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The 22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time
September 1, 2019

     Pope Francis came to mind as I reflected on today’s scriptures. The teaching from the Book of Sirach, “The greater you are, humble yourself the more” could have been written about him, and so could the gospel parable about avoiding places of honor.  Humility is the thread that runs through those readings, and in many ways it’s the thread that runs through Pope Francis’s ministry. Elton John, probably not much of a Pope watcher, called Pope Francis “a miracle of humility in an era of vanity.” That says it well. And it’s true – and refreshing - I think most of us would agree!

     We like his simple, down-to-earth ways, his no-frills lifestyle without the papal palace, the ostentatious outfits, the royal throne, the chauffeured limousine. We like his easy approachability, his everyday language, his common touch, and we like his remarkable willingness to admit his mistakes. In a word, we like the way Pope Francis has redefined the papacy in terms of humble, selfless service.

     Now I’m sure you know that the humility I’m talking about is not the pious posturing which sometimes passes for humility. Charles Dickens’ insufferable character, Uriah Heep, comes to mind. No, true humility has nothing fake or false about it. The word itself has its origins in a Latin word - humus - which gives us two of our English words: humus and humor. A humble person knows that he comes from the humus, the dust of the earth, and will return to it, and a humble person has a sense of humor - never taking himself too seriously. Humble people can laugh at themselves because they know who they are and where they’re headed – headed for glory – not because of any personal merit. Only because of God’s grace.

     Given its importance and its greatness, it’s too bad the virtue of humility is generally held in such low esteem and that people too often settle for counterfeits.  In a homily he gave some 1600 years ago, St. Augustine spoke compellingly about humility. “For those who would learn God’s ways,” he said, “humility is the first thing, humility is the second thing, humility is the third thing.”  To that I would add: how hard it is to learn God’s ways!  Learning God’s ways means gaining perspective on who we are and who God is: letting go of pretensions about our importance, our achievements, our entitlements, acknowledging that any good we do is really God’s doing – for the simple reason that any gifts we have are God’s gifts.

     That’s a far cry, isn’t it, from those self-important people in the gospel parable who seized the places of honor at table. But why shouldn’t they?  They were only claiming their due. They were important, so important that it never crossed their minds that someone even more important might show up. How wrong they were; and how great their embarrassment must have been. Of course, Jesus didn’t tell the parable to help people avoid embarrassment; he told it to teach a lesson about humility. Don’t imagine yourself to be great or important, he was saying, because there will always be someone greater or more important than you. And, besides, any importance you may have achieved is not your doing, it is God’s!

     Back to Pope Francis.  Not only does he embody humility, he also beautifully embodies the other teaching of Jesus in today’s gospel. If you want to learn humility, Jesus says, spend time with the humble – with the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And that’s, of course, exactly what Pope Francis delights in doing – whether it’s the prisoners whose feet he washes each Holy Thursday, or the homeless people he invites to celebrate his birthday with him, the disabled and disfigured people he goes out of his way to embrace, or the people out on the margins he challenges us to reach out to, including gay people about whom he famously said, “who am I to judge?”

     Pope Francis often likes to challenge us by asking, “When you give alms do you look into the eyes of people you are giving alms to?  If not, you have not reached out to them. You have just tossed them some charity and gone away.  When you give alms, do you touch their hands or just toss them the coins?  If you just toss them the coins, you have not touched them. And if you have not touched them, you have not truly reached out to them.”

     Well, I must confess that got me to examining my conscience! It’s one thing to give a handout, it’s quite another to meet, to truly encounter, a poor or needy person. Too often, I think I may settle for the handout. But maybe not the next time.

     The pattern for all this, of course, isn’t just Pope Francis.  The pattern is first of all Jesus who humbled himself to become one of us.  And when it comes to Jesus, it is we who are the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind.  We are! And in the Eucharist, Jesus never settles for giving a handout. No, he reaches out to us – whoever we are - in our sinfulness, our brokenness, our unattractiveness - touches us, embraces us, loves us, and even takes delight in being in our company!

     My friends, what Jesus lovingly does for us at this and every Mass we celebrate, may we also do when we leave this place to find him out there! 

Father Michael G. Ryan




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