Browse Our Articles & Podcasts

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.

48 thoughts on “What ‘Humility’ Means for the Papal Staff”

  1. Charity also extends to how we interpret the Bible. Never thought that the rich landlord hired sparingly. Instead, saw Jesus giving as He sees fit and it is not to us to object when He gives others more than we think they deserve. He asks us to rejoice in others’ blessings.

  2. It has never made sense to me why constantly insisting on his own way — at the expense of duty, tradition, and the truly self-effacing path of accepting what you do not like — is somehow evidence that Francis is humble.

    Must be more of that 2 + 2 = 5 “logic”.

    Great article, by the way.

        • It is, Margaret, and a very enjoyable story. But it is also so much more…… the guise of satirical form, and often wildly dry humor, it is about the tactics of the Adversary, and so in many ways a handbook on how to discern his presence, and what to watch out for in his bag of tricks, a la 1P5:8 itself: “Be sober! Be alert!……Your adversary the Devil is prowling…………………….”

          Here is one passage that fits as Lent begins:

          “It does not matter how small the sins are provided that their cumulative effect is to edge the man away from the Light and out into the Nothing. Murder is no better than cards if cards can do the trick. Indeed the safest road to Hell is the gradual one-the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts,

          Your affectionate uncle


          A warning against being the proverbial “lobster in the pot!” 🙂

      • Lewis also has makes some disobliging comments in “A Preface to Paradise Lost” about the false modesty by which people refuse to lose themselves in solemn occasions and instead insist on stamping their own personality on the proceedings.

    • Maybe it is not so much “humility” as exhibitionism masquerading as such? On my first visit to Fatima many years ago, I saw not a few examples of rather aloof public demonstrations of personal piety that I was forced to reflect: “Oh my! We can be so proud of our humility”

  3. True humility is comfortable in either red shoes or black, or in limousines or in Fiats, in papal apartments or in Domus Sanctae Martae. Sainted popes and monarchs have shown, again and again, that real humility is a matter of the heart and not of externals.

  4. I think I might have it figured out. Francis isn’t comfortable vacationing where there might not be a Gideon Bible in every Bedroom. It is rather risky for Francis to accidently stumble upon a Revised Standard Version, Catholic Edition of the New Testament, especially if it has the Navarre Bible Commentary attached to it. He sure is lucky he isn’t likely to stumble across one at the Vatican. Two words – Bunker Mentality.

  5. Great perspective. Francis reminds me of Matthew from “Downton Abbey.” In the name of humility, Matthew refused to allow his servants to perform their duties with respect to his person. It got so bad that the servants were on the verge of revolt. Lord Grantham had to finally take him aside to admonish him: “We all have different parts to play. And we must all be allowed to play them.”

  6. As soon as I heard that Francis was much, much too humble to simply follow in the footsteps of his predecessors and live in the papal apartments in the Vatican, I knew we had a big problem on our hands with this pontificate.

    • Indeed.
      My least favorite story is the one about him bringing a late-night sandwich to a Swiss guardsman on duty outside his chambers. He insisted the young man sit down and eat. What an unkindness! What was the guardsman to do? Obey the pope and be derelict in his duty or stand guard as he’d been assigned and ignore the new pope?

  7. I read on Wikipedia that Castel Gandolfo is no longer considered part of the Vatican City State’s holdings, as of October 2016.

  8. James Joyce was in the habit of sometimes escaping visitors or guests in his home to write down some minor thing he had observed or heard. He called them “epiphanies,” seemingly insignificant little details that to him revealed great truths, either about life or about individuals. I think this article, especially the part dealing with unintended consequences of Francis’ approach to the papacy, offers us Joycean epiphanies that tell us a lot about life in Rome these days. Of course, liberals often leave a trail of unintended but lamentable consequences behind them. Francis is no different than others in that sense.

  9. Quite frankly (no pun intended), I should not be surprised if Pope Francis has in mind the ultimate sale and disposal of Castel Gandolfo. The fact that it has already been removed as being a listed part of the Vatican (possibly as a part of the economic restructuring of assets being undertaken) might well be a straw in the wind.

    I mean, even his brazen breach of the sovereignty of the Knights of Malta – albeit at the risk of a possible future challenge to the Vatican’s own sovereignty if, say, Italy were to do so – may be an intended part of this Pontiff’s ‘narrative’. I think his little heart would leap at the chance to win ultimate wordly ‘humility’ kudos by ceding the Vatican to Italy and then claiming that the compensatory payments would feed the poor [well…for at least a few nanoseconds]

    • On the day that Pope Benedict was leaving the Vatican, a cameraman in a helicopter captured his journey through the manicured gardens of the Vatican and then again the manicured gardens at Castel Gondolfo. I was in awe of the splendor of these magnificent gardens.

      Later that day, while taking a shower, I was thinking of the gardens when I heard an unmistakable interior voice say “They will all be gone.” After a moment, I realized that this voice was saying that both of these gardens would be lost to the Catholic Church. I felt that they would somehow be given away, although at the time I could not fathom how this could happen.

      This all happened long before Bergoglio was on the horizon. The papal conclave wouldn’t happen for another month. Who would want to give away the Papal gardens? And why?

      As Bergoglio emerged with his radical austerity, the thought has never left me that he will divest the Church of the gardens and other things that he believes are the trappings of wealth.

      This article only bolsters my conviction that this will be part of his legacy.

    • Tony, you suggest an interesting possibility. Such a move, (selling off Castel Gandolfo to eschew material wealth and feed the world’s poor), would be entirely consistent with the marxism-oriented liberation theology that impels this unfortunate pontificate/Bergoglian Revolution.

      B.T.W. Whereabouts in Oz?

      • G’day Stewart,

        You’re spot on with the Marxist take, mate. I hail from Canberra, and am a long time member of the Trad Mass community and its attendant schola. I take it you’re also from Oz?

        • That’s right, mate; South Western Sydney; (near Liverpool). I must confess though, I’m originally a Manchester lad, but I’ve lived in Sydney since 1981, having arrived on the auspicious date of August 15th.

          I have had the great privilege of leading the Rosary in several Eucharistic/ Rosary processions in Canberra, organised by the Servants of Mary Help of Christians; (the most recent being last Corpus Christi, May 29th. from St. Christopher’s Cathedral to Archbishop Prowse’ residence via a rather circuitous rout along the shores of lake Burley Griffin.

  10. May one possibly surmise that, according to the philosphy of the Bergoglian Revolution, it is a kindness to liberate these erstwhile exploited lackeys of the ecclesiastical bourgeoisie, in order that they may embark on a voyage of discovery of their true, God-given identity, dignity and liberty?

  11. Some on the board might be fans of the now-over and much beloved “Downton Abbey.” In the early days of the series, the 7th Earl of Grantham and Viscount of Downton …… but most important of all, the patriarch of the family, Robert Crawley (called Lord Grantham), having no son living and no direct male heir (via miscarriage and also the tragedy of the Titanic) finds his third-cousin once removed, a young solicitor, Matthew Crawley, will succeed him. Aside from the rather shocking fact of an heir who engages in trade for a living, Matthew, though liked by Robert, is very modern in many ways. Robert, on the other hand, is very proud of Downton, as much for the great responsibility he bears to the many people who make it run as for himself. Soon after Matthew arrives on scene as heir, he announces to Robert that he intends to let his butler and valet go, more or less as archaic holdovers he has no need for. Robert is astonished, dismayed, disapproving and cautionary in his reaction to Matthew. As one reviewer put it at the time, “he tries to impress on (Matthew) the importance of their guardianship of the people of the area and the traditions of the past.” Robert makes it plain to Matthew that while HE might have no use for the duties of a butler and a valet, these are not disposable functions, but livelihoods at stake, and families, and traditions of service, and much else that Matthew has no right to upend. He says sternly “Do not take away a man’s pride.” Ironically, the “upper class” in Downton is over and over and over and over again shown to be the repository of true charity towards others, while the more modern take on life, especially as the series goes on, deals in dismissal of the old ways, and so those who hold them, and are often dependent. I could not help but recall the episode in which Robert dresses-down his young heir, and reminds him of his duty, as I read this poignant article posted here on OnePeterFive.

    Do you think we can get PF to watch Downton? The entire thing is laced with tradition, duty, and the real humility that it takes to bear a high office in service to history and the lives of others, instead of for the whim of the self, even as times change and mores shift. In fact, that is the core of the story. I do think our Holy Father might learn a thing or three.

  12. The beauty of the traditional Catholic liturgy was that it didn’t matter who the priest or bishop or pope was, that it removed any chance at attention grabbing and self-promotion. Within the context of this liturgical tradition, scandals can also be more easy understood because the faithful clearly realize that what they do in Church does not depend on the personality or personal virtue or sinfulness of the priest, but he acts on behalf of God when formally acting within the liturgy and sacraments.
    In any event, the great heresy of our time is a distain for tradition.
    If I were pope my first encyclical letter would be on Sacred Tradition, explaining it clearly and ending with an infallible statement essentially repeating the first Vatican council’s statement that the popes are only able to repeat the tradition, develop and clarify it and never contradict or disregard it.
    This pope Francis, is a menace, God help us to endure it.

  13. Making the Papal staff feel useless and unappreciated is not humility or charity. It is the exact opposite. To be happy people must feel needed and contributing. Pope Francis fails to appreciate his office and those who support it. The sooner he is gone the better.

    • Hi Michael – The Vatican is far better at offering humiliation than it is at offering humility. God will remove Francis in his own way and at the time of His choosing. I wouldn’t want to be Francis at that most consequential moment of his life. He will get the reward/punishment he deserves.

  14. There is an old story. A young man skilled in archery accomplishes a truly miraculous shot. His archery instructor is watching and immediately falls to his knees before his student. The student reacts by saying that there’s no need for his teacher to bow to him.

    The teacher rises and says:

    “I bow not to you but to God, Who is the author of every wonder in this world. Alas, from vanity you have defiled the perfection of His creation.”

    The gardeners at Castel Gandolfo are motivated to perfect HIs wonderful garden, not Pope Francis’. For the Vicar of Christ to act as if their skill, toil, and devotion is not worth his attention is churlish and vain and very far from humble. Francis appears to have forgotten what the word “vicar” means, namely, that a pope stands in Christ’s stead, that the honor directed his way is not Francis’ but Christ’s, that his is a borrowed glory. He has little need to worry about appearing humble; unless of course he is not.

    Pope Francis also might usefully recall how Jesus rebuked Judas when the latter chastised Him for permitting the Magdalen to wash His feet with costly oils that might have been sold and the money donated to the poor.

    Jesus knew how to respond when love for God is offered up.

  15. I agree, this could not have been said better. I see a pride in the pope’s overbearing humility, a reaching out for popularity.

  16. I believe that complex should be sold. Popes can’t preach large families effectively if their summer residence as a single person can fit a hundred dwellers. You can’t credibly tell normal families to have six kids and live in small per person square yardage…while you yourself have more square yardage than Donald Trump. Sell it. We have air conditioners now in Rome..the old temperature excuse is defunct. What Aquinas called the Will of God Simply…that will removed most of Central Italy from Catholic ownership during the 19th into the 20th century. God was hinting. He was refining…pruning the Church. Listen.
    It’s a vanity possession to the wounded Catholic ego. Put it on the market. How is it different than the rich man and Lazarus parable. How is Joel Osteen greedy but we’re humble living in a palace. Sell it to Italy and give the money to sudden widows…the original receivers of early Church largesse.

  17. Beautifully expressed article. Thank you for bringing to light all the people behind the scenes who I never thought of before and never would have known what’s happening to them.


Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Popular on OnePeterFive

Share to...