There is a word that Pope Francis uses parsimoniously because he knows its true value and he safeguards it, in a contemporary world that often consumes words, overusing them and therefore emptying them of meaning. It is a word which, although rarely uttered, is discretely hidden within and below like an underground wellspring of many papal gestures and discourses. This word is “humility”. It is a virtue that in a way is “fleeting” to the point that it is not contemplated in the usual lists of virtues, an ambiguous virtue that is difficult to understand and easy to misunderstand, somewhat elusive and paradoxical because when one thinks one has it, that is precisely the moment when one has lost it. It makes one agree with Jesuit Father François Varillon, who at the beginning of his essay, The Humility and Suffering of God, stated that only God is humble. Man is not so, except when he is able to admit that he is incapable of being humble. The “success” of humility coincides with his failure.
During Holy Week, this virtue of humility emerged because this is “the time of paradox” par excellence. Last Sunday we retraced Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, an entry that was “triumphal” and in which Jesus travelled on a donkey. On the morning of Holy Thursday, during the long homily addressed to priests at the Chrism Mass, Pope Francis underlined that priests should have a fragrance that is not their own but that of the Spirit, and this is why they have to welcome it: “no longer on the enthusiasm of our hopes and dreams, but on the freedom of our concrete situation. An anointing that penetrates to the depths of our reality, where the Spirit anoints our weaknesses, our weariness, our inner poverty. An anointing that brings a new fragrance: that of the Spirit, not of ourselves…. This happens when we take the mature step of admitting the reality of our own weakness”.
Saint Paul has a compelling definition: humility is truth, that is, it passes through the recognition of one’s own limitations, the fact that man is made of clay, of earth (in Latin humus, from which humanitas and humilitas are derived). In the same homily on Holy Thursday, the Pope spoke of the “Spirit of truth” which is mentioned in the Gospel of John as what “prompts us to look deep within and to ask: Does my fulfilment depend on my abilities, my position, the compliments I receive, my promotions, the respect of my superiors or coworkers, the comforts with which I surround myself? Or on the anointing that spreads its fragrance everywhere in my life”?
On 10 January 1942, Father Primo Mazzolari wrote a letter to his friend, the author Gabriella Neri, in which he said that he was at peace, explaining that the reason behind his tranquillity was that he did not write the Gospels, and that he was merely “the repeater of the word of Another”. To repeat the Word of the Gospel is the mission and the meaning of the life of priests and of all Christians in general. The alternative is not to serve the Gospel but to use it for one’s own aims, in order to exercise one’s own power, and this undermines the innovative mission, which consists precisely in being people who repeat. One year later, in April of 80 years ago, in another letter addressed to a Franciscan friend, Mazzolari stated that saints are always a leaven of marvellous works and can be ‘transplanted’ — they, not their work — to any time, with similar fruits of salvation. I do not know, he continued, whether the same can be said of the ways that we use to imitate them or continue from them because it can happen that instead of committing ourselves to Christ and following his example, we may try to extract some norms from their work, inevitably falling into a spiritual framework which, while giving us the illusion of having, is rarely a novelty or something that makes us new.
Christians are new people. They themselves are that novelty which, like “leaven”, an enzyme, spurs and urges the world, agitating it and giving it flavour like salt. If however, they reduce that novelty to a doctrine, to a law or to the results of their own work, everything is lost, faith becomes a “spiritual framework” to be owned and rigidly implemented rather than becoming incarnate and living. Doctrine, the law, the glory for one’s actions are things that we humans haughtily allow to pour down from above. Once again therefore humility is the right antidote to all these deteriorations.
And humility is also the path for fraternity and thus for peace. The world is “in pieces”, shattered, and it seems powerless to find answers that are not related to weapons, to force. The crisis affecting the political dimension of the West is ever more evident and serious, and it is therefore necessary and urgent to return to politics with a capital P. But it may seem odd that in order to obtain this, there is the need precisely of humility, this tiny virtue. Some believe that politics and humility are not reconcilable, but the contrary is true. Only humble people have that freedom and that courage to dare to creatively travel along unexplored paths. Saint Paul vi’s wisdom is once again precious. In his address to members of the United Nations General Assembly on 4 October 1965, he said: “Not that you are all equal, but here you make yourselves equal. And it may well be that for a number of you this calls for an act of great virtue. Permit us to tell you so, as the representative of a religion that works salvation through the humility of its divine Founder. It is impossible for someone to be a brother if he is not humble. For it is pride, as inevitable as it may seem, that provokes the tensions and struggles over prestige, over domination, over colonialism, over selfishness. It is pride that shatters brotherhood”.
Here then is the gift for which to pray this Easter so that it may be truly holy and generate peace. May it be an Easter in the name of humility.