. I’m talking about the latest darling of the media and millions of Catholics worldwide, Pope Francis, named after the saint whose name has become synonymous with humility and poverty. In July this year, Pope Francis ordered that a new life sized statue of him in front of the cathedral in Buenos Aires be taken down, as he did not wish, as reported by one tabloid, “to be a celebrity.” In another version, it was said that he told the priest in charge, ‘get that thing down immediately,’ which sounds more like Pope Francis. I am personally relieved – the fiberglass statue was indeed grotesque, and would have served a better use as a scary pigeon perch than a tribute to the Pope.

But his new found celebrity status is unavoidable - especially as the statue’s removal coincides with the naming of Francis as Man of the Year by Vanity Fair’s Italian edition. The magazine gushed: ‘His first 100 days have already placed him in the category of world leaders who make history. But the revolution continues…’ The announcement was followed by a slew of celebrity endorsements. Openly gay artiste, Elton John commented: 'Francis is a miracle of humility in an era of vanity.’ The new pope’s influence popularity has been dubbed the “Francis effect”; he’s been compared to Princess Diana and called “the people’s pope.” Catholics and non-Catholics alike can be found buzzing about his latest sermon, following his tweets, or act of humility. Did you hear the pope isn’t living in the papal apartments? Did you read the report of how he rode the bus? Did you see Pope Francis pay his own hotel bill after the election? Did you notice the leader of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics carry his own bag onto the plane for his trip to World Youth Day?

So, is he for real? Is Pope Francis truly the humble man that the world makes him out to be? Catholics within the fold of the Church are divided in their opinion. Against the massive tide of popular opinion which would give the new Pope thumbs up, there is also a substantial minority who remains unconvinced, especially the traditionalists, who views his seeming humility as actually being in the service of a cult personality. Cults of personality are not always the direct result of the will of those who become their object. Blessed John Paul II has often been accused by traditionalists as an icon of a personality cult that has obscured a proper understanding of the role of his office and hindered the appreciation of his message. Anyone who has read the teachings of this venerable Pope would certainly agree that his last intention was to become a new teeny bopper superstar. 

Likewise, Pope Francis is constantly being compared with his predecessors. Recently, side-by-side comparisons of the papal styles of Popes Francis and Benedict have become popular across the internet. Often, in heaping praises on the new pope, one tends to cast odium on his predecessors. Ironically, most people who enjoy juxtaposing the popes fail to recognise that comparisons of their dress style or anything else for that matter is tripe & even unfair. What Francis does not intend, we may be sure, is that these signs of humility be used to belittle his predecessors and their legacy. I am tired of hearing it implied that the present Pope’s simplicity and humility are in contrast to the supposed arrogance and luxurious lifestyle of his predecessors. Francis himself has publicly paid tribute to Benedict’s humility several times and some of these supposed differences are mere myths. For example, Pope Francis forsook the papal apartments not because he wished to avoid the comforts of luxury (the papal apartments is anything but luxurious), but to avoid isolation. It’s interesting to note that the first pope who had decided to move into the papal apartments was Pope St Pius X, a pope known for his frugality and simplicity.  St Pius X once remarked, “I have been born poor, I have lived poor, and I hope to die poor!” Ironically, none of the critics noted that Pope Benedict displayed astounding humility in being the first Pope in 600 years to abdicate and to retire to a monastery, hidden from the intrusive eyes of the world. But Pope Francis didn’t miss this and paid tribute to Benedict in these words: “You cannot imagine the humility and wisdom of the Man”

The problem with the world today, a malady which has also infected Catholics from both sides of the political divide, is that we have confused the office of the papacy with the trappings of a cult of personality. Thus for many, the attraction to our current Pope has less to do with the actual virtue of humility than it has to do with the dynamics of a personality cult that has grown around this man, and even around his predecessors. You can argue that it’s wonderful Pope Francis is attracting people to the faith that otherwise would not be attracted to it. And it is. My worry; however, is those very same people will very quickly become disenchanted with the Pope once they realise he’s not just all lover of the poor and Mr. Simplicity. He’s not going to bring about the sweeping ‘reforms’ the progressives seem to generally lobby for. That’s why all this media focus on Francis’ humility seems disingenuous. The irony is that the cultic obsession with the Pope’s display of humility may actually be a distraction from the actual virtue. It’s not the Holy Father whose actions I question, because I truly believe he’s 100% genuine, it’s the intentions of the media and those who embrace him solely for his acts of public humility. It’s not the pope, it’s the press and the people who want to use the Pope’s displays of humility for changing the Church into what they believe She should be. That is what is troubling.

Today’s readings exalt the virtue of humility, not the superficial type that we have seen above, but the real hard type that comes with a hard-line Jesus and a tough form of Christianity. We all know that humility is a Christian virtue but many are often confused as to its meaning. Many people believe humility means self-denigration; in other words, being very critical of oneself, one’s own talents and achievements. The irony is this: whenever we put ourselves down, we actually expect to receive more praises for our achievements. Such humility is undeniably false humility and false humility is a mask for pride. The parable in today’s gospel is not just a lesson for a disguised narcissist to present a false front of self-effacement but rather speaks of every man’s relationship with God, the foundation of true humility. The context of the parable is that of the Pharisees expected to take the best seats for their supposed righteousness and piety, but like the outcast they have to learn that salvation has be accepted as an unmerited gift. Like the Pharisees, sometimes, many want to take the place of God and even act like God. The opposite of humility is the usurpation of the power and authority of God.

Thus, the parable seeks to teach us that humility means recognising one’s total dependence on God. The point of the parable is not that one should take the last place, feigning or with a false sense of humility, in order that he might be honoured. This is not what Jesus is saying. Christian humility doesn’t call one to demean oneself for its own sake. It is a call to recognise one’s total dependence on God and leaves the matter of rank and reward completely to him. The humble man finds favour with the Lord, not because it is a form of reward, but because the humble man allows God to do what he himself cannot do. The humble man veils himself so that the glory of God may be revealed. The Catechism of the Catholic Church defines humility as “the virtue by which a Christian acknowledges that God is the author of all good”  (CCC 2559). Therefore, man is proud when he suggests that he knows better than God (or his Church).  Or that he can achieve and succeed on his own merits.  Or that he, by his own efforts, can reconcile himself with God for sins committed.  Or that he can go through his day without being in His presence.

Christianity is about Jesus Christ. He is at the centre of God’s salvation. Christianity is about following him and declaring our allegiance to him. It is making Christ known and not just self-promotion. Christianity is not about us. It has something wonderful to say to us, but it is not first and foremost about us. It is not man-centred but God-centred and Christ-centred. This is foundational and basic to the practice of the virtue of humility. This is precisely what is so wrong with the cult of personality - it places man on the pedestal and makes him larger than life, in fact so large as to eclipse God.

The Church and its leaders are called to be witnesses to authentic humility and by doing so give service to the cult of God. The self-effacing attitude taught by Jesus in today’s gospel calls us to abdicate our positions of honour so that God may be the sole object of reverence and worship. To the extent that the cult of personality surrounding the modern papacy has been a dangerous thing—and in fact, on occasion distracted the faithful from the substance of the faith—the story of the statue of Pope Francis is a good sign. It indicates the Holy Father's desire that the faithful focus on the message, not on the man; that we look beyond questions of personal style to the substance of the faith, shared and preached by all of the successors of Saint Peter. In a symbolic way, the Pope takes man off the pedestal in order to steer away from the media generated cult of personality, away from the dotting fans, in order that we may refocus once again on the edifice of our faith built and raised in honour of the one Sovereign God. And that, my friends, is humility.

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