[Ordinary of the Mass]
speaks to what may well be the most important Christian virtue of them all—the
virtue of humility. Many people, on hearing this parable for the first time,
are confused by it. The Pharisee seems to be the good man, and the Publican the
sinner—by each one’s own admission. But what our Lord is concerned with is not
just who does good and who does not, but with the attitude which they display
The Pharisee is
proud and boastful. He seems to be telling God how lucky He is to have such a
fine follower. We somehow know that he attributes his good behavior to himself,
with no help from God or anyone else. He is filled with the vice of pride.
Let me be clear
that what I am referring to as “the vice of pride” is an inordinate
belief in one’s own good qualities and general goodness. This does not extend
to such things like pride in one’s workmanship—a good Catholic should not make
shoddy junk! It does not extend to reasonable pride in one’s appearance—it is
reasonable to wear clean clothes and to comb one’s hair before going out in
public or when spending quality time with one’s family. Of course it might be
inordinate pride to spend hours before a mirror for the purpose of looking
prettier or more handsome than all of one’s friends. But making reasonable and
proper use of one’s gifts and abilities—even if they are very great—is not
The real root of
pride is in thinking that one is better than he actually is—or that his talents
and abilities are solely his own achievements, with no need of God or of other
people. The man who sees himself as being innately superior to the people
around him is sinfully prideful—not to mention being destined for disappointment
when reality sets in.
man—the hated tax collector in our parable, for that what a publican
is—acknowledges his defects and asks God to forgive him for any of them that
have been sinful. The humble man has no illusions of innate superiority, and
acknowledges that whatever talents he has come from God, perhaps with the
assistance of other men.
doesn’t mean being mediocre. The great musicians all recognize their dependence
on God given gifts, as well as the influence of the works of composers of
previous decades and centuries. Likewise the great scientists acknowledge their
debt to previous generations. “Nanos gigantium humeris insidentes—Dwarfs
standing on the shoulders of giants” is a phrase attributed to the philosopher
Bernard of Chartres. Isaac Newton quite humbly made use of it to assure his
rival that his great discoveries in optics were made possible because of the
earlier work of Descartes, and of Robert Hook (who was, himself, the rival).
Humble modern day men of science have to admit their debt to a long line of
scholars, including Aristotle, Galileo, Newton, Kepler, Einstein, and so forth.
Many of the notables, like Pasteur and Einstein are on record of seeing the work
of God through their research, particularly in the order that He imparts to
nature, thereby making science possible.
“God does not play dice with the
something of a pantheist—humble, but not a Christian. But we have the Catholic
example of Louis Pasteur. The charming story is told of an old man riding on a
train alone, praying his Rosary. A young man enters the compartment, expresses
surprise that anyone would waste his time praying, and proceeds to spend the
rest of their time together explaining how modern science explains everything,
and that none of his professors believe in God or religion. The old man listens
kindly, is unconvinced, but doesn’t even presume to display his superior
knowledge of “modern science.” He remains polite even though he is dealing with
a fool. The young man volunteers to send him some books that would be
“Very well,” said the old man, preparing to leave as the train came to a stop.
“You may send them to this address.” And he handed the young man a card, which
Director of the Institute of Scientific Research,
Pasteur was the humble sort of man who wouldn’t even think of trying to enter an
argument by boasting of his own superior qualifications. Handing the young man
his calling card was a gentle way of deflating the young man’s ego without
inflating his own.
Note that humility does not keep a great man from doing great things—be he a
scientist, a musician, a statesman, an architect, or just a great man among the
common folks. Humility just makes a person give credit where credit is due.
The great man knows what he does well and has no hesitation in doing it as well
as he is able. He also knows when to admit his limitations and to ask the help
of those better qualified than he.
This morning’s epistle is instructive.
Saint Paul wrote to the Corinthians, an enthusiastic but unruly people,
impetuous to act, often enough trying to outshine one another. Elsewhere, he
tries to restrain them from their zeal for “speaking in tongues”—something about
which they were very proud. But, here he says:
To one through the Spirit is given the utterance of wisdom; and to another ...
knowledge ... to another the gift of healing... the working of miracles ...
prophecy... the distinguishing of spirits ... various kinds of tongues; to
another interpretation of tongues. But all these things are the work of one and
the same Spirit, who allots to everyone according as he will.
Each person is to do whatever utilizes the gifts which the Holy Ghost has chosen
to bestow upon him. He must recognize that there are things that he cannot do.
And he must recognize that he can do these things only because the Holy Ghost
empowers him—and that other men have enabled him; those who wrote the
Scriptures, those who expounded upon the Scriptures, and those who travelled
miles braving hardship and persecution to preach them. The point is that man
can do very little by his own individual effort until he recognizes his need for
the graces of God and the contributions of his fellow men.
Let me mention one final thing. There is a false sort of humility that is
really pride in disguise. It is the make-believe humility of calling attention
to one’s own shortcomings—shortcomings either real or imagined. To boast about
being poor, or ugly, or clumsy, or untalented, or whatever, is still
boasting—just like the Pharisee in our parable boasted about his holiness. And,
certainly, we should never boast about how humble we are!
Faith, Hope, and Charity regulate our relationship with God—they are
“supernatural” virtues. Humility also regulates our relationship with God, but,
primarily, it regulates our relationship with the men and women around us—we can
call it a “natural” virtue. It may well be the most important of all such
virtues, for virtually every sin is made possible by the lack of humility. The
prideful, self-important man has no need of God and has no time for Him. He
feels he is more important than his neighbor, so he feels no compunction at all
in lying to him, cheating him, taking his property, taking his wife, or even
taking his life! A little bit of humility would show such a man the folly of
such sinful behavior.
“Everyone who exalts himself shall be humbled,
and he who humbles himself shall be exalted.”