Pope Francis has identified Christianity with humility in the age of humiliation.
At the Maundy Thursday Mass, Pope Francis washed the feet of 12 inmates at the Casal del Marmo prison, including the feet of two Muslims and two women.
He said that washing the feet of others showed that “the person who is most high among us must be at the service of the others,” meaning “we have to help one another.”
In what was characterized by Catholic News Service as an “off-the-cuff” homily, he said, “To wash your feet, this is a symbol, a sign that I am at your service.”
When asked by an inmate why he decided to celebrate Mass in a prison, the pope answered that he wanted go “where there are people who perhaps can help me more in being humble, to be a servant as a bishop must.”
During Holy Week, Pope Francis broke with papal tradition by celebrating Mass in a prison rather than at a basilica in Rome – surely another message, in and of itself, of a new wind.
Earlier, he decided to live in the Vatican guesthouse instead of the papal apartments in the Apostolic Palace, wanting to live in the community of priests, bishops and guests.
Before that, he collected his bags, paid his own bill and checked himself out of his hotel – after being elected pope. He rode in a bus with cardinals rather than in the papal limousine.
In so publicly identifying Christianity with humility, Pope Francis has shown the world another way, a way that stands in sharp contrast with the practice of humiliation.
Humiliation is the way of the world, certainly the way of secular politics. At every turn, Democrats seek to humiliate Republicans – and vice versa.
Cable talk-show hosts seek to humiliate ideological adversaries by showing them in their worst moments and with “gotcha” interviews. The Israeli government seeks to humiliate Palestinians with skunk spray and impoverishment.
U.S. secularists seek to humiliate conservative Christians with charges of homophobia, intolerance and ridicule. Some U.S. Christians seek to humiliate the undocumented with the label of criminality – using words like “illegals” or “illegal aliens.”
The list of humiliating practices is probably inexhaustible. Examples of humility are genuinely rare.
Humiliation and humility share a common soil. Both may be traced to the Latin word “humus” or earth. That is something beneath our feet.
To humiliate another is to grind them into the earth. To be humble toward another is to be beneath their feet.
In a way, to be humble is to be connected to the earth, to be grounded in reality, to recognize one’s own finitude. To be humble is to have a sense of dependency on God, others and the created order. To be humble is to be aware of the danger of prideful self-reliance, self-righteous autonomy and idolatrous transcendence.
One could say that the humble are earth-bound.
Jesus certainly connected the humble with the earth: “Blessed are the humble, for they shall inherit the earth” (Matthew 5:5).
And the one who came to earth defined himself as one with a humble heart. Jesus said, “Learn from me … for I am … humble of heart” (Matthew 11:29).
Augustine wrote that the way of Christ was “first humility, second humility, third humility and no matter how often you keep asking me I will say the same over and over again.”
Asked about the instructions of Christianity, he said in the same letter, “I would be disposed to answer always and only, humility.”
If humility is indeed the way of Christ, then why has so little been written about humility and why are examples so few and far between?
Indeed, why does EthicsDaily.com have so few articles on humility?
Thankfully, some contributors have sought to help our readers think more about humility.
Mercer University professor Colin Harris recently wrote a column titled Humility – A Prerequisite for Interfaith Dialogue. Center for Congregational Health president Bill Wilson wrote another column under the heading Why More Congregations Need to Choose Humility. Guy Sayles, pastor of First Baptist Church of Asheville, has a piece – Jesus’ Leadership Model: Servants Over CEOs. David Hughes, pastor of First Baptist Church of Winston-Salem, posted a sermon tilted The Discipline of Humility.
Pope Francis is modeling another way in the world, much as his namesake Francis of Assisi did.
Perhaps the rest of us will be more aware of humility as an alternative way to humiliation.
Robert Parham is executive editor of EthicsDaily.com and executive director of its parent organization, the Baptist Center for Ethics. Follow him on Twitter at RobertParham1 and friend him on Facebook.