What ‘Humility’ Means for the Papal Staff


I recently got to tour the papal gardens at Castel Gandolfo, and it was a remarkable experience. They were too lovely for my poor powers of description.

Everything we passed was papal property. Papal olive groves, papal greenhouses, papal cypresses; the ancient remains of the imperial summer palace; and, yes, papal chickens and cows! There was even, I kid you not, a papal car train – I mean a little white train of open touring cars pulled by a car whose engine was shaped like a train engine, with steam pipe and all! And, jealousy of jealousies, there is a little convent school smack in the middle of the gardens for the children of the town.

Why Francis never spends time here escapes me. Maybe it reminds him too much of latifundia in Argentina. I would never leave!

Speaking of Francis, I was told by a priest here that the Holy Father has visited a handful of times but has never spent the night or greeted the staff, only stopping to consult the Jesuits in residence. That’s rather bad manners, I should think. It takes only a little magnanimity to imagine what a papal visit means to the staff here. They keep the place in pristine readiness all year round, eagerly awaiting the pope’s arrival, as their fathers’ fathers have done proudly for generations, and His Holiness won’t deign to stop by for the evening! I mean, he has an image to keep up, but isn’t this a bit snobbish? The poor people there have had to open the gardens and palace to tourists just to find something to do with the place and replace lost revenue.

Father also mentioned that he felt a bit sorry for the townspeople, because with the papal court no longer summering at the palace, the local economy is taking a hard hit. Usually, the entire Vatican is run from the palace from June to October, and the restaurants do good business with the influx of papal staff. No longer. “I guess the papal gardener is in a very enviable position!” “That’s right – it’s actually a hereditary position. Like many of these jobs, they’ve been in the same family for generations.”

These revelations added a layer: the merciless enforcement of mercy under Francis’s pontificate has more concrete ramifications in Rome for those who faithfully serve the papacy. It turns scores of talented people out of their jobs. From the great artists who wove the papal vestments and write the papal masses to the humble village family who has kept his garden for generations, there is a great cadre of people who give their lives in noble service to the Church.

Living in Rome makes you see just how true this is. Papal guards, papal sweepers, choristers, builders, etc., etc. surround the pontiff in a great constellation of virtuous devotion. You see the pride in their eyes. They are humbly conscious that their daily work goes toward magnifying the descendants of Peter and making possible not only a fitting liturgical splendor, but even his basic safety and livelihood.

But what are such people to do when Francis refuses — out of humility, it is said — to make use of their services? I suppose the same that true artists did when the episcopate stopped requiring their services for fine liturgical art and started asking for felt banners instead.

We don’t often comprehend this side of things. When Francis (or any bishop, for that matter) refuses to step into the traditional forms of the papacy, it is more than just turning down the dubious offer of an expensive suit from Madison Avenue or a large corporate bonus; it means turning hundreds of good people and true artists out of work, or what’s worse, out of a centuries-long tradition of devoted service. Shouldn’t someone from a developing country know that it is basic social etiquette for the rich to employ the poor, and a true mark of honor to employ as many as possible? Maybe it’s something a bourgeois mind can never understand – the pride people can take in service (or just proximity) to a noble house.

But the sad fate of Castel Gandolfo’s merchant and service class is emblematic of the experience of faithful Catholics everywhere. The same papal pride is at work when he does not deign to operate through the established channels of canon law and curial procedure, but forges ahead on his brave new path alone: he is giving his entire organization and its accumulated wisdom (whatever its flaws!) a vote of no confidence. Or when he ridicules traditional devotions and clothing, or the Church’s own traditional service of prayer. He is telling Catholics, “No, thank you. Move along. No help needed here.” This is not how the rich landlord in the Gospel hired workers: sparingly, saying to the last, “I couldn’t possibly be seen hiring so many! It would ruin my image!” He hired and paid them in full even in the afternoon.

But isn’t Francis’s pontificate a healthy step back from the Baroque splendor that obscured the true pastoral role of the fisherman? Perhaps. However, another experience a few days later changed my mind.

I went to papal vespers at St. Paul Outside the Walls, and it was a huge event.

I’ve been to pontifical liturgies in the old rite before, so I didn’t expect to be impressed. But the effect was really awe-inspiring, and the antique basilica aesthetic finally made absolute sense to me. Anyone standing far in the back can only but glimpse the figures of the pope and his entourage ranged round the back of the huge apse, the figures only and nothing of their features. But if he only looks up to the great arch, he sees Christ arranged in state with his apostles, directly above the clergy. The effect is indescribably powerful: the individuals and their personalities disappear, and all of a sudden, one is confronted with a vast image of the cosmos in beautiful symmetry: Christ and his apostles there, the pope and his clergy here on Earth, we the people gathered before his face. The altar planted in the middle of it all.

Add to all that the stately majesty of the antiphonal office (such as it is now), alternating in august rhythm between the schola and the massive assembly, and you have the most overwhelming sense of peace, order, proportion, protection, unity you can imagine. I even forgot for a moment who was wearing the papal mitre and stole. He could have been anyone. He looked a bit like a statue of Innocent III I had seen earlier. But here he was only the representative of the High Priest of the Universe, and we the people entrusted to him. Behold the incredible power of the Church and her liturgy: that no matter the character of the pontiff at the helm, the liturgy and its overwhelming power can keep the flock united, can still valiantly proclaim the presence of the Kingdom through the clouds of human vanity.

What a humble service the pope was performing! Completely effacing himself to be girded with the symbolism of Mother Church.

We democratic people are not attuned to this sort of service. We prefer the smiling face, the direct engagement, the gratification that comes from personal contact. These are all absolutely indispensable acts of charity; when done in imitation of Christ, we should see that their spiritual magnificence is truly regal.

But the hierarchy, and especially the papacy, have in addition to this role a liturgical and symbolic role whose importance perhaps outstrips the office of humble service. By letting their personal features, peculiarities, and agendas recede against the background of inherited symbolic forms of the divinely established hierarchy, they allow themselves to become awesome instruments of grace and visible manifestations of the presence of God’s Kingdom on Earth.

We should pray that God give us holy and humble popes and rid us finally of all the pretensions of papal absolutism. But we must also ask for popes willing to step into their liturgical roles, and thereby become sources of consolation and Catholic unity of untold power.

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9 Responses to What ‘Humility’ Means for the Papal Staff

  1. johnhenrycn says:

    An excellent article. Our Holy Father could learn a lot by studying and imitating the life of devoted and humble, yet noble and aristocratic service given to us all these many years by Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II.


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  3. Figus religiosa says:

    Once again, jh gets basics wrong and in this case sounds very Anglican to boot. Who he recklessly calls ”Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II.” is of course nothing of the sort. She is Queen Eliz I of Great Britain (and Queen Eliz I of Scotland). There has been only one Queen Eliz of Britain, the present one. There was an Eliz I of England who died in 1603 when James VI and I took the throne of Gt Britain. Please jh, some simple checking would avoid embarrassment if not the breathless honorifics.


  4. johnhenrycn says:

    We, therefore, the Lords Spiritual and Temporal
    of this Realm, being here assisted with these
    of His late Majesty’s Privy Council, with representatives
    of other members of the Commonwealth,
    with other Principal Gentlemen of
    Quality, with the Lord Mayor, Aldermen and
    Citizens of London, do now hereby with one
    voice and Consent of Tongue and Heart
    publish and proclaim that the High and Mighty
    Princess Elizabeth Alexandra Mary is now, by
    the Death of our late Sovereign of Happy
    Memory, become Queen Elizabeth the Second,
    by the Grace of God Queen of this Realm
    and of all Her other Realms and Territories,
    Head of the Commonwealth, Defender of the
    Faith, etc. etc…

    The London Gazette Supplement, 06 February 1952

    HM is not styled as “Queen of Great Britain”, but rather as “Queen of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland” plus 30 or so other countries. The first monarch named Elizabeth (an illegitimate monarch probably but monarch all the same) was never a queen of Scotland, but if she had been, would not her title have been Elizabeth (not Elizabeth I) Queen of Scots, not – of Scotland? I may be misunderstanding your *point*. If I am, I think you’ll agree that my misunderstanding is understandable, speaking as a qualified (sort of) historian and former Anglican. Blessings – as the Reverend George Pitcher used to say.


  5. toadspittle says:

    Pinheads dancing on an Elizabethan angel.


  6. Figus Religiosa says:

    There is no excuse for Anglicanism, guitars and clappyism.

    The 1952 quote is meaningless and just plain wrong. There has been one QE of Gt Britain (or UK) -the current one.

    If you claim to be a bit of a historian, again you have no excuse. You can’t have a Second where the First One’s never been.


  7. johnhenrycn says:

    ” You can’t have a Second where the First One’s never been.”

    Great Scott, Batman! Just look at that mangled syntax!

    Point of order (which I’ve already tried to bring to your attention) – if there’s only been one monarch named Elizabeth, you’re quite mistaken calling her Elizabeth I or Queen Elizabeth the First.
    Toad: your “pinhead” insult has been referred to my solicitor. What is your mailing address?


  8. John M Joyce says:

    Figus Religiosa is wrong. The Privy Council decided a long time ago that the Regnal Number of a monarch of the United Kingdom would take account of any previous monarchs of the same name who may have reigned in any of the constituent kingdoms of today’s united one. Therefore the current monarch, Elizabeth, is styled The Second.

    If a future Monarch of the United Kingdom were to be called Constantine for example, or Malcolm even, then the three preceding Scottish Kings called Constantine, or the four called Malcolm, would be taken into account and such a Monarch of today’s United Kingdom would be styled Constantine the Fourth, or Malcolm the Fifth.

    That is the way that we have decided to deal with Regnal Numbers in today’s United Kingdom. Other United Kingdoms may do things differently but we decided that doing it this way honoured and remembered the former monarchs of all the constituent kingdoms of today’s united one.

    Therefore Figus Religiosa, you are simple wrong and your logic is partial for you failed to consider that there is a reason for handling Regnal Numbers as we do. You may find it silly but there is a reason and it is the legal way of doing things so it is correct.


  9. Figus Religiosa says:

    Nonsense. If you were right then so-called James I would remain James VI. His son James would be James VII and not James II. Try to think it through and be consistent.


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