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. an adjunct professor at St. Joseph’s Seminary and is the 2023-2024 Cardinal Newman Society Fellow for Eucharistic Education. He is the author of Steadfast in Faith: Catholicism and the Challenges of Secularism and Staying with the Catholic Church, and the translator of Jerome’s Tears: Letters to Friends in Mourning.