“There is more value in a little study of humility and in a single act of it than in all the knowledge in the world.”
— quote attributed to St. Teresa of Avilla
Shortly after Pope Francis’ election, an awful meme went viral on social media, probably done by uneducated folk who don’t know better. This meme featured a side by side photo of Popes Benedict XVI and Francis at the same spot, but sitting in different styled chairs and wearing different styled papal attires. The intention was to highlight Francis’ humility by comparing him with the pomp and luxury of his predecessor.
This came to be at a time when some of Francis’ actions seemed to take the world by surprise. Even on his election day, when he came to greet the faithful for the first time on the balcony, he eschewed the traditional red cape with ermine and appeared only with a simple white cassock instead. Later, he would maintain this toned-down style, even keeping his worn-out black shoes from before the election. He also renounced living in the Apostolic Palace, choosing to live in the guest house of Domus Sanctae Marthae instead.
Bit by bit, Francis relinquished much of the grandiose regalia that the secular world and many common people, unfamiliar with Church history and symbolism, didn’t understand. Since they didn’t understand, they would use it as ammunition to accuse the Church of hypocrisy by living in ostentation while proclaiming a gospel of poverty. Therefore, Pope Francis’ actions caught their attention and increased his popularity among them. Ears that were previously shut were now starting to open.
On the other hand, this seemed to be in stark contrast with his predecessor. There was, in fact, a cliché running around during Benedict’s papacy: “the Pope wears Prada”, in reference to his red shoes. His preference for a more traditional aesthetic (which was viewed as more extravagant) sealed the deal. Pope Francis was now to be viewed as a hallmark of humility, relative to which Pope Benedict couldn’t even begin to live up to.
But is this true, though? When, in 2010, Benedict visited my home country of Portugal, I could hear lots of people (even journalists) murmuring: “Is this really Pope Benedict XVI? The person we heard about in the news? It can’t be! He is so gentle and humble!” These were people who had been brought up as Catholics, but who got most of their information regarding Church affairs from the secular TV and non-catholic Internet.
Later, Benedict would be the first pope in centuries to voluntarily resign the papal office. How could someone who was not humble be willing to bear such a demotion? At that time, almost everyone was praising Benedict’s humility for doing so.
When Pope Francis met Benedict for the first time, he gave him an icon of Our Lady of Humility, and stated that it reminded him of his predecessor, “so humble during his pontificate”. Francis, the standard that was being used to accuse Benedict, didn’t have any doubts about Ratzinger’s humility. Common perceptions about Benedict’s supposed lack of humility… were wrong.
So, if reality conflicts with a given perception, a sensible person should try to re-examine said perceptions, by trying to investigate truth without biases and prejudices. And a sensible person could, for instance, with a little study, discover that the “Prada” red shoes were worn to symbolize how the pontiff walked on the path set before him by the blood spilled by the martyrs. Therefore, by wearing them, Pope Benedict wasn’t showing vanity, but rather humility.
This pattern seems to add up to everything Benedict did, preached and wrote… it even applies to the disingenuous meme I mentioned at the beginning of this article. If we look carefully, Benedict seems to fit very awkwardly into that chair and into those vestments, just like a child in grownup clothes. Benedict doesn’t seem to believe he belongs to that world… and in fact, he doesn’t. Anyone who knows him, knows that before being elected Pope, he longed for a retirement where he could dedicate himself to his books and theological studies.
However, when given the huge task of shepherding the Christian flock, Benedict put all his dreams on hold and accepted the burden. And with the burden, came all the history and tradition carried with it. The cape, the shoes, the chair, the brazenness of centuries of culture and beauty. Someone who looks attentively to Benedict’s posture in the meme doesn’t see someone flamboyantly parading those symbols about… but rather a person that uncomfortably sees those symbols as imposed on him, symbols that seem so much greater than he is.
That he doesn’t give up those symbols, shows his humility all the more. He doesn’t see himself as someone who can just let go of something that doesn’t belong to him, but rather to his office. He sees himself as the custodian of a rich heritage which was bequeathed on him, even though he doesn’t see himself as the one who should wield it. He is humble enough to accept it and try to integrate it into his persona the best way he can. That’s humility, a kind of humility that just flew over the head of the meme-maker, who was probably too concerned with a certain political agenda to notice this.
Now, it seems the corollary for what I just said is that Pope Francis isn’t humble, after all. I mean, if Benedict integrating these heirlooms into his papal persona is a sign of humility, then Francis eschewing them can only mean the opposite, right? After all, the aristotelic principle of non-contradiction says that something can’t be itself and its complete opposite at the same time. If it is humility to do something *and* to not do that same thing, then a person is humble no matter what, making humility a meaningless concept.
However, that’s not the case. The principle of non-contradiction is, indeed, very important to fight against the relativism of this age, but we should be careful not to confuse it with sightlessness to detail and nuance, for it may very well be possible to reconcile different propositions that are contradictory just on the surface.
In this case, Pope Francis didn’t abstain from the papal regalia out of a prideful mindset, like he went on and said: “I don’t agree with the way this has been done for centuries, and I’m in charge, so I’ll change everything according to what I see fit”.
If we go to Francis’ own words, we conclude he didn’t disdain the Apostolic Palace because of its sumptuousness. In fact, he clearly states that the Apostolic Palace is not luxurious. He chose to live in Domus Sanctae Marthae though, because the Apostolic Palace didn’t fit his way of being:
«And then a thing that is really important for me: community. I was always looking for a community. I did not see myself as a priest on my own. I need a community. And you can tell this by the fact that I am here in Santa Marta. At the time of the conclave I lived in Room 207. (The rooms were assigned by drawing lots.) This room where we are now was a guest room. I chose to live here, in Room 201, because when I took possession of the papal apartment, inside myself I distinctly heard a ‘no.’ The papal apartment in the Apostolic Palace is not luxurious. It is old, tastefully decorated and large, but not luxurious. But in the end it is like an inverted funnel. It is big and spacious, but the entrance is really tight. People can come only in dribs and drabs, and I cannot live without people. I need to live my life with others»
On another interview, Francis would show he understands (unlike many who shallowly and demagogically attack the Church for this) that the “treasures of the Church” are not the Pope’s property, but rather “all of humanity’s”.
In other words, his choices regarding style are just that… a matter of personal choice. So, he’s not eschewing the Church’s heritage… he’s just choosing, according to what is his prerogative, what to wear in a way as to fit his style as a Pope. Which is a humble style.
Besides, if he pridefully believed you could only be humble by dumping the regalia his predecessor regularly used, Francis would not have given an icon of Our Lady of Humility to Benedict, for his “humility during his pontificate”.
All of this, coupled with Francis’ clear and objective signs of humility (which they really are), makes it very easy to conclude that he is, indeed, a very humble pontiff.
Again, we reached a seemingly unsolvable conundrum. Reality shows us Francis is humble, so we must accept that reality. But then, how to reconcile two apparently contradictory realities with the principle of non-contradiction? How can *both* Benedict *and* Francis be humble, despite behaving in opposite ways?
The solution here is that the contradiction is only apparent, because the focus is wrong. The OP meme’s error is that it is focused on *external* acts of humility. However, humility is a virtue, so it comes from the heart. It is the *interior* we should be focusing on.
And what we can see is that the *interior* of both these men is humble. We can evaluate it through their external signs, but always remembering that the exterior flows from the interior and not the other way around.
In one case, a humble man received a precious heirloom, which seemed greater than he is, making him uncomfortable. Humbly, he accepts that heirloom, out of respect for his office and for the past of his institution.
On the other case, a humble man receives a wealth of riches to use on his office. Humbly, he renounces them, in order to set an example, for his institution is widely scrutinized worldwide and the salvation of souls hinges on its credibility.
The external acts were different, since the styles of both men are different. But the interior disposition was the same: the virtue of humility.
And this brings us, interestingly, to a great point of contention for current anti-Francis critics regarding Amoris Laetitia. They focus too much on the objective aspect of the sin of the divorced and remarried living more uxorio. For them, living in an objective state of sin is sufficient to judge whether a person is able to receive the Eucharist or not. However they don’t take into account the interior dispositions, the subjective aspect. But just like virtue, sin (namely mortal sin) is an interior aspect, not exterior. And it is mortal sin that makes a person ineligible to partake on the Eucharist.
The anti-Francis critic will claim that Amoris Laetitia is an unsolvable contradiction with previous papal documents. However, as I have shown in this article, such contradictions are merely apparent and can easily be reconciled. Because previous pastoral practices focused on the exterior and Amoris Laetitia focuses on the interior, so they don’t contradict each other, but rather have different focuses.
Now, the only thing that matters is for these critics to show humility themselves, recognize they were wrong by spreading dissent and return to communion with their Church. They have two wonderful men they can look up to in order to know how to be humble.
Pedro Gabriel, MD, is a Catholic layman and physician, born and residing in Portugal. He is a medical oncologist, currently employed in a Portuguese public hospital. A published writer of Catholic novels with a Tolkienite flavor, he is also a parish reader and a former catechist. He seeks to better understand the relationship of God and Man by putting the lens on the frailty of the human condition, be it physical and spiritual. He also wishes to provide a fresh perspective of current Church and World affairs from the point of view of a small western European country, highly secularized but also highly Catholic by tradition.