Friday, Pope Francis made headlines with an action that shocked the world of protocol. ‘Pope breaks with protocol by bowing to Queen Rania of Jordan’ was the headline on one news site. It seems the King and Queen of Jordan met with the Pope at the Vatican and the Pope bowed to the queen as he received them. In international protocol it is supposedly unheard of that a host leader, political or religious, bows to the visitor, especially the pope. In fact it was only in the 19th century that visitors stopped kissing the shoes of the Holy Father. Some of Vatican observers and followers of these types of events were scandalized – the pope, they thought, was now diminishing the Vicar of Christ on earth. By his actions Pope Francis lowered the papacy below the dignity it should have as Christ’s visible presence.
But it depends on which set of lenses you are looking through that you would see this action in that way. Through the lenses of ‘power’ (as modern society knows power) it is a scandalous action. He has allowed himself to be lowered; indeed he himself did the lowering. The power and prestige of the papacy was eroded by this action. By this lens power is lording over people; I am more important than you and you need to know it. I will make sure that I am viewed as more important and that you interact with me in that dynamic so everyone can see. I will take the higher seat.
But these lenses are not the lens of God. True power is not something that man attains and keeps. True power is not something that man can create. True power is not of man at all. Man can walk up to the front the feast and sit in a prominent position and declare himself important – or so he thinks. But as Christ tells us today and Pope Francis demonstrated a few days ago – mankind’s true power, his true prestige comes from being a child of God. Our greatness is that we aren’t great at all, we are frail, fragile sons and daughters of God; we are loved by God. God alone is great, and when we realize this and live our lives accordingly we have no need of fanfare, accolades and displays of power. We come to realize that we are poor in spirit, and by this realization we become both free and powerful. We do God’s work and rely on God’s help. We accept the truth and we live accordingly – we are humble.
Pope Francis shows us in action what Sirach tells us in the first reading
“My child, conduct your affairs with humility, and you will be loved more than a giver of gifts. Humble yourself the more, the greater you are, and you will find favor with God.”
The Pope’s action on Thursday, though a little scandalous at first glance, demonstrates his gift of living in humility. That Jorge Cardinal Bergoglio shied away from the Papacy was apparent from the second day in the position. When discussing how he chose the name Francis he said: ‘During the election, I was seated next to the Archbishop …Cardinal Claudio Hummes: a good friend, a good friend! When things were looking dangerous, he encouraged me.’ When things were looking dangerous! He knows himself and he knows the demands of the Papacy. A few weeks later a little girl asked him whether he wanted the job and said no. He continually asks people to pray for him because he needs it. He understands that what God called him to is beyond his capability – but together with God he can meet the challenges. To understand what is truly important and prestigious, to understand where power comes from isn’t weakness. This is humility, the ability to realize who we are and what we can do. No self-defacement, no cowering, just honest understanding.
Pope Francis, as is now well known, starts his day celebrating Mass with the staff of the Vatican City state. His congregation are cardinals, bishops, and priests; as well as gardeners, maintenance staff, security personnel, clerical staff. There are quite a few photos of him praying before Mass starts and they are profound. He is sitting in the back of the chapel by himself. The rows in front of him are filled with the people I just mentioned. The Pope is sitting at the back. It is God, the host, who 4 months ago called him to take the seat up front, but he does this only when he is doing God’s work.
Ask any clergy about their desire to be God’s helper and they will tell you it is strong. Ask them of their worthiness and whether they are confident in their abilities; and the truthful ones will tell you they have doubts about both, but with God’s help they know that He can do all things through them. To a man, their story will start out sitting in the back and being asked to move to the front. Am I saying that clergy are humble?; sometimes, but it is a daily struggle to keep our minds focused on the truth about our abilities.
May each of us realize in our lives what Pope Francis demonstrates, what God through Sirach proclaims; and what St. Paul tells the Corinthians and us: “I will rather boast most gladly of my weaknesses, in order that the power of Christ may dwell with me. Therefore, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and constraints, for the sake of Christ; for when I am weak, then I am strong.”