Humility in the Life of the Priest
The virtue, marked with honesty and authenticity, is fulfilling
Kevin Vost 0
The benefits of humility are becoming increasingly recognized even in the secular world. Distinguished psychologists Christopher Peterson, Ph.D., and Martin Seligman, Ph.D., include a chapter on humility in their well-received psychological handbook from 2004, “Character Strengths and Virtues” (American Psychological Association, $79.50). They begin by describing common misconceptions of humility in our modern secular world. They note that “humility and modesty are easily misunderstood in the contemporary United States, where we are encouraged to be full of pride and brimming with self-esteem and self-importance.” Indeed, they feel the need to make clear that “to be humble and modest does not entail self-derogation or self-humiliation,” and further, that “these traits do not mark a person as a loser, a shrinking violet, or a depressive.”
Business professors Edward Hess and Katherine Ludwig call humility “the new smart” in their book, “Humility Is the New Smart: Rethinking Human Excellence in the Smart Machine Age” (Berrett-Koehler Publishers, $29.95). They, too, address typical misconceptions of humility in the current U.S. culture, including the idea that humility means “being meek or being subdued or thinking that you’re not a worthy person.” The authors believe this derives from common synonyms including “lowliness, meekness, and submissiveness — characteristics that would seem to be the antithesis of achievement and success.”
The psychologists cut through the misconceptions and explain that the character trait of humility is marked by “honesty and authenticity,” is “fulfilling,” and is “associated with acceptance of oneself and an appreciation of one’s place in the larger world.” It “is highly valued, if not always in ourselves then certainly in others,” and, indeed, “this character strength elevates others.”
The business professionals wrote that humility is the “hero” of their story on how to succeed in a rapidly changing electronic business world, calling humility “the gateway to human excellence.”
The humble do not rest on their laurels as the world passes them by. Rather, they remain ever ready to learn new things from others, new ways of looking at things and new ways of getting new jobs done. Such humility not only leads to all kinds of earthly benefits for the humble themselves, but it also enables them to rise and do good for those whom they love.
As we get down to the really important business (so to speak), we should examine the nature of humility itself. Humility is a virtue intimately tied to truth and reality. According to St. Thomas Aquinas, humans experience truth when our conceptions or beliefs about reality correspond to or match with reality itself. A person with true humility will certainly not be overconfident in abilities he or she does not possess, but neither will he or she lack confidence in the God-given talents he or she truly does possess — and has worked diligently to cultivate over time (for practice is required to perfect any virtue).
One of humility’s most basic roles is indeed to literally “ground” us in reality. Our English word humility derives from the Latin humilitas, which itself is related to humus, meaning earth, ground, land or soil. Humility’s connotations of lowliness are thus quite accurate — humility is, in a sense, as low as the dirt beneath our feet! So then, just how does “lowly” humility rate as among the most important and desirable of all human virtues? Good question. Here’s a first attempt at an answer.
When we act humbly, exercising humility, we recognize our true place in the hierarchy of God’s universe. Recalling that the word humility is related to humus, we should consider that the very word human is related to it as well! Indeed, though we were formed from the lowly soil, we are exalted above all animal and plant life on earth. And yet we were created a “little” lower than the angels (cf. Ps 8:6), and we are infinitely lower than the God who created us all.
Humility has been called the foundation of all the virtues, since, recognizing the reality of how little we can do on our own, we are in the best position to ask for and receive God’s graces, recognizing that, as St. Paul declared, “I have the strength for everything through him who empowers me” (Phil 4:13).
We find that humility, though lowly and meek, is anything but weak — a veritable spiritual Atlas that not only holds up the earth on its back, but which helps us grasp hold of God’s “mighty hand and outstretched arm” (Psalm 136:12) that makes any burden light. Humility would not have us bury our talents under the ground, but would have us multiply whatever talents God has bestowed upon them. Humility does not oppose magnanimity (greatness of soul), but undergirds it. Humility recognizes our own natural weakness, as magnanimity recognizes our potential to obtain boundless strength from God. Rather, it is not humility, but pusillanimity, a timid smallness of soul, that buries our talents and dims our light.
In his great work on humility, Father Cajetan Mary da Bergamo wrote: “In paradise there are
many saints who never gave alms on earth: their poverty justified them. There are many saints who never mortified their bodies by fasting or wearing hair shirts: their bodily infirmities excused them. There are many saints too who were not virgins: their vocation was otherwise. But in paradise there is no saint who was not humble.”
Humility, then, stands ready to open the pearly gates of heaven to every priest and to every parishioner under his care who stands ready to cultivate its earthy soil. And, of course, Jesus himself called us to enjoin its cultivation as he did.
Humility and Love Yoked Together with Christ
Twentieth-century Thomist Father Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange crafted a graphic of a spiritual temple image built upon a solid rock, who is Jesus Christ. It depicts humility as the base of the temple. Humility provides the foundation for the moral virtues, especially the four cardinal virtues of prudence, justice, fortitude and temperance, that hold secure the doors (cardo being Latin for “hinge”) that lead to a host of other virtues and gifts of the Holy Spirit. Indeed, humility is also the base upon which pillars of the loftiest of all virtues rest, the God-infused theological virtues of faith and hope, with charity (or love) the greatest and most enduring of all virtues, as the overarching dome.
Let’s note that this spiritual temple of virtue is founded upon humility and crowned at its apex by charity. When asked the greatest of all the commandments, Jesus answered “You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your being, with all your strength, and will all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself” (Lk 10:27). These are commands of loving charity from God himselfm who “is love” (1 Jn 4:8).
Jesus told us, also: “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart; and you will find rest for yourselves. For my yoke is easy, and my burden light” (Mt 11:29-30). Here is our benevolent call to grow in humility like Christ.
Among my favorite exegeses of this text is this brief observation from Cistercian abbot St. Aelred of Rievaulx: “Yes, his yoke is easy and his burden light; therefore you will find / rest for your souls. This yoke does not oppress but unites; this / burden has wings, not weight. This yoke is charity. This burden is / brotherly love.”
In Persona Christi
What a high honor and awesome responsibility is borne by every priest ordained to act in persona Christi by giving to oneself and one’s flock the body, blood, soul and divinity of Jesus Christ himself in the Eucharist. What a high honor and awesome responsibility to mirror Christ’s love and humility in one’s mundane, day by day, interactions with others. From the perspective of this layman, priests are certainly worthy of honor and respect, as we rightly employ honorable titles such as “Reverend” or “Your Excellency” to priests or bishops, and by employing terms of endearment, so to speak, like “Father” and “Bishop” (from episcopus, for the person who watches over and guards us).
Being blessed to know many humble priests, I might offer the suggestion, especially to new priests, not to allow humility to underestimate the potential impact of your words and behaviors on your parishioners. Perhaps some parishioners’ eyes will glaze over during a homily. (I recall decades ago hearing the Protestant preacher Norman Vincent Peale say that it did not bother him to see someone sleeping during his preaching, in that he was happy they could feel so relaxed and comfortable in his presence!) You can rest assured though, that the smallest of one-on-one interactions mean a great deal to most parishioners, so please do not think it would not make much difference for you to reach out, say hello and share a word with a shy or a lonely parishioner.
In “Humble Strength: The Eye-Opening Benefits of Humility” (Ascension Press, $18.95), I conclude with 50 very simple suggestions, gleaned from the wisdom of the Church to grow in humility while sharing Christ’s love with others. They are meaningful behaviors when coming from anyone, and when coming from a priest displaying the humility and love of Christ is the simplest way. I’ll conclude with a sampler of five of them:
• Be willing to say “I don’t know,” even if asked about something in which you are considered an expert. (And for priests, this would also entail seeking out the answers, if asked about the teachings of the Church!)
• Cultivate docility by recognizing that virtually every person you meet may have lessons to teach you about humility and other important things in life.
• Acknowledge the God-given dignity of every person you happen to meet, be it out on the street, in an elevator or in a grocery store. A simple hello or even a smile tells that person you know that he or she matters (and this can be especially valuable when coming from a priest).
• Even if you should be as old as I am, take a lesson from 24-year-old Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati. The next time you go to a social gathering, keep your eyes peeled for a person who appears lonely or sad, go over there, strike up a conversation and treat that person as gently and humbly as Christ would (and do not hesitate to share a moderately mirthful laugh or two, too.)
• Here is a tough one to conclude: The next time a person insults you or harms you, think of some way you can perform a small act of kindness toward them, even if you do it anonymously. Either way, you can be sure St. Martin de Porres will look down upon you and smile.
Thanks be to God for humble and loving priests!
KEVIN VOST, Psy.D., is the author of “Humble Strength: The Eye-Opening Benefits of Humility” (Ascension, 2022).
Read more in ‘Humble Strength”
In Kevin Vost’s book “In Humble Strength: The Eye-Opening Benefits of Humility” (Ascension, $18.95) readers will grasp that humility isn’t self-hatred, but rather knowing your truest self through God’s grace. With Scripture passages and wisdom from the saints, “Humble Strength” shows Catholics:
• What humility is and isn’t.
• Practical steps for growing in this virtue.
• The psychological aspects and benefits of humility.
• How humility can conquer fears.
• Humility’s foundational role in building virtue.
• The way humility can help Catholics avoid sins.