Humility is considered by most Catholic theologians as the foundation of all virtues, and second only to charity in its excellence. In our Gospel this Sunday Jesus puts it very bluntly: For every one who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted. Nevertheless, I think we often misunderstand it. What is Christian humility really all about?
A journalist of the Dallas Morning news once wrote of a story that I think brings out the heart of the matter. It was about Frank Szymanski, a center for the Notre Dame football team in the 1940s. He had been called as a witness in a civil suit at South Bend. In one moment of the proceedings, the judge asked him: "Are you on the Notre Dame football team this year?" "Yes, Your Honor.", replied Szymanski. "What position?", asked the judge. "Center, Your Honor." "How good a center?" Szymanski squirmed in his seat, but said firmly: "Sir, I'm the best center Notre Dame has ever had." Coach Frank Leahy, who was in the courtroom, was surprised. Szymanski had always been modest and unassuming. So when the session was over, he took Szymanski aside and asked why he had made such a statement. Szymanski blushed. "I hated to do it, Coach," he said. "But, after all, I was under oath."
Christian humility is exactly this: being able to own up to the truth, and to live accordingly. Humility is not submitting to everything, or pretending that we are less than what we really are. Of course, neither is it the contrary - puffing ourselves up to appear to be more than what we are. Humility is the truth. St. Vincent de Paul described it perfectly: “Humility is nothing but truth, and pride is nothing but lying.” If we are honest, we know only too well how weak we are when we try to be virtuous and generous, and how often we fall into egoism and mean-heartedness. Humility is acknowledging this, and then working, with the grace of God, to overcome it. It is what St. Teresa of Avila called “walking in the truth”.
Jesus’ teachings in the Gospel are not just a clever way of getting recognition at a hoity-toity party. He rather wants to teach us a truth: that everything good that we possess, we have received from God, and that only with the help of God can we achieve lasting good in this life.
May God bless you and your families,
Fr. Bruce Wren, L.C.