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.
Leadership is essential for a healthy and holy Church. From St. Peter to Pope Francis where would our Church stand today without the great and gifted leaders through the centuries?
Leadership in the Church, including local parishes, is not immune from the kinds of temptations leaders face in any institution. Based on my experience, I’d like to consider three temptations many leaders face framed by J.R.R. Tolkien’s classic Lord of the Rings series. It is my hope that understanding and being aware of these temptations will lead to a stronger, more unified Church grounded in the love of Christ.
The Pursuit of Power
“The road must be trod, but it will be very hard. And neither strength nor wisdom will carry us far upon it. This quest may be attempted by the weak with as much hope as the strong. Yet it is oft the course of deeds that move the wheels of the world: Small hands do them because they must, while the eyes of the great are elsewhere.” (The Fellowship of the Ring)
Tolkien’s story relies on some rather homely and “weak” characters—hobbits—to carry out a great task: destroying the magic ring to save Middle Earth. We normally identify leaders by their exceptional strengths and talents. We use popular tools like strength and personality finder tests to help us identify our unique gifts. Using our gifts and talents to build up the Body of Christ is prudent and life-giving, but we should not too quickly assume God only wants to use our human strengths to bless or lead his Church. In fact, God often builds up the Church by using our weaknesses. He entrusted the building of His Church, afterall, not to the rabbis and scholars of his time, but to simple men, fishermen. As St. Paul frequently preached, cross-shaped leaders learn to live first out of their weakness and dependency on the power of the crucified Lord:
“Consider your own calling, brothers. Not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, Rather, God chose the foolish of the world to shame the wise, and God chose the weak of the world to shame the strong… I came to you in weakness… so that your faith might rest not on human wisdom but on the power of God.” (1 Cor 1:26-27; 2:3,5).
Knowing our weaknesses helps us as leaders to not fall into the temptation of the pursuit of power. Christ is glorified in our human weakness and can transform it for the building up of His kingdom.
The Allure of Ambition
“You are so wise and powerful, will you not take the ring?”
“No!” cried Gandalf, springing to his feet. “With that power I should have power too great and too terrible.” (The Fellowship of the Ring)
The allure of the ring is the promise of control, but the great wizard Gandalf understands the power of the ring inevitably ends up controlling the wearer. True leaders develop habits of cooperation and collaboration in ministry and are quick to deflect praise and thanks onto others. Because leaders are in a position to influence outcomes and events, however, some can be tempted to an unhealthy ambition.
Sometimes, it can be tempting to view parish ministry as a stepping-stone to a bigger, better career in the church or name recognition. Unhealthy ambition can also feed a spirit of competition and criticism between churches that undermines our call to communion.
One of my go-to prayers to combat this attitude is called the Litany of Humility. It is a good practice to periodically check our focus and drive. Does our work stem from a love of Christ and His Church? Are we seeking God’s greater glory or our own?
“All that is gold does not glitter,
Not all those who wander are lost;
The old that is strong does not wither,
Deep roots are not reached by the frost.”
(The Fellowship of the Ring)
I had a friend who out of college was given the responsibility of the youth ministry program at his home church. Unfortunately, early on he made a financial mistake that ruined a popular trip and drew harsh criticism from parents and staff alike. Unable to cope with such treatment, he resigned from ministry shortly after.
Rather than seeing failure or mistakes as reasons to give up, these can be seen as important opportunities for growth and maturation. A young church is surely a sign of a healthy and growing church, but that doesn’t make it a mature church. While the freedom to take risks and make mistakes is an indispensable part of learning, leaders should surround themselves with team members who are varied and diverse in their ministry experience.
For those who are relatively new to working for the Church, I suggest finding a faithful mentor or spiritual director with whom you can share struggles and receive encouragement. As Tolkien notes above, the Church needs wise, mature men and women to walk alongside its young, teaching patience and perseverance in order to grow deep roots.
Thanks to many gifted and faithful leaders, our Catholic Church indeed has deep, strong roots. By knowing and understanding a few temptations leaders can face, we can help our Church become more faithful and stronger. Pray for our church leaders, that God may give them the grace to be wise, humble, gracious, and joyful examples of the call to be more obedient followers of Jesus.