Humility is not much in vogue these days, even among Christians. The modern world used to scoff at humility as an outdated remnant of a “slave morality” (that is, Christianity); and it’s no coincidence that humility is usually associated in our imaginations with silence, or at least with restraint in speech. A man may on occasion be too proud to speak to someone he knows, but the truly proud man has little trouble rising to his own defense—whether he is in the right or in the wrong.
But our discomfort with humility today is not simply a result of a decline in Christian belief, or a sense that silence connotes weakness rather than strength. The reality is that the spirit of the age has made obsolete the very idea that humility is a virtue. Everything is measured in terms of size and scale: from television audiences to Facebook “friends.” In comparison with disaster-relief operations measured in scores of millions of dollars, the Parable of the Good Samaritan feels pretty penny-ante. Bigger, we now know, is always better; get big or get out.
And yet Christ, after humbling himself to accept birth in a manger, could have chosen to appear simultaneously to every man, woman, and child then alive to let them know of the gift of salvation that he had won for them and for us. Instead, he sent the eleven disciples who had humbled themselves enough to remain true to him to preach the gospel—in person—to all nations, and to accept, with humility, their own deaths in imitation of his. Maybe, just maybe, there is a lesson there.
On November 18, my wife and I had the privilege of attending the beatification of Fr. Solanus Casey, along with 60,000 of our closest friends. The size and scope of the beatification Mass, held at Ford Field in Detroit, was impressive and, on the surface, quite the opposite of humble. Yet the humility that characterized the life of Fr. Solanus suffused the proceedings, providing a stark contrast to the sports events, concerts, and political rallies normally held in that venue.
Although some were simply attracted to a once-in-a-lifetime event, many others among the thousands who descended on Ford Field that day were there because Fr. Solanus, who died sixty years ago, had touched their lives or the lives of people they loved. A Capuchin, Fr. Solanus was a man under obedience who did as his superiors ordered. A simplex priest, he could say Mass but was forbidden from delivering doctrinal sermons or hearing confessions. A native of Wisconsin, he spent his religious life in New York City, Detroit, and Huntington, Indiana, far from his family. Yet, as he once reflected, “What does it matter where we go? Wherever we go, won’t we be serving God there?”
Father Solanus did not worry about reaching as many people as he possibly could; he worried simply about the person who stood before him at the door of St. Bonaventure Monastery in Detroit or St. Felix Friary in Huntington. Some days, he received a steady stream of visitors or phone calls from dawn to dusk. He gave advice when asked, but he spent much of his time simply listening. He urged those who sought him out humbly to trust in God, in Christ, in the Blessed Virgin. Thousands claimed to have been healed through his intercession while he was alive, but he never took credit for any healing, and he urged those who sought his intercession to “thank God ahead of time” not just for a hoped-for cure but for any sufferings they might endure. When we humble ourselves in gratitude to God, graces greater than any miraculous healing may flow from our sufferings.
“For every one who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted” (Luke 14:11). Facebook and Twitter will one day fade away, and Google Analytics will crumble into virtual dust, and any house built on the sand of pride and popularity will fall; but the word of the Lord will remain true. Fr. Solanus humbled himself, as the newborn Christ did, and because he did so he has now been raised to the ranks of the blessed.
Father Solanus did not set out to change hundreds of thousands of lives, but to change one life at a time, starting with his own: “If we strive and use the means God has given us, we too can ascend to great sanctity and to astonishing familiarity with God, even here as pilgrims to the Beatific Vision.” Inspired by his life let us thank God in advance for the virtue of humility.