Saint Teresa of Calcutta, commonly known to everyone as Mother Teresa, was not only a very holy woman; as founder of the Missionaries of Charity, she was also quite capable as an organizer and administrator. On one occasion she arranged for some of her sisters to attend a two-day workshop designed to help them with their ministry. Afterwards she and the workshop presenter were chatting over a cup of tea, and he asked her, “Mother, what is your biggest problem?” To his great surprise, the world-renowned religious sister answered, “Professionalism.” The expert had expected her to say something about trying to keep her religious order together, or choosing which nun would succeed her when she died, or something like that. Seeing that he was dumbfounded, Mother Teresa explained, “I have five sisters getting medical degrees and far greater numbers getting nursing or social work degrees. But a funny thing happens. When they come back from their education, they are concerned about titles and offices and parking privileges. So I take all of that away from them and I send them to the hospice of the dying. There they hold people’s hands and pray with them, and clean them, and feed them. After six months of that, they typically get things straight again and remember their vocation to be a spiritual presence first, and a professional presence second” (William J. Bausch, 60 More Seasonal Stories, pp. 161-162).
It was Mother Teresa’s humility that made her so influential and attractive to many people—but some of her own followers lost sight of this virtue, and had to be reminded of it in a very down-to-earth way. Sometimes we too may need to relearn this lesson. We cannot serve Jesus and fulfill our mission in life if we’re too busy polishing our own haloes. Rather, if we are to follow Christ, we must seek His glory, not our own.
In the Gospel of Mark (10:35-45), the apostles just didn’t get it. James and John wanted places of honor in their Master’s Kingdom, and the other ten—acting out of jealousy and injured pride—resented them for it. In effect, all the apostles were asking “What’s in it for me?,” rather than saying, “How can I serve You, Lord?” Jesus had to rebuke them by insisting they act out of humility and compassion for others; He also instructed them that drinking from His cup, as James and John claimed to be ready to do, meant they’d experience much suffering and sacrifice before achieving heavenly glory. Our Lord came to fulfill the prophecy given in the Book of the Prophet Isaiah (53:10-11)—a prophecy which speaks of infirmity and affliction, and of dying so that others might have eternal life. As the Letter to the Hebrews (4:14-16) tells us, Jesus, because of His own experience, is able to understand and sympathize with us in our weakness, and will respond mercifully whenever we turn to Him for forgiveness. Pride and self-importance, however, can make it very hard to admit our sins and repent of them; that’s why Jesus insists on the vital importance of being and remaining humble.
Mother Teresa recognized the dangers of a misplaced “professionalism”; I think this same danger is to some extent responsible for the ongoing sexual abuse crisis in the Church. Too many bishops, priests, and deacons seemed to think their status as Church leaders meant they were free to do whatever they wanted, that the rules didn’t apply to them, and that they were somehow exempt from oversight and accountability. There are also those members of the clergy who, while they would never violate their vow of celibacy or act in a criminal manner, are nonetheless “professional” in the worst sense of the term: overly concerned about their status and authority, annoyed when they’re inconvenienced by the needs of their people, resentful when anyone dares disagrees with them, feeling entitled to deference and special privileges, and strongly tempted to treat laypersons as outsiders and inferiors whose ideas, feelings, and desires don’t have to be taken all that seriously. All these attitudes are occupational hazards for clergy, and for anyone occupying positions of authority, including—as Jesus notes—civic and cultural leaders, politicians, and other public servants. Society may be able to function in such a manner, but it cannot and must not be that way with the Church.
It was pride which caused Lucifer—the greatest of all the angels—to rebel against Almighty God and thus be transformed into the hideous and pathetic figure of Satan. In his resentful fury against the Lord, the devil now uses pride to tempt the people of God, seeking to deceive them, undermine them, and eventually destroy them spiritually. The tragedy of the sexual abuse crisis proves that this diabolical strategy is, tragically, very often successful. Everyone guilty of sexual misconduct, violence, or any form of an abuse of power—whether in the Church or society as a whole—is personally responsible and will be held accountable by God; however, there’s no denying that in each case, the evil one was at work behind the scenes. This is perhaps the most important reason Jesus insists His servants practice humility; Satan has very little power to influence or deceive those who remain humble.
Each one of us, even if we don’t realize it, exercises some degree of influence or authority over others; our words, example, attitudes, expectations, and desires affect, for better or for worse, the people around us. In addition, those who know we’re Catholic may very well judge the entire Church by our behavior and values. If we’re proud, arrogant, selfish, self-important, or judgmental, we’re denying or contradicting the message of the Gospel, and undermining or opposing the mission of the Church. Such an outcome gravely displeases God, threatens our own spiritual progress, and makes it very easy for us to be trapped in one of the devil’s snares. If Jesus had not corrected the apostles, as He did in the Gospel (Mk 10:35-45), they might never have become saints; if Mother Teresa had not sent her highly-educated sisters to tend to the poor and the dying, they might have lost sight of their true vocation and missed out on their opportunity to help change the world. Because God loves us, He will also chastise, rebuke, and correct us as needed—if necessary, getting our attention by means of suffering, humiliation, and failure. If we prefer instead to avoid most of that and do things the easy way, we must always strive to be humble, loving Jesus with all our hearts and serving others in His Name—for this is the only way to achieve true holiness and happiness.