THE SERVANT GENERAL
ON POPE FRANCIS
December 14, 2013
Here is the second Advent sermon of Fr. Cantalamessa, preacher
to the papal household. Focusing on St. Francis of Assisi,
we can get a better insight into Pope Francis, who in taking
on his name also identified with St. Francis as to what he
Pope Francis is a true servant leader, and this sermon speaks
about an essential quality of a servant leader, which is humility.
Servant leadership, of course, is one of our Core Values.
In order to become the people God can truly use for His purposes,
we need to grow in such servant leadership.
Fr. Cantalamessa suggests that the success of the evangelization
in which the Church is committed will depend on humility.
Father Cantalamessa on Francis of Assisi's
2nd Advent Homily:
"to prepare ourselves for Christmas in the company of
Francis of Assisi"
ROME, December 13,
2013 (Zenit.org) - Here is a translation of the second Advent
sermon by Capuchin Father Raniero Cantalamessa, preacher of
the pontifical household. Father Cantalamessa gave the sermon
today, continuing with last week's reflection on St. Francis
of Assisi. Today's reflection is titled "Humility as
Truth and Service in Francis of Assisi."
* * *
Objective and Subjective
Last time we saw that
Francis of Assisi is a living demonstration that the most
useful reform of the Church is that of the way of holiness,
which always consists in a courageous return to the Gospel
and which must begin from oneself. In this second meditation
I would like to reflect further on an aspect of the return
to the Gospel, a virtue of Francis. According to Dante Alighieri,
all the glory of Francis depends on his “having made
himself little,” namely, on his humility. However,
in what did Saint Francis’ proverbial humility consist?
all the languages the Bible has gone through to reach us,
namely Hebrew, Greek, Latin and English, the
word “humility” has two fundamental meanings:
one objective, which indicates in fact lowliness, littleness
or poverty and one subjective, which indicates the feeling
and recognition that one has of one’s own littleness.
The latter is what we understand by the virtue of humility.
Mary says in the Magnificat: “He has regarded
the humility (tapeinosis) of his handmaid,”
she means humility in the objective sense, not the subjective!
Because of this, very appropriately the term is translated
in many languages as “littleness”, not as humility.
Moreover, how can one think that Mary exalts her humility
and attributes God’s choice to it without by that fact
alone destroying Mary’s humility? And yet at times it
has been written rashly that Mary does not recognize in herself
any virtue other than that of humility, as if, in this way,
she did herself a great honor, and not instead a great wrong
to this virtue.
virtue of humility has an altogether special statute: it is
possessed by those who think they do not have it, and it is
not possessed by those who think they have it.
Jesus alone can declare himself “lowly of heart”
and truly be so; this, we will see, is the unique and unrepeatable
characteristic of the humility of the Man-God. Did Mary, therefore,
not have the virtue of humility? She certainly did
have it, and to the highest degree, but only God knew this,
she did not. Precisely this, in fact, constitutes the unequaled
merit, of true humility: that
its perfume is received only by God, not by the one who emanates
it. Saint Bernard wrote: “The
true humble person wants to be regarded as vile, not proclaimed
is in this line. In this regard, The Little Flowers refer
to a significant episode and, in its core, certainly historical.
“Once when Saint
Francis was returning from the forest and from prayer, being
on the way out of the forest, the one called Friar Masseo
wanted to test how humble he was, and encountering him he
said almost provocatively: “Why to you, why to you,
why to you?” Saint Francis answered: “What is
it that you want to say?” Friar Masseo said: “I
say why does the whole world follow you, and every person
seems to want to see you, to hear you, and to obey you? You
are not a good looking man in body, you are not of great learning,
you are not noble, why then does everyone want to follow you?”
Hearing this, Saint Francis, altogether overjoyed in spirit
[…] turned to Friar Masseo and said: “Do you want
to know why me? Do you want to know why me? Do you want to
know why the whole world follows me? This I learned that the
most holy eyes of God did not see among sinners any one more
vile, more insufficient, or a greater sinner than me.”
Humility as Truth
humility has two sources of illumination, one of a theological
nature and one of a Christological nature. Let us reflect
on the first. We find in the Bible acts of humility that do
not come from man, from the consideration of his misery or
his own sin, but which have as their sole reason God and his
holiness. Such is Isaiah’s exclamation, “I am
a man of unclean lips,” in face of the sudden manifestation
of the glory and holiness of God in the Temple (Isaiah
6:5 f); such, also is Peter’s cry to Jesus after the
miraculous catch: “Depart from me, for I am a sinful
man!” (Luke 5:8).
are before essential humility, that of the creature who becomes
conscious of himself in the presence of God. As
long as a person measures himself with himself, with others
or with society, he will never have the exact idea of what
he is; he is lacking the measure. “What
an infinite accent,” wrote Kierkegaard, “falls
on the I the moment it obtains God as measure!” Francis
had this humility in an eminent way. A saying that he repeated
often was: “What a man
is before God, that he is, and nothing more.”
The Little Flowers
recount that one night Friar Leo wanted to watch from afar
what Francis was doing during his night prayer in the forest
of La Verna and from a distance he heard him murmur some words
for a long time. The next day the Saint called him and, after
having reproved him courteously for having contravened his
order, revealed to him the content of his prayer:
“You know, friar
sheep of Jesus Christ, that when I was saying those words
that you heard, my soul was shown two lights, one of information
and knowledge of myself, the other of information and knowledge
of the Creator. When I said: Who are you, O most sweet God
of mine? Then I was in a light of contemplation, in which
I saw the abyss of the infinite goodness and wisdom and power
of God; and when I said: Who am I? I was in the light of contemplation,
in which I saw the sad depth of my vileness and misery?”
was what Saint Augustine asked God and which he considered
the height of all wisdom: “Noverim me, noverim te.
Let me know myself and let me know You; let me know myself
to humble myself and let me know You to love You.”
Friar Leo’s episode
is certainly embellished, as always in The Little Flowers,
but the content corresponds perfectly with the idea that Francis
had of himself and of God. Proof of it is the beginning of
the Canticle of creatures with the infinite distance that
he puts between God, “Most High, Omnipotent, Good Lord,”
to whom is owed praise, glory, honor and blessing, and the
miserable mortal who is not even worthy of “mentioning,”
that is of pronouncing his name.
In this light, which
I have called theological, humility appears to us essentially
as truth. “I asked myself one day,” wrote Saint
Teresa of Avila, “why the Lord so loves humility and
suddenly there came to my mind, without any reflection on
my part, that it must be because he is total Truth, and humility
is a light that does not humiliate but, on the contrary, gives
immense joy and exalts. To be
humble in fact does not mean to be unhappy with oneself or
to recognize one’s own misery, or even one’s littleness.
It is to look at God before oneself and to measure the abyss
that separates the finite from the infinite. The more one
realizes this, the more one becomes humble.
Then one begins to enjoy one’s own nothingness, because
it is thanks to it that a face can be offered to God whose
littleness and misery has fascinated the heart of the Trinity
of Foligno, a great disciple of the Poverello, whom
Pope Francis has recently proclaimed Saint, exclaimed when
close to death: “O nothingness unknown, O nothingness
unknown. The soul cannot have a better vision in this world
than to contemplate its nothingness and dwell in it as in
a prison cell.” There is a secret in this counsel,
a truth that is experienced by testing it. One then discovers
that this cell really exists and that one can really enter
it every time one wishes. It consists in the quiet and tranquil
sentiment of being nothing before
God, but a nothing loved by Him!
one is inside the cell of this luminous prison, one no longer
sees one’s neighbor’s defects, or they are seen
in another light. One understands that it is possible, with
grace and exercise, to realize what the Apostle says, which
at first glance seems excessive, namely, to “consider
all others better than oneself”
(cf. Philippians 2:3), or at least one understands how this
was possible for the saints.
be locked in that prison is, therefore, altogether different
from being locked in oneself; instead, it is to open oneself
to others, to being, to the objectivity of things, the opposite
of what the enemies of Christian humility have always thought.
It is to close oneself to egoism, not in egoism. It is the
victory over one of the evils that modern psychology also
judges ruinous for the human person: narcissism. In that cell,
moreover, the enemy does not come in. One day Anthony the
Great had a vision; he saw in an instant all the infinite
snares of the enemy spread out over the earth and, moaning,
he said: “Who then will be able to avoid all these snares?”
And he heard a voice answer him: “Anthony, humility!”.
“Nothing, writes the author
of the Imitation of Christ, will succeed in puffing up one
who is firmly fixed in God.”
Humility as Service
have talked about humility as the truth of the creature before
God. Paradoxically, however, what most fills Francis’
soul with wonder is not God’s greatness but his humility.
In the Praises of God Most High, which are handwritten
by him and kept in Assisi, among God’s perfections–
“You are Holy, You are Strong. You are Triune and One.
You are Love, Charity. You are Wisdom …” -- at
a certain point Francis inserts an unheard of: “You
are humility!” It is not a title put there by mistake.
Francis grasped a most profound truth about God which should
also fill us with wonder.
is humility because He is love.
In face of human creatures, God finds himself lacking in every
capacity not only constrictive but also defensive. If human
beings choose, as they have done, to reject his love, He cannot
intervene with authority to impose Himself on them. He can
do nothing other than respect the free choice of men. One
can reject Him, eliminate Him: He will not defend Himself,
He will let them do it. Or better, his way of defending himself
and of defending men against their very annihilation, will
be that of loving again and always, eternally. By its nature
love creates dependence and dependence creates humility. So
it is, also, mysteriously, in God.
furnishes, therefore, the key to understand God’s humility:
one needs little power to show off, instead one needs a lot
to put oneself aside, to cancel oneself.
God is this unlimited power of concealment of himself and
as such He reveals himself in the Incarnation. One has the
visible manifestation of God’s humility by contemplating
Christ who kneels before his disciples to wash their feet
– and they were, we can imagine it, dirty feet -- and
even more so, when, reduced to the most radical impotence
on the cross, He continues to love, without ever condemning.
Francis grasped this
very close connection between God’s humility and the
Incarnation. Here are some of his fiery words:
“Look, he humbles
himself every day, as when from the royal seat he descended
into the womb of the Virgin; every day He himself comes to
us in humble appearance; every day He descends from the bosom
of the Father on the altar in the hands of the priest.”
“O sublime humility! O humble sublimity, that the Lord
of the universe, God and Son of God, so humiliates himself
as to hide himself for our salvation, under the little appearance
of bread! Look, brothers, at the humility of God and open
your hearts before Him.”
we have discovered the second
reason for Francis’ humility: the example of Christ.
It is the same reason that Paul indicated to the Philippians
when he recommended that they have the same sentiments of
Christ Jesus who “humbled himself and became obedient
unto death” (Philippians 2:5.8). Before Paul,
it was Jesus himself who invited the disciples to imitate
his humility: “Learn from me, who am gentle and humble
in heart!” (Matthew 11:29).
In what thing, we could
ask ourselves, does Jesus tell us to imitate his humility?
In what was Jesus humble? Running through the Gospels we do
not find even the most minimal admission of fault on Jesus’
lips, not when he converses with men, or when he converses
with the Father. This – said incidentally -- in one
of the most hidden but also most convincing proofs, of the
divinity of Christ and of the absolute unicity of his conscience.
In no saint, in no great one in history and in no founder
of religion, does one find such an innocent conscience.
acknowledge, more or less, having committed some error or
of having something to be forgiven, at least by God. Gandhi,
for instance, had a very acute awareness of having on some
occasions taken erroneous positions; he also had his regrets.
Jesus never did. He could say addressing his adversaries:
“Which of you convicts me of sin?” (John
8:46). Jesus proclaims he is “Teacher and Lord”
(cf. John 13:13), to be more than Abraham, than Moses,
than Jonah, than Solomon. Where, then, is Jesus’ humility
to be able to say: “learn from me who am humble?”
we discover something important. Humility does not consist
principally in being little -- one can be little
without being humble; nor does it consist principally in
feeling that oneself is little, because one can feel
oneself little and be so really and this would be objectivity,
but not yet humility -- without counting that feeling oneself
little and insignificant could stem from an inferiority complex
and lead to withdrawal into oneself and to despair, rather
than to humility. Therefore
humility, per se, in the most perfect degree, is not in being
little, it is not in feeling that oneself is little or proclaiming
oneself little. It is in making oneself little, and not out
of some necessity or personal utility, but out of love, to
was Jesus’ humility; He made himself so little, in fact,
to the point of “annulling” himself for us. Jesus’
humility is the humility that descends from God and that has
its supreme model in God, not in man. In the position in which
He finds himself, God cannot “elevate himself”;
nothing exists above Him. If God comes out of Himself and
does something outside the Trinity, this cannot be but a lowering
of himself and a making himself little; in other words, He
will only be able to be humility, or as some Greek Fathers
said, synkatabasis, that is, condescendence.
Francis makes of “Sister Water” the symbol of
humility, describing it as “useful,
humble, precious and chaste.” Water,
in fact, never “elevates” itself, never “ascends,”
but always “descends,” until it has reached the
lowest point. Steam rises and
that is why it is the traditional symbol of pride and vanity;
water descends and is, therefore, the symbol of humility.
we know what Jesus’ word means: “Learn from me
who am humble.” It is an invitation to make oneself
little out of love, to wash, as he did, the feet of our brothers.
However, in Jesus we also see the seriousness of this choice.
It is not in fact about descending and making oneself little
every now and then, as a king who, in his generosity, every
so often deigns to come down among the people and perhaps,
also, to serve them in something. Jesus makes himself “little,”
as “he made himself flesh,” that is permanently,
to the end. He chooses to belong to the category
of the little ones and the humble.
new face of humility is summarized in one word: service.
One day – we read in the Gospel – the disciples
discussed among themselves who was “the greatest”;
then Jesus, “sat down” (so as to give greater
solemnity to the lesson he was about to impart) called the
Twelve to himself and said to them: “If any one would
be first, he must be last of all and servant of all”
(Mark 9:35). He who
wishes to be “first” must be “last,”
that is, must descend, must lower himself.
But then he explains immediately what he intends by the last:
he must be the “servant”
of all. The humility proclaimed by Jesus is,
therefore, service. In Matthew’s Gospel, this lesson
of Jesus is corroborated with an example: “even as the
Son of man came not to be served but to serve” (Matthew
A Humble Church
Let us draw some practical
considerations on the virtue of humility in all its manifestations,
whether in relations with God or in relations with men. We
must not be deluded thinking we have attained humility just
because the word of God has led us to discover our nothingness
and has shown us that it must be translated into fraternal
service. The point to which we have attained humility is seen
when the initiative passes from us to others, namely when
it is no longer we who recognize our defects and wrongs, but
others who do so; when we are not only capable of telling
ourselves the truth, but also of gladly letting others do
so. Prior to acknowledging himself before Friar Matteo as
the vilest of men, Francis had accepted, gladly and for a
long time, to be derided, held by friends, relatives and the
whole country of Assisi as being ungrateful, exalted, one
who would never have done anything good in life.
point we are at in the struggle against pride is seen, in
other words, by the way we react, externally or internally,
when we are contradicted, corrected, criticized or left aside.
To pretend to kill one’s pride by striking it oneself,
without anyone intervening from outside, is like using one’s
arm to punish oneself: one will never do oneself harm. It
is as if a doctor wished to remove a tumor from himself on
I seek to receive glory from a man for something I say or
do, it is almost certain that he who is before me seeks to
receive glory from me because of the way he listens and the
way he responds. And thus it is that everyone seeks his own
glory and no one obtains it and if, perchance, he obtains
it, it is nothing but “vainglory,” that is, empty
glory, destined to be dissolved in smoke with death. However,
the effect is equally terrible; in fact Jesus attributed the
impossibility of believing to the search for one’s glory.
He said to the Pharisees: “How can you believe, who
receive glory from one another, and do not seek the glory
that comes from the one God?” (John 5:44).
we find ourselves snared again in thoughts and aspirations
of human glory, we must throw into the mixture of such thoughts,
as a burning torch, the word that Jesus himself used and that
he left us: “I do not seek my own glory!” (John
8:50). The struggle for humility lasts the whole of life and
extends to every aspect of it. Pride is able to nourish itself,
be it of evil or good; in fact, as opposed to what happens
with every other vice, the good, not the evil, is the preferred
terrain of cultivation for this terrible “virus.”
The philosopher Pascal wrote wittily:
“Vanity has such
deep roots in man’s heart that a soldier, a servant
of armies, a cook, a porter, boasts and pretends he has his
admirers and the philosophers themselves desire him. And those
who write against vainglory aspire to boast of having written
well, and those who read them, boast of having read them;
and I, who write this, nourish perhaps the same desire; and
also, perhaps, those who read me.”
that man “will not rise up in pride,” God often
fixes him to the ground with a sort of anchor;
He puts beside him, as He did to Paul, a “messenger
of Satan to harass him,” “a
thorn in the flesh” (2 Corinthians
12:7). We do not know exactly what this “thorn in the
flesh” was for the Apostle, but we know well what it
is for us! Everyone who wants to follow the Lord and serve
the Church has it. They are humiliating situations through
which one is recalled constantly, sometimes night and day,
to the harsh reality of what we are. It can be a defect, a
sickness, a weakness, an impotence, which the Lord leaves
us, despite all our supplications; a persistent and humiliating
temptation, perhaps, in fact, a temptation of pride; a person
with whom one is constrained to live and that, despite the
rectitude of both parties, has the power to expose our fragility,
to demolish our presumption.
humility is not a private virtue. There is a humility that
must shine in the Church as institution and people of God.
If God is humility, the Church must also be humility; if Christ
served, the Church must also serve, and serve out of love.
For too long the Church as a whole has represented before
the world the truth of Christ, but perhaps she has not represented
sufficiently the humility of Christ. Yet it is with
humility, better than with any apologetics, that hostilities
and prejudices are placated in her confrontations and the
way is smoothed for the reception of the Gospel.
There is an episode
of Manzoni’s The Betrothed which contains a profound
psychological and evangelical truth. Friar Christopher, having
finished his novitiate, decided to ask forgiveness publicly
to the parents of the man that, before he became a friar,
he killed in a duel. The family aligns itself, forming a sort
of Caudine Forks, so that the gesture would be the most humiliating
possible for the friar and of greatest satisfaction for the
family’s pride. But when they saw the young friar proceed
with his head bowed, kneeling before the brother of the man
killed and asking for forgiveness, the arrogance fell, they
were the ones who felt embarrassed and asked for pardon, so
that in the end all crowded around the friar to kiss his hand
and to commend themselves to his prayers. These are the
miracles of humility.
the prophet Zephaniah God says: “I will leave in the
midst of you a people humble
and lowly. They shall seek refuge in the name
of the Lord” (Zephaniah 3:12). This word is still timely
and perhaps the success of the evangelization in which the
Church is committed will depend on it.
Now it is I who, before
ending, must remind myself of a saying that was dear to Saint
Francis. He usually repeated: “Charles emperor, Orlando,
Oliviero, all the paladins reported a glorious and memorable
victory … However, there are now many that, only with
the telling of their feat, want to receive honors and glory
from other men.” He used this example to say that
the saints practiced the virtues and that others seek glory
only by recounting them.
So that I will not
also be of their number, I make an effort to put into practice
the counsel given by an ancient desert Father, Isaac of Nineveh,
to one who was constrained by the duty to speak of spiritual
things, which he had not yet attained in his own life: “Speak,
he said, as one who belongs to the class of disciples and
not with authority, after having humiliated your soul and
making yourself smaller than any of your listeners.”
With this spirit, Holy Father, Venerable Fathers, brothers
and sisters, I have dared to speak to you of humility.
[Translation by ZENIT]
Paradiso XI, 111.
St. Bernard of Clairvaux, Sermons on the Canticle,
XVI, 10 (PL 183, 853).
Little Flowers, chapter X.
4 S. Kierkegaard, The
Mortal Sickness, II, chapter 1, in Works, published by C.
Fabro, Sansoni, Florence1972,
pp. 662 f.
Admonitions, XIX (FF 169); cf. also St. Bonaventure,
Major Legend, VI, 1 (FF 1103).
Considerations of the Sacred Stigmata, III (FF 1916).
St. Augustine, Soliloquies, I. 1, 3; II, 1, 1 (PL
St. Teresa of Avila, Interior Castle, VI dim., chapter
The Book of Blessed Angela of Foligno, Quaracchi,
1985, p. 737.
Apophtegmata Patrum, Antonio 7: PG 65, 77.
Imitation of Christ, II, chapter 10.
Admonitions, I (FF 144).e
Letter to the Whole Order (FF 221).
B. Pascal, Pensees, n. 150 Br.
A. Manzoni, The Betrothed, chapter IV.
Admonitions VI (FF 155).
Celano, Second Life, 72 (FF 1626