A Lion Teaches Us About Humility

It’s a small miracle, in our present moment of pronounced decline, that any new Catholic eventually arrives at the destination of robust orthodoxy, fervent spirituality, and luminous sanctity. Recent polls confirm this assertion in disclosing the widespread heterodox beliefs and practices of American Catholics:

65 percent believe that employers who have a religious objection to the use of birth control should be required to provide it in health insurance plans for employees; 32 percent disagree.

54 percent believe that businesses that provide wedding services should be required to provide those services to same-sex couples; 43 percent disagree.

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47 percent believe that transgender people should be allowed to use public restrooms of the gender with which they currently identify; 50 percent disagree.

The results among American Catholics who attend weekly Mass are more aligned with the Magisterium but still indicate that the Church is in deep trouble.

The first step on the path to spiritual and moral renewal, as every orthodox Catholic knows, is to humble ourselves and acknowledge the truth that we have a problem: “Rome, we have a problem.” As St. Vincent de Paul said, “Humility is nothing but truth, and pride is nothing but lying.”

If humility is the first step toward renewal in the Church (and the second, third, fourth, etc.), then there’s no better place to start than becoming conversant with Catholic spiritual classics on the virtue of humility. At or near the top of the list has to be the incisive, salutary and influential treatise, Humility of Heart (TAN Books), by Father Cajetan Mary da Bergamo.

Humility of Heart was translated into English by Herbert Cardinal Vaughan (1832-1903), the Archbishop of Westminster, during the last months of his life. He had read the book dozens of times and it was his constant companion for much of his adult life.

Father Cajetan (1672-1753) was professed a Minor Capuchin in 1692 and became one of the great Italian missionaries of the eighteenth century. His eulogy was brief but redolent with meaning: “Second to none in the customs of religious life, first in writing on things of every kind.”

The purpose of the first two-thirds of his book is to make the reader “conversant with the idea of humility in its necessity, it’s excellence and its motives.” The remaining third presents a practical examen of the virtue and a concluding meditation on the vice of pride.

A word or two on the hard-hitting tone of the book would be helpful. St. Alphonsus Liguori counseled other priests: “Be a lion in the pulpit, but a lamb in the confessional.” With Father Cajetan da Bergamo, we’re definitely getting the lion.

One consolation to the reader is that the good reverend comes clean about the issue of pride in his own life: “I am considered proud by those who know me, and they are not mistaken, for I show it by my vanity, arrogance, petulance, and haughtiness.”

We live in a therapeutic age where the goal in writing or public speaking is often to affirm the audience and make them feel comfortable in their present moral and spiritual condition. In contrast, Father Cajetan is a sobering voice from the eighteenth century with a prophetic mantle whose purpose is to make the comfortable uncomfortable by exposing their pride and extolling the virtue of humility in myriad ways.

We are called to imitate Christ, who was the fullness of grace and truth, but sometimes I wonder how much we have airbrushed the Jesus of the Gospels and created a “Therapeutic Jesus.” We overlook his rebukes and many conflicts, not only with the religious authorities, but also with the crowds, his inner circle of disciples, and his inner circle within the inner circle: Peter, James, and John.

Like the late Dom Andre Louf, in his excellent essay, The Way of Humility, Father Cajetan seeks to make the reader acutely aware of the preeminence of humility among the constellation of virtues. Both echo Augustine’s advice to Dioscurus in saying that “…although many virtues are commanded by the Christian religion, study to give humility the highest place, because all virtues are acquired and maintained by humility, and without humility they vanish away.” St. Thomas goes so far as to say, “Acquired humility is in a certain sense the greatest good.”

Rather than pursue temperance one month and fortitude the next, the author exhorts his reader to follow a more efficacious path: “Impregnate yourself with humility, and you will soon find that all other virtues will follow without any effort on your part…” Just as pride undergirds and infuses the Seven Deadly Sins, humility does the same for the life-giving virtues.

A major biblical text for Father Cajetan is I Corinthians 4:7b: “What have you that you did not receive? If then you received it, why do you boast as if it were not a gift?” The birth and development of humility in our lives begins with an acknowledgment of our own nothingness and that everything good in our life comes from God whether it be such natural gifts as beauty, money, or intelligence or such divine, spiritual endowments as a particular virtue or gift of the Spirit.

As far as our own nothingness, the writer avers that “…all true humility depends upon our persevering in this thought… All the good I do comes from God and nothing belongs to me but my own nothingness. What was I in the abyss of eternity? A mere nothing.” As Christ said, “…apart from me, you can do nothing” (John 15:5b).

This is why the consistent practice of gratitude is so important and the apostle Paul commands his audience to be thankful in all things (Eph. 5:20; I Thess. 5:18). Father Cajetan writes: “To give thanks to God for all the blessings we have received and are continually receiving is an excellent means of exercising humility, because by thanksgiving we learn to acknowledge the Supreme Giver of every good.”

The author also recommends that we imitate St. Francis’s most common meditation, where he first elevated his thoughts to the majesty and infinite goodness of God and then considered his own depravity. The Seraphic Saint would spend whole nights doing this, like the angels ascending and descending on Jacob’s ladder.

The latter meditation teaches us to distrust ourselves while the former gives us hope in the power and benevolence of God to finish the work that he started in our lives. The interplay between these two poles provides a safeguard in dealing with the vagaries and vicissitudes of our fallen existence, protecting us from pride on the one hand and despair on the other.

In scrutinizing the vice of pride, Father Cajetan offers some particularly cogent insights on its offspring: presumption, ambition, envy, vainglory, boastfulness, hypocrisy, disobedience, and discord. The quote from St. Ambrose on ambition will not soon fade from my memory: “Ambition often makes criminals of those whom no vice would delight, whom no lust could move, whom no avarice could deceive.”

To do justice to all the worthwhile content in the book would require a much longer essay. It is definitely what the writer of the Letter to the Hebrews called “solid food for the mature” (5:14), being packed with appropriate biblical citations and apt quotations from the saints, especially Augustine and Aquinas.

As said before, renewal in the Church begins with the renewal in the individual parishioner and priest; and renewal in the individual begins with humility, in acknowledging that our level of sanctity is not what it should be. Father Cajetan is indeed a helpful guide in exploring this landscape of the soul.

Editor’s note: Pictured above is a detail from “The Sinner” painted by John Collier in 1904.


  • Jonathan B. Coe

    Jonathan B. Coe writes from the Pacific Northwest. Before being received into the Catholic Church in 2004, he served in pastoral ministry in rural Alaska and in campus ministry at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis.

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