It’s not just the man but also his manner – humility – that has won Pope Francis such admiration, though he was just elected Wednesday as pontiff of the Roman Catholic Church and its more than one billion followers.
In thousands of print and broadcast reports on the elevation of Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Buenos Aires, two words have been repeated: simplicity and humility.
The first attribute might seem fairly straightforward, but the second – humility – is more easily witnessed than explained.
“You can put it into context by looking at its opposite – pride – one of the seven deadly sins,” said Chris O’Neil, who was educated by Jesuits at Cheverus High School in Portland.
In his own work as a lobbyist, he sees humility in a slightly modified form. “Humility is one of the cornerstones of what we call ‘decorum.’ It’s a contrivance that forces us to be civil and that forces us to be humble — in my humble opinion,” he said, laughing.
O’Neil wasn’t alone in linking humility and civility. Hope Graf, a retired English teacher from Topsham, said she always knows when she is dealing with someone who lacks humility, because their behavior betrays their true disposition.
“They show a lack of courtesy or concern for another person,” she said.
“If you like yourself, you’re not a bully, you’re not a snob,” she said. “You like yourself, not in an egotistical way but in a comfortable way. You’re not trying to upstage anyone in your spirit, because (others) are regular, regular people just like you.”
Or, as the theologian C.S. Lewis once wrote, “True humility is not thinking less of yourself; it is thinking of yourself less.”
This democracy of heart that is the core of humility for many people was expressed by Bob Crowley of South Portland, a winner of the reality TV show “Survivor.”
Interviewed while taking a break from stacking pallets for firewood, Crowley’s first question about humility was: “Could you give me the definition?”
“The quality or condition of being modest in opinion or estimate of one’s own importance,” he was told.
“Oh, yes,” he said. “I have been accused of that myself. I know my own faults.”
Crowley, who won $1 million – some of which he spent to build a yurt on his property in Durham – for winning “Survivor” in 2008, said lessons in humility have been a part of his life since childhood.
“I was raised by two wonderful people who demonstrated humility all the time — my mother and my father,” he said. “My mother also made it clear to me that I was no better than anyone else, that no one was better than me.”
Crowley, who could have good reason to be proud, said he shrugs it off, because other things in his life have meant more to him than winning the “Survivor” title.
Often, people who meet him offer to buy him a drink to celebrate his win, he said. “I find it funny that my 15 minutes of fame is what gets people to buy me a drink, instead of my work as a teacher — and I am really proud of that.”
As a physics teacher at Gorham High School, “I have seen everything,” he said.
One of the many things he learned during those years is that some children have humility ingrained in them more than others.
“You can see it in their eyes,” Crowley said. “When they perform well, they don’t gloat. They’re good winners. Even a kindergarten teacher can tell you which kid … is going to be humble.”
“It’s not something I think a lot about,” said Geoffrey Titherington, owner of Bonanza Steakhouse in Sanford. But he believes it is a quality of character that is developed over time and is an attitude one can choose and cultivate.
“A lot of people do things with – well, not ulterior – but multiple motives,” he said.
Humility is not about giving or sacrificing money, but time, said Titherington, who has devoted countless hours to helping coach the Sanford Mainers baseball team and tutoring for Literacy Volunteers of Greater Sanford.
True humility, he said, comes from within and is expressed in giving without expecting any particular recognition or reward.
“It has to be the way you think,” he said, “not the way you think people think you should think — if you know what I’m saying.”
“I think when you see a person with humility, that it attracts you,” said Amy Wilson of Scarborough, a receptionist for the Good Shepherd Parish in southern Maine. “I think it’s an attractive quality, because not many people have it. When you do, you know your own worth and you’re not egotistical.”
Those are qualities the new pope seems to have embodied throughout his service in the church, observers have said. Thursday morning, for example, he reportedly slipped out to celebrate a simple Mass before meeting with the cardinals who had chosen him to lead the church.
As Argentine cardinal Bergoglio stepped onto the balcony at the Vatican on Wednesday evening as the new head of the Roman Catholic Church, he made history, on several fronts.
He is the first non-European pope in the modern era, the first Jesuit, the first to take the name Francis and the first in 600 years to be chosen following a predecessor’s resignation from the post, which the pontiff ordinarily holds for life.
“I have a particular perspective as a Jesuit priest, because this pope is a Jesuit,” said the Rev. William Campbell, president of Cheverus High School.
“I feel connected to him because we have shared – the long retreat, the spiritual retreat of St. Ignatius,” he said.
The tradition involves 30 days of silent reflection, prayer and meditation on the Two Standards (or Flags) of St. Ignatius.
A soldier, Ignatius held that the standard of the dark spirit is pride and the standard of the good spirit is humility. “Out of humility all our virtues flow,” said Campbell.
Rather than choosing to have our actions proceed from riches to honor to pride, we should embrace poverty leading to insults and then humility, he said. That progression is what the spiritual life asks of believers.
It’s especially difficult to accomplish such lofty goals now, in the era of social media, Campbell said. “What we lose is that time for reflection. The danger is to identify ourselves as what we do, or our title,” he said, and to distort our importance and our place in the scheme of things.
“We are not God,” Campbell said. “In living simply, we are reminded to remember our humble origins.”
The origin of the word “humble” is the Latin “humilis,” literally “on the ground.”
Its root is “humus,” or “earth,” he said. “From dust we came, and to dust we will return.”
“But is our time in greater need (of humility) than any other?” he said. “I leave that to the historians.”
Lobbyist O’Neil had a slightly more worldly view. “Is it in short supply? Lord, yeah. In many respects it is.”
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