John Paul and Benedict Were Humble Too

From the moment he first appeared to the world, Pope Francis’ humility was immediately on display. In the almost two years since his election, his preference for simplicity over elegance, analyzed by supporters and detractors alike, has become part and parcel of the current Roman landscape.

But does Francis’ preferred style mean that his predecessors lacked humility? One writer, contrasting the approaches of John Paul and Benedict with that of Francis, seems to think so:

[I]t’s impossible to deny the revolutionary freshness of his posture: humble, receptive, even casual. The pomp is gone and, with it, the air of thundering judgment. If the rules haven’t been rewritten, they seem less like bludgeons than in the past. Francis doesn’t hold himself high, an autocrat with all the answers. He crouches to a level where questions can be asked, conversations broached, disagreements articulated.

Leaving aside immediate counter examples – such as John Paul’s ease with people of every type of background, or Benedict’s gracious and freewheeling question sessions with young children and clergy alike – and before addressing the specific opinion of the writer, it is important to understand, first, what humility is; and, second, how exactly the holder of the world’s oldest and most prominent throne can be considered humble.

Humility, and its adjective humble, derive from the Latin humus, meaning earth, land, or soil. The one who is “humi” is “on the ground,” that is, lowly in his estimation of himself and in his relationships with others. For Aquinas humility, “regards chiefly the subjection of man to God, for whose sake he humbles himself by subjecting himself to others.” Humility can be manifested in any number of ways. It is regarded as the foundation for the theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity, for, by restraining pride and ego, it prepares the soil of the heart to be watered by God’s grace.

From a human point of view, there is no religious person more powerful than the pope. He is the monarch who governs all Catholics without being subject to the veto of another person or office. He holds the power to teach infallibly, to ordain, appoint, and dismiss bishops, to impose religious obligations on the faithful, to admonish, to excommunicate, to exonerate, to forgive. These powers are tools that enable him to perform his primary obligation: to lead the people of God to salvation.


But the pope is not God, and there are limits to his authority. His words and actions are bound by Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition. He cannot overturn divine law. He cannot teach infallibly except in very limited circumstances on very limited subject matter. And even though he is not bound, de iure, by the countless customs and man-made traditions that surround his office, he willingly submits himself to these limits on a daily basis: wearing white, living at the Vatican, traveling, and holding audiences are just a few of the current expectations (none of these has always been the case) that the pope is de facto forced to obey.

Given his unbridled authority that is thoroughly bridled by very specific expectations, how can a pope be humble? True to the definition, he must submit himself, in freedom and with docility, to the demands of God and of his office. He may not be personally comfortable with some or all of these – from being the face of Catholicism to issuing disciplinary decrees – yet he accepts them willingly and carries them out to the best of his abilities. If he were to refuse the essential tasks of the papacy, he would not be acting humbly.

Without question, John Paul and Benedict were humble popes. John Paul was an actor in his youth, and he clearly enjoyed the world’s largest stage during his papacy. He was fully conscious of who he was, yet his gentility and sense of humor revealed that he saw himself as servant, not master. Particularly in his later years, he conveyed his humility through his physical vulnerability, which, ironically, partly became a way to exercise his authority.

Shy and reserved, Benedict manifested his humility through his gracious manner and gentle spirit. Even when he donned the finest in ecclesial fashions, he did so not to call attention to himself, but to the enormous breadth and beauty of Church history, which we moderns tend to denigrate. And of course, in an unprecedented move that defines humility, he resigned the fullness of religious power to live in seclusion and quiet.

Francis’ simplicity is his own manifestation of humility, which is every bit as legitimate as those of his immediate predecessors. We are each entitled to prefer a particular style, but to take the style of one to attack the others’ style, personality, or pontificate is not a humble act. Humility is a way of serving God and other people; it should not be distorted to advance particular agendas.

In the broad view, there is not much “revolutionary freshness” in Francis’ pontificate: for all the turbulence of these two years, he has more in common with his predecessors, especially in terms of the Christian virtues, than he has departed from them. And anyone who thinks John Paul and Benedict were “autocrats with all the answers” either was not paying attention for thirty-four years, or has arrived at preferred conclusion without looking at the evidence.

David G Bonagura, Jr.

David G Bonagura, Jr.

David G. Bonagura, Jr. teaches at St. Joseph’s Seminary, New York.

  • Martha Rice Martini

    i doubt that any of these popes was humble simply. Each had worked too hard, come too far for massive self-doubt to take hold. Which doesn’t mean that each could not be kind, find common cause with human suffering, delight in simplicity. But only Francis has made a spectacle of his “humility,” rejecting the trappings of office, indeed, the trappings of the faith itself, in the name of some new leveling.

    • Alley Upta

      Except, of course, he never claimed to reject trappings as an expression of his personal humility, as the sniping cynics are so pat to interpret it, but as a public means to redirect the Church’s focus: away from what he obviously sees as a detrimental preoccupation with the trappings, and towards the concrete life of faith in the Church these trappings are supposed to serve.

      You may not agree with him, but at least extend him the courtesy of accepting his good faith and taking him at his word.

      • Bro_Ed

        I’m with you. At first, I didn’t get the article’s point: “JPII and BenedictVI were humble people too.” Okay, so what? You touch the central point: Francis is sending a message to the hierarchy that their job is not to be splendorous and remote career-oriented princes, but to be senior pastors and ministers to the faithful. They should come out of the palaces and live in the village with the rest of us.

    • Therese

      Humility is NOT self-doubt. It is the recognition and joyful acceptance of all gifts and limitations as bestowed by God. It is the clear understanding that those gifts are to be used to the fullest to give honor and glory to God by working to further his kingdom here on earth.

  • DonCamilletto

    Judgement of God, which alone penetrates through the outward appearance, is alone true and infallible. For pride may exist
    under the garb of wretchedness; and a mind may be as pure under these vestments
    as under your tattered furs!’
    St Edith of Wilton ‘On Humility’

  • Mack

    Well and truly said. Thank you.

  • Peter O’Reilly

    Thank you. This needed to be said. For sure, things are not always what they seem to be. Pope Francis needs our prayers. Pray for our Pope.

  • R. Bellman

    One of Bonagura’s finest pieces. The argument is very timely and very healthy.

    R. Bellman

  • Well written and, at a minimum, the humility we all need to “reserve judgement”.

    • RosaryVictory

      Who am I to judge?

  • Anne

    Although all three men have different lifestyles I believe they all have been very humble. John Paul II and Benedict never sought the honors that were bestowed on them and with each came much responsibility. Personally I think Benedict is a most humble man as he never really had a desire to do anything but teach and write about theology. Years ago he wanted to retire from the post at the Vatican and just teach and write but John Paul II wouldn’t let him as he needed his wisdom so Benedict abided but whatever was needed by others.

  • “…air of thundering judgement.” That is like a quotation from a bad novel, at Bulwer-Lytton level of skill. How does that kind of nonsense get past the editors at the NY Times?

  • Bill Beckman

    Frank Bruni wouldn’t recognize humility if he had his face rubbed in it. He brags about rarely attending Mass on Christmas and then smugly criticizes two popes who appear autocratic to him. What he thinks about anything is of little matter to me.

  • Alice Vozzo

    Remembering that it is Christ’s Church and that He alone is the Divine Architect and Master Builder, the humility is in the office of pope itself. The pope is called “the servant of the servants of God” with good reason. Everything the Vicar of Christ does is for the good of the Body, all the way to Calvary. Each of Francis’ predecessors recognized and realized this and answered this call with all of his heart, mind and strength in his own way: John Paul II humbly showing the world his own humanity in his long and arduous via dolorsa, with Benedict XVI humbly confessing to the world his
    own physical limitations in his resignation.

    Since Vatican II, each pope in his own way, according to his gifts, personality and the promptings of the Holy Spirit, has carried out the directives of ressourcement (return to authoritative sources) and aggiornamento (opening up its doors and heart to meet the needs of the world). “The greatest
    concern of the ecumenical council is this: that the sacred deposit of Christian doctrine should be guarded and taught more efficaciously.” (John XXIII)

    But as John XXIII also wrote, “The deposit or the truths of faith, contained in our sacred teaching, are one thing, while the mode in which they are enunciated, keeping the same meaning and the same judgment (eodem sensu eademque sententia), is another.” Perhaps the teaching styles of John Paul II and Benedict XVI caused much discomfort in the hearts, or more precisely, in the consciences of some. Works such as The Catechism of the Catholic Church would tend to do that. Relatively speaking, Francis would seem to them to be a man of action and of fewer words, and so is perhaps perceived as less threatening to those same hearts. But it has only been two years. Perhaps what we have seen so far is just the prologue to God’s opus named Francis.

  • Esperanzaypaz

    Dear Pope Francis Bashers,

    Shorten your tassels, will you please? In the context used, “collective good” means nothing other than the good that belongs to all members of a group, i. e., it belongs to all of humanity. It is quite simply a synonym for “common”, no matter how much you’d like to twist it this way or that.

    It is the noun “collective” which has the dreaded leftist connotation.

    Whether you like it or not, Pope Francis is the current rock upon which Our Lord Jesus Christ chose to build his church in this time and age. Honor it! Peace and blessings!

  • Noah_Vaile

    Yes. Pope Francis is the most awesomely humble, with a CAPITAL H- HUMBLE- person ever. His placing himself above his office in order to place himself below everybody else places him above everybody else in his magnificent and all-encompassing humility.

    You look up “humble” in the dictionary and you might see a picture of Francis. (He’s too humble to argue against it.)

    Instead of the Vatican he chose to live in a humble hostel for wayfarers. Instead of the pomp and circumstance of the papacy and making clear and official statements he prefers to allow others to speak for him and lays himself near to the lowly, washing their feet and, perhaps, taking in their laundry. I don’t know. But he might. That’s how humble he is.

    You think you’re humble? You don’t match up.

    He has brought humility to heights undreamt.
    Keep on humblin’, Papa “F.”

  • BXVI

    Is it humble to make it known through your actions and words that you despise your the Church your predecessors restored in the wake of the Council, including many of its clergy and and many of the the traditions handed down through the Church for hundreds of years? For example: Is it humble to cast aside the symbolism of the foot-washing on Holy Thursday as a reflection of the institution of the priesthood, just because you personally think it should be different? Is it humble to talk derisively about the red shoes that represent the martyrdom of past popes, and refuse to wear them? Is it humble to abrogate the canonical process for declaring saints to appoint your own personal favorites outside the normal process and without the normal requirements, aka Pope St. John XXIII and others? Is it humble to frequently and pointedly refer to your brother bishops who are concerned about potential erosion of the Church’s doctrine as “Pharisees” with “rotten, putrid hearts”? Is it humble to resurrect for debate issues that were “settled” in the not-so distant past by your predecessors – one of whom has been canonized as a saint – such as communion for the divorced and remarried?

  • Andy

    I see some of the more humble commenters have completely missed the point…

  • Thomas J. Hennigan

    Obviously the Papacy is a fundamental institution in the Church inasmuch as it carries on throughout history the Petrine Ministry. Yes, St.Peter was a the head of the apostolic college, but there are other apostles like St. Paul (not of the original 12,) St, John, James etc. It seems to me perhaps more should be done to avoid “papolatry” and remember that popes are not necessarily saints in life and they have their defects of character and are limited human beings, and too much media attention to them is not necessarily good for the Church. How many of the great Frathers of the Church were popes? Two, St. Leo the Great and Gregory the Great. Other Fathers such as St. Athanasius, the three Cappadocians, St. Ambrose and St, Augustine have had a much more decisive and lasting effect on the Church than any of their papal contemporaries. Many popes throughout history are best forgotten. Others such as St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Catherine of Sienna, St, Teresa of Ávila, St. Ignatius of Loyola and many others had a greater influence on the Church in their lifetimes than any of the contemporary popes. None of these were bishops, much less popes, as were the above mentioned Fathers. The Chuch is celebrating the V cententary of birth of St, Teresa of Ávila this year. Do we clebrate any centenary of popes of her time? Obviously no.