This is the edited text of the homily given by Archbishop Anthony Fisher OP for the Mass of the Thirty-First Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A, and the ACBC Plenary at Mary MacKillop Shrine, North Sydney on 6 November 2023.
On his way back to his cell just before dawn, Macarius of Alexandria was confronted by a demon dressed as the grim reaper. It cried out in exasperation, “I suffer enormously on your account, Macarius, because every time I try to harm you, I find I’m impotent to do so!” It wasn’t the fourth-century hermit’s incessant fasting or vigils that made him so impregnable. “It’s your humility alone that beats me,” the devil explained.
The dangers of pride and benefits of humility are well attested in the biblical tradition. On one reading pride was at the heart of our first parents’ turn away from God, and of the millions of less original sins committed by people thereafter. Throughout the Old Testament people like Moses are praised for their meekness or humbled in their pride. The father-and-son-team of David and Solomon extolled humility in psalm and proverb. The prophets inveighed against the proud, calling Israel back to humility.
In the New Testament Jesus is sung as God humbling Himself to be our servant, dethroning the haughty and promoting the lowly. He says He is meek of heart, assumes the posture of a slave at supper, humbles Himself even at His triumphal entry into Jerusalem. He tells His followers to humble themselves like a child or servant. And He beatifies the humble and curses the proud. In yesterday’s Gospel, Jesus criticised the hypocrisy of the religious leaders, but also their attention-seeking through broad phylacteries and long tassels, seats of honour and obsequious courtiers, titles of honour and being served by others. He suggests dodging such honours for those who exalt themselves will ultimately be humiliated (Mt 23:1-12).
In today’s Gospel (Lk 14:12-14), Jesus gives the apostles another lesson in humility. It’s one of many, for they apparently needed a lot of formation on this matter, as may their successors. He has just witnessed guests at a banquet jockeying for position. He recommends assuming the lowly places. Now he adds: when hosting an event, don’t just invite your familiars: we are not a tribe. Nor those who will repay you with some other advantage: we are not freemasons. Don’t just invite people who think like you: we are not bloggers in a bubble. Put aside egotism, self-absorption, craving for regard. Obsessing about such things turns others into means to ends, pushes God and the poor to the margins, and demeans should-be saints.
The humility Gospel was further developed in the post-apostolic tradition. St Augustine thought pride the archetypal sin, in which all others participate. Bernard of Clairvaux taught that pride grows incrementally, till we reach a summit of sin and enslavement.[i] Aquinas said pride was about losing our sense of proportion, forgetting our creatureliness and limitations, thinking more of ourselves and less of God and neighbour than we ought. Pope Francis has spoken often of the need to be on guard against the spirit of pride in its many guises, especially when things are going well. When we exchange trust in God for trust of self, he says, the Evil One finds the door wide open, and invades us with a soul-killing, Church-killing worldliness.
Only last Friday the Holy Father celebrated a memorial Mass for Pope Benedict, Cardinal Pell and others who had died in the past year. Once again, he spoke at length about humility. He recalled Benedict’s description of himself after his election as “a humble labourer in the Lord’s vineyard.” He said he thought all Christians, but especially popes, cardinals and bishops, must learn to be “humble labourers: to serve, not to be served, and to put the fruits of the Lord’s vineyard before their advantage. What a fine thing it is to renounce ourselves for the Church of Jesus!”
But bishops and priests can suffer particular temptations in this area. Like the Scribes and Pharisees who came in for such a lashing in yesterday’s Gospel, we can enjoy our sacred power too much or abuse it in various ways. “Look at me, look at me” can feature, or the desire for honour, or a kind of messiah complex. St John Chrysostom said that unless bishops conquer their pride and ambition, they’ll be of little use in reforming the clergy and faithful. St Thomas Aquinas was similarly direct: while bishops are specially graced to carry out their crucial mission, those graces are resisted by their avarice, ambition and seipsos amantes (= narcissism). Pridefulness in bishops, he says, will be judged more harshly by God than that of others. Practising humility and being faithful in prayer are antidotes to this. Synodality, with its emphasis on open-hearted prayer, trusting the Holy Spirit, and listening to others, including the lay faithful, is clearly intended, amongst other things, to be a corrective to vain humours.
None of this excuses abdication of responsibility. Genuine humility does not mean failing of speaking for the Gospel and tradition when it’s called for. Granted, truth is no easy thing to establish or communicate. It often interrogates us and cuts us to the quick regarding our institutions, policies, prejudices, our misinformation, ideologies, behaviour. It can demand an intellectual, moral and personal conversion—which we often resist. Yet guard and develop the truth, preach and teach it, we must—for in all humility we are successors of the apostles.
In our epistle Paul claims that God can use even our own human frailties to make his mercy known (Rom 11:29-36; cf. 8:26; 2Cor 12:9; Heb 4:15-16). After a dissipated youth and practising law for a time, a third-century Berber named Cyprian, by now aged 35, reformed his ways or at least tried to. He was baptised, ordained deacon, priest and, soon after, bishop of Carthage. When Florentius Pupianus accused him of vanity unbecoming a bishop, he responded that his humility was famed across North Africa and he was proud of it! Whether he was being ironic isn’t clear, but he did go on to be famous not just for his humility, but for his charity to the poor, his teaching of pastoral theology, and his courage in the face of persecution and martyrdom. If we are not to give the witness of blood, may we at least be remembered as humble workers in the Lord’s vineyard.