(RNS) — The day after convening more than 200 red-robed cardinals from around the world and elevating 20 new “princes of the church,” Pope Francis impressed on his audience at a Mass on Sunday (Aug. 28) the importance of humility. He stressed the value of selflessness and — in what was perhaps a tease to Catholic leaders who have heard rumors of his intent to retire — knowing when to step down.
“There is no other way to realize God’s will than by taking on the strength of the humble,” the pope said in his homily at the St. Mary in Collemaggio Basilica in Aquila, near Rome. “Because of the way they are, the humble are seen as weak and losers, but in reality, they are the real winners because they are the only ones who trust completely in the Lord and know his will.”
The pope had come to Aquila to perform, for the first time in 700 years, the dramatic opening of the Holy Door of the basilica, a tradition begun by Pope Celestine V, who first opened the door in 1294 A.D. to admit believers to enter through the gate to the basilica to seek forgiveness of their sins. The pardon, which usually lasts a few days, has been extend to last until late in August of next year.
Besides the Celestinian Pardon, Celestine is remembered for being among the small number of pontiffs who chose to retire instead of carrying out their ministry until their deaths. Francis also visited Celestine’s tomb below the basilica, which Emeritus Pope Benedict XVI famously visited four years before announcing his resignation in 2013.
With most of the men who will appoint his successor in Rome for the 2022 consistory, or meeting of the full College of Cardinals, Francis also had Vatican observers on pins and needles about his own plans. He has repeatedly denied that he will follow Benedict and resign his post, but the rumors persist.
In an aside at Sunday’s Mass, Francis criticized the poet Dante Alighieri’s choice to place Celestine close to the doors of hell in his epic “Inferno,” calling Celestine not “the man of the ‘no,’ but the man of the ‘yes.’”
“The strength of the humble is the Lord — not strategies, human means, the logic of this world, machinations,” the pope continued. “In this sense, Celestine V was a brave witness to the gospel because no logic of power was capable of imprisoning and limiting him.”
Humility, Francis said, is about adopting a “healthy realism” with ourselves and recognizing “our potential but also our miseries.” Only by experiencing suffering and misery can individuals truly find compassion and love for others, he added.
The pope is meeting behind closed doors at the Vatican on Monday and Tuesday with the cardinals. Among them is the newly elevated Cardinal Robert McElroy of San Diego, who in his homily on Sunday echoed Francis’ call for a humble church.
Christian humility, McElroy said, is two things: “It is putting aside the pretenses and facades we often erect to try to look better to others than we are and, secondly, challenging and facing the impulse all of us have to place our own interests ahead of those of others.” McElroy emphatically dismissed reports that the pope would resign.
The 85-year-old pontiff has been struggling with knee pain, which confined him to a wheelchair and forced him to cancel important events, including a July trip to Africa. But Francis acknowledged in a news conference on the papal plane returning from Canada on July 30 that he might have to slow down in order to serve the church. On that occasion, he also said that his resignation “wouldn’t be a catastrophe.”