Contemporary Western culture seems to promote nothing but pride these days; it insists that only those who are proud, selfish, and disobedient can effect change or succeed in life. But salvation history and the lives of the saints tell us a different story—namely, that pride is the downfall of mankind, and that humility is what ultimately exalts us.
Humility is a difficult virtue to embrace because it is such a quiet one and is often mistaken for what it is not. In his Summa Contra Gentiles, St. Thomas Aquinas describes humility thus: “Truly, the virtue of humility consists in this, that one keep himself within his own limits; he does not stretch himself to what is above him, but he subjects himself to his superior.” Being humble does not mean debasing yourself and refusing to acknowledge that you have any gifts or talents whatsoever—and some would argue that in fact, such an attitude is actually hidden pride! The truly humble man understands that he is not the greatest at anything, and that while he is better at something than others might be, his gift ultimately comes from God and is to be used for the glory of God, not for personal accolades. The prime example of this is the Blessed Virgin Mary. She was a young woman without wealth or powerful connections, and yet her submission to the will of God altered the course of human history and opened the door for the divine Messiah to enter the world He would one day redeem. She did not attempt to argue that she was utterly unworthy of the grace bestowed on her, but rather submitted with her humble fiat, “May it be done unto me according to your word.”
The truly humble man knows his own limitations—he submits to the authority not only of God and of the Church, but also to the legitimate authority of the government and the workplace. A humble man does not go looking for opportunities to gain power and prestige. He dies to himself for the sake of others—he harbors no resentment when others’ work is extolled while his goes unnoticed, and he uses those moments of humiliation to draw closer to Christ. The humble man continues to use his gifts even if no one but God is going to see or acknowledge them. And when his gifts and accomplishments are acknowledged by the world, the humble man turns that praise back to God instead of focusing it on himself. The humble man does not need to project an Instagram-perfect image of his life to the rest of the world: he accepts that he is a work in progress, can admit when he is wrong, and can accept criticism with grace.
Sometimes true humility seems impossible to achieve. Because we are fallen creatures wrapped up in ourselves, we have to constantly work toward selflessness. One method of doing this is by praying The Litany of Humility. This prayer asks Jesus to deliver us from desires and fears fueled by pride—from the desire of praise, to the fear of being wronged. But the beauty of this litany is that it not only asks that we be freed from our pride, but it also asks for the grace to desire that others may be better than we are, loved more than we are, holier than we are. True humility is not downplaying our own roles, but is setting aside our own desires so that others can rise higher and do more for Christ than we ever could. It’s being the Andrew to someone else’s Peter and the Barnabas to someone else’s Paul—calling forth someone to the good or encouraging their potential, even if means that person becomes greater than ourselves.
Matt Maher has his own take on the Litany of Humility in his song “Every Little Prison.” What I like about Maher’s version is that he adapts the prayer to be more recognizable for the modern Christian. Pride takes many forms in this era of Instagram followers, Facebook “likes,” and the 24-hour news cycle—we spend time “wondering if I am relevant and liked” and “wanting to be seen.” Ultimately, humility requires us to turn to God instead of other things and to trust in him, in his mercy and his wisdom, rather than becoming slaves to our fears of being judged, or of not being loved, or of having to let go. By praying for freedom from the prisons created by pride, may we live more confidently in the love of God and in doing his will.
The beginning of summer is an exciting time. The school year may be done, and more leisurely activities may be planned, but for the ministry of a local church, the work never stops. The sacraments must be administered, the Holy Mass must be celebrated, the sick and dying must be cared for, and those with life’s burdens and clouds of uncertainty must be consoled: the sacred works of ministry never cease. As even our Lord observed, “The harvest is abundant but the laborers are few; so ask the master of the harvest to send out laborers for his harvest.” God calls upon certain men to embrace a unique vocation of humble sanctity, service, and obedience as priests. As such, seeing the result of years—even decades—of discernment and spiritual formation come to fruition is a cause of immense jubilation for a local church. Ordination day, then, gathers the diocese to happily witness the sacred rite through which the bishop consecrates these men into priestly service. And how wonderful such an occasion is— especially for those who have walked with these men—as new spiritual life is breathed into the church.
While recent scandals might cause some to worry or be wary, the celebration of priestly ordination serves as a reminder that God remains with us and never ceases in caring for the needs of his Church. The sinful actions of a few do not negate the sanctity and solemnity of a call to holy priesthood; the standard remains high even though some have acted beneath it. The saying “God is good, all the time; all the time, God is good” serves as a simple but handy reminder of His faithfulness, which is manifested in the ongoing call for certain men to care for the immense needs of His people. As Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York observed:
Is that not good news? Aren’t you tired of hearing about priests who are trouble? Aren’t you fatigued about hearing of priests in scandals? Aren’t you kind of weary [hearing] about priests that have been removed? Don’t you get a little discouraged when you hear about the vocation crisis? Now, all of those are realities; we don’t need to run from them, but I don’t know about you, but I see six new priests who are enthusiastic and eager and raring to go. That gives me a lot of hope and a lot of encouragement. And it’s going to be a high honor for me to ordain them.
Discerning how to answer God’s calling to a vocation in your life is an ongoing process, but this does not mean you need to wrestle with it alone. The Church has a wealth of resources to aid in beginning to answer the questions regarding vocational discernment. Spiritual direction is a common method—whether in person or through a treasure trove of books and reflections which have been produced through the centuries and for a Church which has faced a whole spectrum of challenges and threats. God remains with us through it all!
Other means of discernment include retreats and talks offered by dioceses and religious communities. And this is also true for those who may be discerning marriage as a vocation. In Holy Scripture, priesthood can be traced back to the Levite tribe of the Israelites, but the family unit is often modeled after the Holy Family, the highest ideal. No matter what your calling in life, God has sanctified it and calls us all to best apply our lives to the service of others through our vocation.
Just as the United States has recently commemorated Memorial Day and the countless who have died answering the call to fight for and defend our rights and freedoms, we as a church can come together to appreciate and love our priests, who live to serve the Body of Christ. They have heard and answered the call of the Most High God and trusted in Him to illuminate the path they have been destined to follow in service. They walk with us in faith to celebrate the sacramental life of the Church and comfort those who seek consolation and peace. In supporting our priests and religious—who can be found in parishes, hospitals, cemeteries, battlefields, and schools—we can celebrate with them as their numbers increase during ordinations so as to aid in the beautiful works of holy ministry.
For more resources on Vocational Discernment, please click here.
In my prayer life recently, God has been speaking to me a lot about obedience. Obedience to Him, to my family, to my job, to my responsibilities. Perhaps it is because I’m not very good at some of my responsibilities, or maybe it is a call to become more in tune with and to pray for God’s will.
In today’s Gospel (Mark 1:40-45), Jesus heals a man who comes to him asking to be cleaned of his leprosy. Upon healing him completely, Jesus says, “See that you tell no one anything, but go, show yourself to the priest and offer for your cleansing what Moses prescribed; that will be proof for them” (Mark 1:44). Instead, the man “began to publicize the whole manner” where it made it “impossible for Jesus to enter a town openly” (Mark 1:45).
How often are we disobedient like this man? How often has Jesus told us something that we missed completely? How often have we placed our desires and actions above what God wills for us? By his choice to disobey Jesus, instead of exalting God, the healed man exalts himself. The Catechism tells us that “sin sets itself against God's love for us and turns our hearts away from it” and that sin is “opposed to the obedience of Jesus.” When the healed man ignored Jesus’ directions, it furthered him from fully understanding God’s love and mercy for him. For us, too, when we sin and choose to follow our will over the Lord’s, we distance ourselves from God’s love.
How can we know God’s will for us? It is not always so easily stated to us as it was to the man who was healed of his leprosy. To know God’s will, we must pray with open and patient hearts. Pope Francis recommends that we pray for the desire to follow God’s will, to know his will and to follow it. The saints are also great models of teaching us to pray and love God’s will for us. They are in complete union with Jesus in heaven because they learned to desire, love, and follow God’s will for them throughout their earthly lives. Look to any saint, and they will show you obedience. For example, St. Maximilian Kolbe was martyred, taking the place of a man who was to be killed in Auschwitz. Before that, his writings show that his prayer life was repeatedly focused on knowing the will of God. St. Maximilian Kolbe said, “Obedience is the one and the only way of wisdom and prudence for us to offer glory to God... Let us love our loving Father with all our hearts. Let our obedience increase that love, above all when it requires us to surrender our own will. Jesus Christ crucified is our sublime guide toward growth in God’s love.”
St. Maximilian Kolbe’s words and sacrifice point us towards obedience, and teach us that obedience helps us to grow in God’s love. So perhaps my prayers that are revealing obedience as a theme are leading me to stretch my heart to know and share God’s love. Through obedience, I can know Christ’s peace and mercy—the same love he felt when the man with leprosy came to him; the same love he felt when he died on the cross. It is my prayer that as the desire for obedience touches my heart, you too may know the love and joy that comes from asking God to desire his will, know his will, and follow his will.
Questions for Reflection: What are some ways you can grow in obedience to God’s will this year? Are there any saints who inspire you by their willingness to follow Christ?
Alyce Shields is a teacher in Washington, D.C.