It’s very easy for persons in positions of authority to let their sense of importance go to their heads. The story is told of the captain of a battleship whose warship was on naval maneuvers one foggy night. A lookout reported a light in the distance, and the navigator calculated that the ship was on a collision course, so the captain ordered a message sent by blinker light: “Unidentified ship—change your course 20 degrees north.” A message promptly came back, “Change your course 20 degrees south.” Upset and offended, the captain ordered another message to be sent: “Change your course 20 degrees north; I am a captain.” The return message came, “I am a seaman second class, and you need to change your course 20 degrees south.” Infuriated, the captain had a final message sent which demanded, “Change your course 20 degrees north—I am a battleship.” Then came the response, “Change your course 20 degrees south—I am a lighthouse.” (Raymond McHenry, The Best of In Other Words, p. 26).
Self-importance and offended pride can lead to disaster. A much better example of the proper use of authority was given by the Emperor Francis I of Austria, who in 1832 was told that an epidemic of cholera had broken out in his capital city of Vienna. Because it was highly contagious, Francis was advised to take refuge in the city of Salzburg, but he asked, “Will there be enough room in Salzburg for all my children?” “Certainly, Your Majesty,” his advisers answered; “the palace there has more than enough room for the entire royal family.” Looking out a window and gesturing toward Vienna, the emperor said, “Look at all the multitudes there; they, and thousands more, are my children. Should a father forsake them at the very time they are in danger? No, my beloved people of Vienna have always shared my joys and sorrows, and I will not abandon them in their hour of trouble,” and so the Emperor Francis remained in the city to inspire his people until the danger had passed (Msgr. Arthur Tonne, Stories for Sermons, Vol. 1, #130). Just as humble followers of Jesus are expected to obey those He has appointed to lead them, so He requires those who exercise authority in His Name to do so with humility and compassion—for this is how we allow the Lord’s grace truly to be at work within us.
The experience of being the center of attention, having others serve us, being treated with extra respect, receiving special privileges, and always getting our own way, can be very addictive. This is true not only for worldly occupations and secular concerns, but also for religion itself. We may claim we’re serving God, but it becomes very easy to assume His Divine Will is reflected in our personal desires. Jesus warns against this attitude of self-deception in the Gospel of Matthew (23:1-12). The scribes and Pharisees were falling into the same temptation that, as described in the Book of the Prophet Malachi (1:14, 2:2, 8-10), the temple priests had succumbed to centuries earlier: namely, glorifying themselves instead of the Lord. Religious authorities who act this way, Jesus says, must be obeyed, but not imitated—for the Christian message is one of humility, obedience, and self-giving. St. Paul (1 Thes 2:7-9, 13) and his fellow missionaries understood this; instead of personally profiting from preaching the Gospel, they worked to support themselves so as not to burden their converts. If we want to be listened to and taken seriously when we speak about Jesus, we—like St. Paul—have to demonstrate our sincerity by truly placing ourselves at the service of God and the people around us.
It’s very easy to recognize and resent the pride and hypocrisy of prominent leaders in our world today, especially when they abuse their authority. For instance, presidents can issue unconstitutional executive orders; Congress can pass onerous laws while conveniently exempting itself from having to obey them; judges can render decisions based on their own desires and agendas while ignoring what the law actually says; experts in health and medicine, science and technology, communications and entertainment, and business and finance can act as if they have the right to tell ordinary people how to behave and what to do; celebrities can live lavish lifestyles financed by their thousands or millions of fans, even as they secretly look down upon or despise them; and televangelists and other self-important religious leaders can become rich and famous by preaching the Gospel, even though Jesus Himself had nowhere to lay His head (Lk. 9:58) while calling His followers to remain humble (Lk. 14:) and poor in spirit (Mt. 5:3). It’s very easy for us to point fingers—but we must remember that, in one way or another, Our Lord’s teachings apply to all of us.
Humility is an absolute and essential requirement for every Christian—not just for those who directly exercise authority, but for each one of us without exception. Perhaps we never boast about ourselves or push our way to the front of the line or act as if our opinion is the final word on any subject—but don’t we sometimes think, “Why does she get all the good luck?” or “What makes him so special?” Might not our attitude sometimes be, “People are supposed to follow the rules—but I’m going to make an exception for myself this one time?” Isn’t it easy to hold other people to a higher standard than we do toward ourselves, or to make excuses for our failings even as we deny the benefit of the doubt to others? Can we honestly claim that we never judge others, and that all our thoughts are always kind, uplifting, and compassionate? Above all, do we fall into the trap of becoming proud of how humble we are?
Even if we don’t directly oversee or supervise other people, we all exercise some degree of authority over others by our influence and example—and most of us would be surprised at how often others are affected by our actions, words, and attitudes. For this reason, Jesus calls us to walk softly, to speak humbly, and to respond to others with understanding and compassion—for this is how we will begin changing the world by letting the saving power of the Gospel flow through us. The devil constantly seeks to pervert religion by turning the attention of Christians—and of Catholics in particular—away from God and toward themselves. Humility is the only antidote to Satan’s poison, and the spiritual vitamin or medicine we need to take every day of our lives.